Writers write

An obvious statement. One that I sometimes find easy to forget though. I have been talking about writing for some time. I’ve always wanted to write well. I am an avid reader. I’ve read many fantastic books: Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, comedies, tragedies. The list goes on and on. I must have read thousands of books. Because I read such exceptional work and see the amazing end product, I feel I should be able to produce something as compelling. The truth is that I don’t write well enough and it doesn’t come easily to me. In reality with my current situation I am never going to produce a written masterpiece. My talent is not great enough.

However, one of the books I’ve been reading recently is Bounce by Matthew Syed. This is a well written book covering the idea that talent is a myth and the people we believe to be born with god-given gifts are really the product of their environment and the amount of hard work and dedication they have invested in their chosen discipline. We see the tip of the iceberg. Matthew’s premise comes from many studies, but also from his own, personal story. He became the British number-one table tennis player at the age of 24 and has reflected on what shaped him to be the best in the country. I’ve come across many stories like this before. Gladwell’s Outliers covers a number of situations where notable individuals in recent history were shaped by a unique set of circumstances and an opportunity which others didn’t capitalise on. Some of these came from the largest names within the computer industry who grew up in the Silicon Valley area at the time when the first opportunities to mess around with technology appeared. The opportunity and temerity to play helped shape their futures.

From the field of sport, Jonny Wilkinson and David Beckham are two notable sportsmen that I’ve read about that have stories (Jonny’s story) that border on the obsessive. They had a desire to perfect a particular skill which helped them to become part of the elite within their chosen fields. It wasn’t just the desire though. The conditions were right.

I have a similar story (not exactly mine, but one I was part of) that parallels much of the thesis in the book. When I was 7 my parents moved across my hometown, Stevenage. It wasn’t too far, but far enough away for me to have to find a new group of friends. I lived on a green at the front of my house. A patch of grass that was about 20 square meters with about 10 trees and various stumps that made excellent football goals. Around the green were 8 houses. In those 8 houses there were 6 boys of similar ages. Martin, Ashley, Jason, Ross, me and Andrew. I was the oldest and Ashley was the youngest. He was born the year I moved into the house. He was also the younger brother of Martin. Around the area (not directly around the green, but within 100 yards) were around another 10 lads who were mostly older than me. The one things that we all liked playing was football. As I grew up I played a lot of football with different groups. Sometimes with the older guys, but often with the lads around the green. We played all the time. When Ashley just started walking he joined us ‘out the front’ (as we called it) and he loved it. He loved trying to emulate his older brother (and his Dad, Luther, who was also pretty nifty with a football at his feet). Ashley was always first out and last in. He ran tirelessly and he always worked hard and had a great temperament. He couldn’t compare to most of us when we were 12 years old – he was still only 5, so we’ll let him off – but you could see he was shaping out to be very good. Because we played constantly and we actually played at a high standard (Martin and I both played at a pretty high standard as teenagers – actually, Martin still plays at a high standard) the younger boys became really good for their ages and they all went on to play together for many years. It was a great training ground. In fact, out of the 6 people around the green, 4 ended up playing professionally. Two of them found very good professions in the English Premiership. Jason played for Norwich City for a while. Ashley now plays for Manchester United and is a regular in the England first eleven. The environment helped shape two-thirds of that small population to get paid in a game that they loved. The 10,000 hours invested (I prefer Seth’s view on this, but in the case of well-established vocations 10,000 hours seems about right) never really felt like work. This story feels more than a coincidence.

Hard work, practice, an environment of challenge and a support network that encouraged and nurtured has helped shape an elite sportsman. When you read the life stories of many of the most successful people in the world they have similar characteristics in their narrative. Often, very unusual upbringings.

The formative years for people really do shape them, but I believe hard work, environment and opportunity could play as big a part in later life as they do at the beginning. We are just more attuned to helping youngsters because we believe they require nurturing and a supporting environment. The challenge is: what comes first? The opportunity or the hard work?

In various roles I’ve had I’ve been asked by my team members to promote them into positions of leadership. For me, it feels odd when someone comes up to me and asks for me to tell her team-mates that she is now in charge and they should listen to her. People who know me, and have worked with me, know that I am not someone who would generally take the requester up on their offer. I have done, but it has been under specific conditions. My view is that leaders lead. They don’t need me to tell others that they’re the leader. Project managers manage projects. It should be obvious, and everyone will know. A head-of-sales will sell and run sales. It is who they are. I wouldn’t need to explain. If someone needs to ask for help in setting other people’s expectations (and they’re not new to the position) then I tend to think that my interfering in a process that should be one of self-organisation is wrong. People tend to do the job they are most capable of.

But, I have helped people take up the position they desired. It has only ever been on the back of a serious amount of dedication and application of practice to be able to do the role. That is, the person has shown and demonstrated the hard work required before any opportunity arose. The aptitude and attitude are inextricably linked. Without the attitude the aptitude will never be gained if, like me, you believe in Matthew Syed’s thesis.

If you desire to lead a team then you need to do it. You need to practice it. You need to find and create opportunities to develop your skills. Most people tend to do what they can do. If you aspire to greater things then you need to do things you can’t do. This is what rounds us out and develops our skills. The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.

We see less practicing in adulthood because everyone expects us to already be the finished article, and it is scary to show weakness to our peers. We tend to develop the skills to hide what we’re not very good at. We must resist this temptation and encourage ourselves and people around us to continue to practice and develop even if this means lesser performance whilst learning. Without this, we will stick in our comfort zones and continue to develop the defence mechanisms that maintains the status quo.

As for me, these stories give me hope with my writing. It means that my lack of innate talent shouldn’t hold me back. It is all reliant on my ability to practice which is more down to my priorities, my motivation and my work ethic. So, as it says at the bottom of this wordpress page (when editing) I should just write.

2 Comments on “Writers write”

  1. I also believe that talent is not what you born with or gifted but rather the product of hard work and environment. And that belief, doesn’t matter correct it or not, does help a lot. If you accept that talent is a gift – you gave up because you don’t have it and there are no way to acquire it, but if you believe it is something you can achieve – everything is open to you.

    There is a difficult thing though – sometimes it’s hard to find what do you REALLY like, I’m quite lucky because I know it quite clearly but lot’s of people I met don’t know what they like to do. Some of them of course haven’t tried many things to figure it out, some have tried but haven’t found anything.

    I guess the difficulty there is also in the fact that you need to be reasonably free and independent to have luxury to try many things and figure out what is it what you like and want to do in future.

    I admire idea that I came across when met first friends in UK – after finishing school and before going to university you just go travelling around the world with very limited budget for a year or so to better understand yourself and your desires. I think that is good idea and I certainly would like my children to do the same.

    • Phil says:

      Kostya, thank you for the reply. Interestingly, most of the stories about people who became superstars in their fields started at a very young age. Society supports learning at a younger age because that’s when you’re supposed to be learning. By the time you get to adulthood you should have already learned – or so it seems. But for the people that you’ve referred to, the people who don’t know at an early age, the struggle to become really great at something is much, much harder. Time (your employer and society generally) is not on your side given all of the other responsibilities you have later on in life. Definitely an interesting problem.

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