By Dale KeigerIn 2014, I interviewed a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University about the use of computer simulations to rehabilitate stroke patients. At one point our conversation veered to this idea he had about athletes: Talent in sports was misattributed. He didn’t dispute that genetics blessed some people with extraordinary speed or reflexes or size, or all three. If inclined to play games — soccer, basketball, football, tennis, et al — those so blessed were ahead from the start.
But, he argued, not by that much. Their superior talent was not a set of inherent physical attributes that distinguished star athletes from everyone else. What the great ones possess, be it LeBron James or Serena Williams or Aaron Judge or Megan Rapinoe, is superior knowledge.
What the great ones possess … is superior knowledge.
Tom Brady isn’t a great quarterback because he’s big or has a strong arm; thousands of young men are big with strong arms. Brady is great because he knows more about football and how to play it better than anyone else. His brain holds an extraordinary store of football knowledge and the ability to process it at lightning speed. Sportswriters used to describe how basketball phenom Larry Bird could look at a picture from any game he’d played as a Boston Celtic and recall, accurately, where everyone else had been on the court at that moment — knowledge that informed his play every time he brought the ball forward. Wayne Gretzky could skate to where he knew the puck would go because not only did he know what the other players were going to do, he knew how the puck played off the boards differently in every National Hockey League arena.
It all came back to knowledge. The neuroscientist said this also explained the success of many star players’ offspring. Sure, they’d inherited beneficial genetic traits. But more important was the knowledge they’d absorbed growing up with superstar Mom or Dad.
Creativity passion as a personality quirk
The neuro’s theory is not without holes. Great coaches have similarly deep knowledge of the game, but many of them had been mediocre players. What they knew could not make up for how they couldn’t hit a curve ball or sink a 50-foot putt. Plus, I thought the theory sidelined the importance of practice and how hard great athletes work.
But I don’t toss out the scientist’s idea altogether because I harbor a similar notion about creative talent, including writing.
I was raised on conventional wisdom: Talent came from the gods, from the universe, from dumb Darwinian luck. Its conferral on this person but not that one was capricious. Some got it, some didn’t, what are you gonna do? This viewpoint wasn’t entirely benign. It made it easier to sanction artists as weirdos or undeserving. Those of us not anointed with faerie dust had to work for a living — real work, not that artsy pseudo-work — and earn what was handed to artists as some sort of welfare from the muses.
I don’t discount that there are people born with, for want of a better term, certain knacks. A knack for getting a good tone out of a violin, a knack for graceful movement or playing to the camera, a knack for the striking word choice. When I was a school kid, teachers said I had a talent for writing. But I think I just had a knack for mimicking grown-up writers and fooling grown-up teachers. Knacks are not talent. They’re just little boosts that don’t get you very far on their own.
Genuine talent, I believe, is a personality quirk.
…an overwhelming predisposition to spend hour after hour, day after day, doing the same thing over and over and over and over.
The nature of this quirk is an overwhelming predisposition to spend hour after hour, day after day, doing the same thing over and over and over and over. And then doing it some more. The “talented” writer is the one who is willing, even happy, to spend seven hours at a time sitting alone, in silence, stringing words together. And then throwing most of them out and doing it again tomorrow. The finest painters I’ve known are people who, given the endless possibilities of any given day, will choose to paint and paint and paint. I used to be a musician, and soon learned that the best musicians are happiest when playing, whether onstage or alone in a stairwell. I once watched a documentary film on The Rolling Stones and noted that no matter the setting or the circumstance, Keith Richards always had a guitar in his hands.
This essential personality quirk could be described as nothing more than being endlessly fascinated and pleased by the repetitive tasks that make art. When I taught nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, students would ask, “Do you think I have what it takes to become a writer?” I always replied, “I don’t know. How much do you enjoy making sentences? Because that’s what you’ll spend all your time doing.”
No art without practice
Here I loop back to the neuroscientist and his theory of knowledge. The finest journalists I’ve ever encountered know more than the journeymen. They know the language, know a gazillion words, know what their peers and forebears have written, know their subject like they know their own back yard, seemingly know something about everything.
The appetite not only for knowledge but for the labor of acquiring it is another essential personality quirk: When I realize there’s something essential to my work that I don’t know, I can’t leave it alone. I have to learn it. But that’s okay, because learning about something is as much fun as writing about it. At the beginning of a semester I would introduce myself to my new undergraduates: “I’m one of those odd people who writes all the time, and when I’m not writing I’m reading, and when I’m not writing or reading I’m thinking about writing and reading.” I exaggerated, but not by much. If I have a talent, there it is.
… inexplicable affinity for the daily work.
There is no art without a practice. If, as a journalist, you’re not comfortable thinking of yourself as an artist, try this: There is no craft without a practice. And I don’t see how there can be a practice without this inexplicable affinity for the daily work. The daily same-old-same-old.
For sure, “blessed by the gods” has a romantic appeal far above “if that’s your idea of fun.” If it makes you feel better, think of it this way: The very best ones were blessed by the gods with weird personalities.
That’s not how I see it, but it’s not like I’ve been blessed with always being right.
Dale Keiger is the retired editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine and author of “The Man Who Signed the City: Portraits of Remarkable People.” He writes essays in a newsletter called “The Joggled Mind.”