This is actually the second in a series of lectures Iím giving once every three years.† For those who were absent for the first lecture, I will briefly review the topics covered for you:
The silliness of country music lyrics
Wearing my pajamas to kindergarten
The inflation of elementary school awards
The unsubtle pleasures of vengeance
The Buddhism of Popeye
Descartesí initial premise
And the need to chart a course of oneís own from there
In that speech I mentioned having to think of something to say for it, and I managed to.† When it was finished, I thought to myself, ďWell, thatís the end of that.† Now I really have nothing to say.Ē† But, wouldnít you know it, later that year, I thought of something else to say.† So thatís what Iíll say this evening.
The idea arose in my mind towards the end of that school year when I kept hearing this common sentiment being expressed by several of the seniors I taught.† I probably wonít do a very good impression of it, but it usually goes something like this: ďOh my God, I canít wait to get out of here and get to college.† This place is so boring.† Itís so small and ordinary.† I'll go crazy if I don't.Ē
Now, generally my first reaction whenever I hear something like this is to think: you know, anyone who owns a public library card and complains of boredom should really be beaten severely about the extremities with a low gauge steel cable.† Itís inexcusable.† Or I imagine taking my index finger and pushing them up against a wall and saying, ďNo.† This place isnít boring.† Youíre boring.† And youíre twice as boring when you inhale perfectly good oxygen and use it to exhale complaint.Ē
But those initial inclinations subside quickly, I return to my normal contemplative self, and I wonder, ďWhere does this ridiculous discontent come from?Ē† Now, I donít know the answer to that question, though I have an idea of what it might be.† But before I go into that, I need to introduce what some may find to be a harsh and uncomfortable fact.† Although, itís probably not quite right to call it a fact.† Itís more of a statistical inevitability.† And itís this: most people are average.† In fact, even those people who arenít technically average are still, usually, pretty average.† I mean Iím sure almost everyone here is good at a few things, but really, thatís not that impressive.† Lots of people are good at lots of things.† So what?† There doesnít seem to be a real deep meaningfulness in just being good at something.† Itís too common.† But to be great at something, now thatís an accomplishment.† Because greatness is just so rare.
The problem I have with the college admissions process is that I always see it drive kids to be good at lots of things.† But Iíve never seen it drive anybody to be great at one thing.† And in life, once all the points are finally tallied, greatness is really the only thing that stands out.
Of course, I donít think anyone chooses to be average.† I donít think anyone really wants to get to the end of their life, look back, and think, ďWell, that wasnít too hot.† I probably could have done a lot more with my time than that.Ē† And yet still, averageness is a condition which seems very difficult to escape.
So when someone is young and they begin to recognize that they are relatively unexceptional, there are really only two possible directions in which to point the blame.† One is average either because of oneís own personal failings or because of where one has been placed in life.† Between the two of these, the second is far preferable psychologically.† ďItís not my fault Iím average.† Look at where I am.† Stuck in this piddling town, filled with uninteresting people and mediocre institutions.† What do you expect?† But once I get out of here, you know, once I make my way to New York or Los Angeles, well, then things will change.Ē† Or perhaps more commonly, ďI just need to get into a really good school.† Then it will happen.Ē
Unfortunately this hopeful assumption that the mere geographic or academic transplantation of a person will somehow magically and osmotically transfer greatness to them is simply mistaken.† And how do I know this?† Well, because Iíve seen the research.
Iím one of those crazies that actually distrusts conventional opinion about why people are the way they are, how they become what they become.† Whenever I want to answer questions like that, or really any questions at all, the next step for me is invariably the same.† I ask myself, ďWell, what does the research say?Ē† All right, what does the research say about greatness?
The best Iíve seen comes from a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson.† In studies of classically trained musicians, Ericsson found that those who were considered expert performers had completed around ten-thousand hours of instrumental practice.† Those who were considered good or average performers had practiced about half as much.† And thatís it.† Thatís the difference.† Ericsson goes on to cite similar findings for chess players, writers, scientists, composers, mathematicians, poets.† You really never find greatness anywhere without at least a decade of intense effort preceding it.† Even for supposed prodigies like Bobby Fischer or Mozart, if you look carefully at their biographies, you will find the thousands of hours of practice there.† They have to be.† No matter how much our culture fantasizes about inborn greatness and effortless accomplishment, they remain fantasies.† People become great essentially because theyíre willing to expend far more time and effort in one domain than virtually anyone else will.
There are, of course, a few stipulations which Ericsson carefully describes in his papers.† Obviously, you canít just sit down at a piano and bang on middle-C for a few years and hope to accomplish much.† Your efforts have to be carefully focused and progressive.† Usually the best way to ensure that is to find good instruction.† But really, thatís not much of a hurdle.† The real difficulty is in the question of whether or not you have the devotion required.† And if that state of existence doesnít arise naturally through an obsession, it has to be willed into existence, through self-discipline.
In the end, no one is born great.† Greatness is never inherited.† It doesnít come wrapped in a diploma from this or that university.† Greatness is earned, through concentrated and devoted personal effort.† Ten-thousand hours of it.† So what does that mean if you do the math?† It means practice.† Three hours a day.† Everyday.† For the next ten years of your life.† To be great at something.† Can you do it?