There are no cheat codes for greatness
By Hammad Ali
We live, now more than ever, in a time of glamor and self-aggrandizement at all costs. We have lost our appreciation for anything that appeals to more finely attuned senses, sensibilities, and tastes. Our comedy today is not the subtle, understated, and cutting social commentary of the bygone years, but rather hit-you-on-head slapstick, doing outrageous things to get a chuckle.
Our music does not need a fine ear for subtle nuances, because it screams in your ears and demands all your attention, at all time. Our attention spans, already appalling ten years ago, are now down to the duration of one social media reel, and even that is a stretch at times. When we read, if we read, we do not read long form text that dives deep into all the intricacies of an issue, but a Tweet that reduces decades’ worth of human knowledge into something short enough to be read while waiting for the elevator.
It is not surprising, then, that we also find ourselves glorifying the notion of runaway success, sheer genius, and lucky breaks. Except, I do not believe any of these things exist. To be pithy, it takes a decade or two to become an overnight success. It takes a lifetime of reading, writing, and thinking, to come up with one brilliant insight at the right moment. A famous anecdote about Pablo Picasso talks about how he once charged an exorbitant price for a doodle made on a napkin while he was waiting for his coffee. When asked how he can justify asking so much for a simple doodle, Picasso reportedly said that he is charging for the years of work that enabled him to doodle something like while waiting for his coffee, on the back of a napkin.
That to me, is the not-so-glamorous aspect of what we refer to as genius. We see someone contribute a profound perspective in a conversation, and are impressed by the sheer presence of mind. What we do not see, is the long evenings and nights spent poring over reading materials, and the rigorous program of self-education this person had to undergo to have the ability to share such an insight. We all want to sound smart in a meeting. How many of us want to read everything there is to read about our line of work, written by the towering intellectuals who walked these same pathways before us? Even Isaac Newton once said that he only saw more because he stood on the shoulders of giants. If we want to see more, be more, we cannot do so without stepping out of our comfort zones, and sacrificing a little of the life we currently lead.
Photo by Enric Moreu
Nor is this unique to academic or professional lives. Anything we want to excel at, anything we want to be so good at that we make it look effortless, will only come to us once we have put in hours and hours of effort. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a maestro at something, be it writing, computer programming, or music. In a number of his books, Georgetown professor Cal Newport also talks about the need for focused, deliberate work on your skills as a necessary prerequisite to doing work that makes a meaningful contribution to the world around us.
At the risk of sounding cliché and reductive, unless you are a little obsessed and single-minded about your goals and your career, you are just going to be another face in the crowd. Personally, I do not feel there is anything wrong with that. If all we want from life is a regular job, and the leisure to have a cup of tea with friends, that is our right. In fact, if more of us learned to be content with the simple things of life and not forever strive for just a little more, maybe the world would be a better place to be in. However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that needs to be a conscious choice and not just us following the path of least resistance. We cannot sell ourselves the narrative that some people are just “born that way,” and there is no way we can be as good as them. No one is born with the innate ability to play the piano, write beautiful prose, or solve geometry problems. We might have greater affinity for some of these things than we do for others, but it all comes down to this – what are we willing to put in the effort for?
Around 2008, a Carnegie Mellon Computer Science professor Randy Pausch became YouTube famous for giving what he dubbed “The Last Lecture,” which was a tradition at the University of Virginia of academics giving a talk as if this was going to be their last. Except, for Randy, it was not make-believe. With a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Randy was already living on borrowed time at the time of his talk. In his talk, Randy talked about the notion of “head fakes,” which is when you learn a skill only to realize in retrospect that the real value was not in the skill but secondary benefits. Randy uses the example of sports, where you realize that the real value is not in the games or on the trophies attained – but in the team-building, the resilience, and the lessons of sportsmanship.
The pursuit of genius is similar. You may feel the payoff is in being finally branded a success, in being recognized for your erudition. But the real payoff is in the way you will gain confidence in your own skills, in the sense of mastery over your work it will bring. Genius is for the others to gush over. The hours of working on yourself, the sense of accomplishment truly building yourself brings, is all yours to cherish.