Started: 2018-01-27 Finished: 2018-01-28
I started my modern non-fiction journey only a couple of years back, with Antifragile and Thinking Fast & Slow. (I’d only read older, motivational self help before then, Ziglar, Carnegie etc) I made the mistake of thinking everything was as wonderfully dense, yet rambling and well written.
I was sadly mistaken. I realised that just like fiction, most non-fiction wasn’t worth my time and that just like most fiction, non-fiction followed a beat; a predictable path.
- You present the lay of the land
- The problem with the way things are
- Present your hypothesis for a solution
- Support your hypothesis with your findings and supported studies and articles
- Exposition (or you’d how to apply the solution in your life or to your problem)
- Expand it across domains if possible
- Optional, an upsell if possible to talks or events.
- The End
This has made it so easy for so many to fit so much drivel into the standard 300 pages. Yet it is now just as easy for me (like someone lifting off a veil,) to skim books and junk the ones I don’t like.
And further yet, when well done, this same pattern allows for such amazing exposition of knowledge. Seth Godin and Cal Newport are masters at the game. And so is Angela Duckworth, author of Grit. I’ve marked the book blue, so I can’t hope to even summarise it here. Just a few inspirational notes follow. I’ll leave the entire exposition for the book.
“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.” 2
As did I. I see people writing prodigious pieces of software, figure out how to move mountains of data, keep hundreds of machines in sync and am filled with awe. I see Ansel Adams’ photos and despair of ever being even a tenth as good as he was. I watch Ian Ethan do what I can only describe as crazy making with polyphonic tones and God knows what else on a guitar with two fretboards while I struggle to play a single scale on one. Scott H. Young self-learns a 4 year MIT CS degree in a single year, goes on to learn four languages in a year and then just for kicks, learns to draw portraits in a month, while I struggle with to pick up programming and cannot draw to save my life.
So, how do I get to be that good? Or at least part way competent? The answer lies in being gritty.
First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.
Talent however, is no guarantee of grit. (Or I’d be destined to forever be at the bottom of the totem pole :) )
Which is why I loved it when Angela held up Charles Darwin as a shining example of grit.
Darwin’s biographers don’t claim he possessed supernatural intelligence. He was certainly intelligent, but insights didn’t come to him in lightning flashes He was, in a sense, a plodder. Darwin’s own autobiography corroborates this view: “I have no great quickness of apprehension [that] is so remarkable in some clever men,” he admits. “My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.” He would not have made a very good mathematician, he thinks, nor a philosopher, and his memory was subpar, too: “So poor in one sense is my memory that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.”
So how then did Darwin, get to be … well, Darwin?
Darwin’s (less famous, yet arguably more talented, more genius) cousin, Francis Galton, provides us with the answer
Outliers are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual “ability” in combination with exceptional “zeal” and “the capacity for hard labor.”
Here’s Darwin, himself …
“I think I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.”
One biographer describes Darwin as someone who kept thinking about the same questions long after others would move on to different—and no doubt easier—problems
Gritty folks, in Angela’s words, were constantly driven to improve … and were paragons of perseverance.
The focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort. As much as talent counts, effort counts twice. The main thing is that greatness is doable. Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable. A high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts.
More words on perseverance …
The bigger impediment to progress is that sometimes we stop working out altogether. … Consistency of effort over the long run is everything. Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often. Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day, what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to get on that treadmill and keep going. If the quality and quantity of those pots, books, movies, and concerts are what count, then the striver who equals the person who is a natural in skill by working harder will, in the long run, accomplish more.
Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare. Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.
How do you figure which pursuit of yours is worth following?
Have a few, big overarching goals and let the rest of your actions and smaller goals drive you to that big one. You can drop, change, blow up the small things, but keep your eye on the prize.
Here’s Warren Buffett and Angela, explaining this a lot more clearly,
First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals. Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five. Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.
To Buffett’s three-step exercise in prioritizing, I would add an additional step: Ask yourself, To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose? The more they’re part of the same goal hierarchy—important because they then serve the same ultimate concern—the more focused your passion. If you follow this method of prioritization, … you’ll stand a better chance of getting somewhere you care about—a better chance of moving closer to where you want to be.
And the way to get better at grit and perseverance and getting slowly better by the day is through Deliberate Practice. Angela has a chapter dedicated to it. But Cal Newport has a written about this at length, showcases process and success stories and even has a whole book dedicated to Deep Work & Deliberate practice. So go, read.
She goes on to write at length on the mindsets you’d need, which you could develop both intrinsically and extrinsically, finding purpose, having hope, and how to develop grit personally and as parents and leaders in society. You really ought to read the book cover to cover.
I’ll close with Nietzsche’s plea to peek behind the curtain and appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making magic …
Nietzsche implored us to consider exemplars to be, above all else, craftsmen: “Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it) … They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well, than in the effect of a dazzling whole. ”