Another ingredient of Greatness

Leif Johnson — 03 Jun 2012, 18:06

Today I sat down at the Internet Vortex to check out what's happening on Hacker News, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Dalton Caldwell topping the headlines with a very nice blog post on how Great things are made. Dalton's point, from my reading of it, is that people who manage to do Great things are able to do so not thanks to some grand, unfathomable notion of how the world works, but at least in part because they have practiced their craft so completely that it's become muscle memory.

I completely agree. Dalton's point cannot be underscored enough : a finely honed craft is essential to making Great stuff. Knowing your craft inside and out lets you see, on those rare occasions that fly by every so often, the tiniest window of opportunity that lives in the gap between those defenders, or in the way the light is playing off the model in your viewfinder, or in any number of otherwise completely ordinary situations. In an excellent essay on tennis, Federer half-jokes with Bjorkman that, during their games together, the tennis ball is the size of a basketball—but this can only happen because he is so expert in his sport that he can ignore the motions of his hands, feet, and racquet to focus on the strategy in the game. My friend Pete refers to this, in sailing, as “getting your head out of the boat.” Only by having practiced can you safely commit the operation of the tiller and rigging to reflex, so that you can devote your conscious energy to anticipating the movements of the current or the actions of the other boats in the race. The parallels in other disciplines are numerous.

I wanted to chime in with another component that seems necessary for making Great things happen : volume. This is not a new idea. It's probably been repeated in many other places, really, but I specifically remember reading it in a lovely book called Art and Fear. In the book, the authors address many aspects of what it is that makes “art,” and one of them, I seem to remember, is volume. Bach, for instance, created over 1,000 works of music in his lifetime. Although many of them have come to be regarded as Great, there are an awful lot that only PhDs in the music department have ever run across. There's a corollary to this idea that volume is critical for producing Great work : Greatness is essentially random. Only by making a lot of something can we hope, intentionally, to make some of it great. Or, seen through the lens of the contrapositive, you will never produce anything Great if you don't ever produce anything.

I think there's an important implication of this idea of producing lots of work, and it has to do with our collective reverence for Greatness. The point starts with a question : If Greatness is random, then how is it that some people are more consistent about producing Great output than others ? I think many people, and our culture in general, interpret people who output Great things in quantity as “having talent,” or as being infused with some other mystic ability. Talent might exist, and it might even be important for some stages of certain crafts, but I find the notion of talent alone to be, at best, an inadequate explanation for the amazing things that people can do.

Fame tends to accompany Greatness in society. This seems natural, as people of all types enjoy appreciating Great things. Fame is deceitful for many reasons, however. The relevant one here is that fame tends to obscure the details under the glimmering sound bite on the surface. Often, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes, particularly before someone gets around to producing Great work. In particular, for people who make things, only the Great ones tend to be remembered. But there are often a lot of other things behind the fame that lurk in obscurity. I think it's extremely important to acknowledge the role of these obscure, less-great outputs in producing what appears to be someone who can suddenly and consistently produce Great work.

Example : consider startups. Almost legend now in the startup culture are “four-year overnight success stories"—companies like Rovio that struggle for years and suddenly break into fame with an exciting product like Angry Birds. More often than not, these companies have been spending a lot of work developing their products, but our collective fascination with and emphasis on fame tends to ignore the difficult struggle that precedes this sudden event.

I think this tendency to ignore the larger story is unfortunate for people just learning a craft, because the lack of instant fame can all too easily send a signal that is interpreted as, say, “I suck at drawing,” or, “I'm no good at programming,” or the like. Instead of giving up, it strikes me that consistently producing anything in a craft is a much more important way to achieve Greatness.

In this way, volume and practice are intimately linked. Practicing can produce volumes of output, some of which might be Great. Or, seen from the other side, making yourself produce a large volume of work is a guaranteed way to get lots of practice. But I think volume is an important concept in its own right, because it reveals a few of the otherwise-obscure details that tend to lurk in the shadows of fame. By producing a lot of something, you can learn how it works, what the craft does, and even, slowly, what the “art” of your discipline can reveal.

I'm certain that there are other important ingredients in making Greatness happen. Luck seems to be a big one. (But, of course, the more you practice the luckier you get ?) Empathy, talent, karma ... the list might be endless. But, as far as I've seen, volume is an important component of making Great things happen.