I've been doing some desultory reading on the topics of motivation and success-- books like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Danny Boyle's The Talent Code, and Daniel Pink's Drive-- and now I'm reading David Shenk's new one called The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong. I've just finished a chapter that is very Gheorghe: it's called "Can White Men Jump? Ethnicity, Genes, Culture, and Success."
The chapter is predominantly about the fascination we have with "sports geography." How does South Korea produce so many great female golfers? Why do so many baseball players come from the Dominican Republic? Why were the Jews so good at basketball in the 1920s? Why are they so funny now? And why are Jamaicans so fast? What is their "secret sauce"? How did an island with a population of 2.8 million capture six track and field medals in the 2008 Olympics?
Scientists immediately turned to genetics. Those racist bastards. And they quickly discovered the powerful protein alpha-actinin-3, a protein that "drives forceful, speedy muscle contractions." It's produced by a special gene named ACTN3, and ninety-eight percent of all Jamaicans possess this gene. This is far higher than just about any ethnic population. Mystery solved. White men can't sprint.
But they didn't do all of the math. Eighty percent of Americans have the gene. Eighty two percent of Europeans have it. There are 2.8 million people in Jamaica. Just about all of them have the gene. But there are over three hundred million people in America. So 240 million Americans have the gene. Add Europe and you've got 597 million potential sprinters. So it's not in the genes. It is in the culture, and the training.
Jamaica's Super Bowl, according to Shenk, is the annual high school Boys' and Girls" Athletic Championships. For Americans, track is what you do in the off season to keep in shape. But in Jamaica, track is what you do. And Jamaican coach Fitz Coleman says," We genuinely believe that we'll conquer." More and more research is piling up that says it doesn't matter who you are and how you start, and your genes aren't as influential as you think. What matters much more is the atmosphere, your mind-set, deliberate practice, and training. 10,000 hours of this stuff. Gladwell describes this in Outliers. Danny Coyle explains why Brazilians might be so good at soccer in his book The Talent Code. It's not genes, it's location, practice (and futsal).
Occasionally, a region produces athletes that are so good at a sport, that no one else can compete. No one else is good enough. I am sure the Bemidgi curling squad has a tough time finding away matches . . . unless they head to Canada. Or Norway. But at least they have options. Now allow me to describe a particular example where the superstars have become so good that they literally have no one to play except each other.
I am talking, of course, about the sport of "Zoom." (Have one). And geographically I am referring to the "Zoom/Schwartz/Profigliano" mecca of the world: Williamsburg, Virginia. And I don't want to get into the semantics of the the word "sport." "Zoom" has a ball-- it is intangible, ethereal ball, passed around verbally-- but nonetheless, it is a ball. And it has certain athletic components: you have to stand, there is the head fake, and, of course, the Gibson. Some may say: this isn't a sport, it's a drinking game! I beg to differ. The folks I know are so good at this game that they couldn't play it sober. It would be too easy. They have to play it drunk. And, honestly, if you're good, then you're barely playing a drinking game. You're drinking and simultaneously playing "Zoom."
The game is rather simple: you stand in a circle and listen to where the imaginary ball goes. If it is "thrown" to you, you quickly say a command, which sends the ball rocketing away from you. Say "Turbo" and the ball goes one to the right of you. Say "Boink" and it goes one to the left. Say "Schwartz" and look at who sent it to you, and you send it back. There are only seven of these commands in the typical game. Mistakes are punished. Repeated mistakes are punished more severely (chug!) But it's all in good fun, and you can step out if you need a break. And, once again, there are only seven words to learn. That is within the grasp of any human's short term memory. Yet no one who observes ever wants to learn to play. This always astonished me, but now I know why. The players from a certain period of time (the late eighties and early nineties) in a certain place (Williamsburg, VA) got so good at this game that it wasn't even worth competing with them. Even to watch them is to realize their mastery. To this day, I only see the sport played by this elite crew, when fate brings them together. The sport will not spread, until this daunting generation of players dies (or become senile, so that the rest of the population has a sporting chance).
I found a video of some regular people playing the game-- which is highly unusual in itself-- and I must tell you, that they are playing it so ineptly that it is almost unrecognizable. I am actually reluctant to even embed this video because it such a poor example-- but it is the only coherent film of game play I could find! In the other Youtube clips, the games never even got to this level. I urge you, if you possibly can, to find those spectacular players from Williamsburg and see them in action. You will not be disappointed.
I am sure many of you have your own examples of local "sports" that you or your peers are so good at, that no one else can compete. It's not because you are something special, and no one you've come into contact with has this special genetic quality. You should be prouder than that. It is practice, determination, dedication, and persistence under competitive duress. I think I can still play a mean game of Pong-Ping . . . but that's another post.
Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us provides some explanation of why these particular players-- many of whom neglected their studies in order to excel at "Zoom"-- got so good. And one thing is certain: they are good. Better than good. To see them play, is to know that-- though the game is useless-- there is nothing in life that these players are better at than "Zoom."
There is mounting evidence that extrinsic motivation is detrimental to motivation. It's hard to master something that you consider "work." That's why I'm writing this post instead of unloading the dishwasher. Yet my wife will unload the dishwasher to avoid writing her graduate school essay. I'll get up early to record a Greasetruck song, but I won't get up early to write my lesson plans. So the next time you see six older guys in a circle rapidly yelling words in an inscrutable pattern, and you think to yourself: those guys are super-geniuses! they must be genetically superior to the rest of us! they have an amazing, unique, one of a kind talent! you are doing them a disservice. They are no different than anyone else, and anyone could achieve their level of mastery; it just takes practice. Lots of lovingly deliberate, difficult, challenging, drunken, puking practice.