Is It Worth Being Excellent?
November 24, 2016
When you see those people at the top of their form, how do you think they got there? Do you wish you could sing like Streisand or play like LeBron James?
Do you think Frank Sinatra had it easy because all he had to do was open his mouth?
Perhaps you think Usain Bolt just woke up one day able to sprint faster than anyone in the world.
Right on top of LeBron's website it says:
Nothing is given.
Everything is earned.
You work for what you have.
Ask Yo Yo Ma, arguably the world's greatest cellist.
"Excelling is not a consequence of possessing innate gifts," according to British researchers who studied excellence. They concluded that nobody is great without work. Researchers call it the ten-year rule: becoming world-class takes working hard for at least that long at a minimum; for many, it's 20-30 years before getting to an elite level.
Fortune Magazine reports a study of 20-year-old violinists where the best averaged 10,000 hours of practice over their lives. How many hours a day do you think Yo Yo Ma practiced to get to the top? How many hours do you think he still practices daily?
I once had a friend who was an Olympic swimmer. He swam six hours every day; he was determined, and completely focused.
Would you want to pay that price?
Magnus Carlsen is the greatest chess player in the world. The current world chess champion, he became a chess grandmaster when he was 13. How that happened is the story of an intriguing documentary "Magnus" which will be in theaters November 25.
"Magnus" shows the life of a champion from the age of four. In rather charming sequences of Magnus and his family, we get to see how a genius develops his talent. Taking it to the next level was never optional for Magnus; his father notes that from the earliest age, Magnus seemed to zoom in on the narrow focus of succeeding in chess.
His father tells that the question he's asked the most is: How did it start?
The family watched for "traits" in their children early on. Magnus' father says he saw that his son was lost in thought when he was young, and would sit staring at the ceiling for hours and hours processing what he was doing. Given a book of countries and capitols at age four, Magnus memorized all of them. His father and mother thought he could become a good chess player with those qualities.
When he started traveling to chess tournaments Magnus did well. But when he finally lost he was depressed and angry; he felt his world had collapsed. He was just a kid!
He paid a price in school, too; from early ages he was bullied because he was different from the rest of the class.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Years of practice.
At one point, we see Magnus as a 22-year-old at Harvard, playing against ten chess players at the same time. Magnus was blindfolded! He sat there, his back facing the players with each individual game, remembering the moves every one had made, and playing them all, beating everyone. It was quite a stunt.
His sister is shown recalling that often Magnus just drops out of conversations, transfixed by thinking about chess.
All that concentration took its toll: at a major tournament you can feel the strain Magnus was under.
Would you be willing to stress yourself to the max to be great?
The movie gets exciting as Magnus goes against the current world champion for the title. The game was in India. Arriving, Magnus is treated like royalty, with special offerings and welcoming rituals. We get to see his detailed prep for that game.
It became clear that to be great Magnus had to win what was actually a battle of the minds. It's the same with any challenge of such a grand scale: mind over fear; courage over wimping out; that magic internal fire to be the best.
His sister talks about Magnus' youth being spent playing chess; nothing else mattered.
Magnus devoted his whole life to winning the world championship; we get to see him actually playing each game. When he finally gets a day off, how to recharge for the final? Family, and playfulness; simple pleasures gave some escape.
It's clear that being the greatest chess player in the world required total focus. There appeared to be little else in Magnus' life other than chess. Always polite, Magnus answered press questions, yet appears to be multi-tasking with thoughts still on chess.
"If I have the time I can calculate 100 moves ahead," he says, always thinking about chess.
The tension at the world championship is finally over as we see Magnus beating the then five-time champ Vishy Anand in his hometown.
Director Benjamin Ree says, "It's difficult to grow up and be so different. Also today as an adult, when you're a genius, you can't share your ideas with others because they can't understand."
Rees sheds a little light on this coming of age of a child prodigy: "It's all about his playfulness and creativity. He's memorized tens of thousands of games."
I asked Rees if Magnus had anything else in his life. Basically, the answer is no, it's all chess.
Magnus is probably the most famous person in Norway right now says Rees.
I asked if he'd had any romantic interests. Rees said no, but Magnus is still young.
I also asked how he earns money. Rees: "He earns a lot of money because he wins all the time. He won a million dollars. And he has sponsors, and has done modeling. He bought a big home for his parents."
Would you be willing to give up everything in your life to get to Magnus' position? Are you sure?
Going back to the original question, would you want to work that hard? Would you like to limit your life to constantly thinking about your goal, your practice, your mindset, your focus?
Would you be willing to do the hard work it takes to be great?
For the rest of us, shades of improving what we do might good enough. Perhaps it's all relative.
©Carole Bell 2016 Carole Bell is a writer interested in everything.
You can write to her at: email@example.com