So, Scott Cooper and I have launched into this fascinating exploration of the ideas behind Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in a series of private emails. We both hope that at some point we can craft specifically pottery related blog posts from what we’ve learned. But in the meantime let me talk to you about the last two games I saw in the European Championships in soccer!
Perhaps its unfair to critique Gladwell by fitting his ideas to a single event, like a tournament or competition, so lets forget for the time being that these themes have anything to do with his work. And truth be told, I haven’t even read his book. But enough people have discussed its ideas and examples that I am at least partially conversant with its premise and thrust.
So, soccer. Football. Fucci Ball. Voetbal. I haven’t really said it online, but I am a passionate fan of the game, one team in particular, an absorbed neutral, a former captain of the Philadelphia Public League all-stars, whose career flamed out with a whimper in college, and who at the venerable age of 48 still hobbles around the local pick-up game three afternoons a week, rain or shine. And truthfully, the creativity I found so easily expressed with my feet and vision in dealing with a round soccer ball is something very close to the invention and skill I bring to the potter’s wheel. The two are more than closely related. They are an instance of my argument that creativity is a human capacity and a birthright, and that its not just something that professional artists and children do. Its something we can find in all corners of our world. So maybe in talking about soccer for a few moments there will be a lesson hidden somewhere about pottery and art……
A few days ago I wrote Scott to inform him that I had just witnessed justice being done. The hard work, industry, and graft of the England side had just been rebuffed by the far superior talents of the Italian team. As a neutral I saw it as a fitting end to a hardworking side that played remarkably well as a team, but who were exposed through a lack of imagination and ability. They had chances, and occasional luck, but I think only rabid followers would have thought that the wrong team won.
Sometimes hard work doesn’t deserve to win. At least, not when opposed by superior talent. Sometimes talent shows us the best of what is possible. And often its triumph is a testament to the highest standards. Maybe the lesson is to not just try the hardest, but to also try to be good. And the reality behind that statement is that not everyone is going to be good at everything they do, no matter how hard they try, no matter how long they work at it. The England team are world class athletes, but in the crucible of a match against an Italian side with enviable talent it was always asking them a bit much to measure up.
But the further lesson might be “screw talent“. Not everyone can be the best. Maybe there’s a ‘good enough’ that can be acceptable. If the lads enjoy kicking a ball around for a living, then more power to them if they can get people to pay them for it. Not everyone cares only about who is the most talented. Not everyone even always cares who won. Or that its the most important thing. Sometimes the bottom of the heap is as good as it gets. There is plenty of room for folks with lesser gifts. And the truth is that the audience often won’t know the difference. They can still get something decent and entertaining for the price of their ticket. But that doesn’t mean we should take advantage of their open mindedness. We still need to try hard, and we still need to try to make the best work we can. And we need to know the difference between good and bad, whether we shine in its light or are given something to aim for. We can always try to do better. Isn’t that important? Even when we’re only in it for fun? Shouldn’t we always try to be better than bad? (Oops! Was I talking about soccer or pottery…?)
So the second match I saw was yesterday’s meeting between two of the top three most talent laden teams in the tourney. The Spain side had talent more evenly spread throughout its starting line up and the reserves on the bench. The Portugal side boasted the second most talented player on the planet and were no slouches except in the depth of their squad. An intriguing match up!
The game actually failed to live up to the hype, and the magnificent talent that strode the pitch was only visible in small glimpses. Both teams played well in parts, but largely failed to deliver the mouthwatering contest that expectations had hinted at. Still, either side would have been deserving victors. The difference between this and the other match was that quality was in no way lacking.
So the game turned out to be a stand off, both sides having negated the strengths of the other, effectively canceling out the sublime gifts that talent makes possible. And so it came down to a penalty shoot out, possibly the worst idea in modern football (soccer), but a necessary evil for deciding the contest that day and not putting the players in the hospital.
And you could see the strategies of the teams, Spain trotting out its best penalty takers in order, and Portugal wanting the final shot to come down to its hero. It was an attempt by the Portuguese to put the deciding ball in the hands (at the feet) of its greatest star. Only, it backfired. Spain took better penalties. And by the time it came to that last Portuguese player, the game had already been won by Spain.
The second best player in the world had not even had an opportunity to make a difference. Through the arrogance of believing they could script a fairy tale ending the Portuguese removed their most potent weapon to an indifferent position. They squandered the opportunity to put the best talent in the best position to do them any good. Amazing! Not so the Spanish. They delivered what they had to when they had to. And the perhaps marginal difference in penalty taking prowess between the first 4 Portuguese to step up and the first 5 Spanish players was enough to decide the contest.
So what’s the lesson there? Possibly that talent is all very well and good, but that it needs to be utilized to its best advantages. Just what is talent good for if not making a difference? If its not put in a position to make a difference? So how do we put ourselves in a position to take advantage of our talents? How do we give ourselves the opportunity to do this? Just what are we good at? That seems worth knowing.
As we go through life the world has all sorts of interesting things for us to try, and we only know what we will like doing if we give some of them a try. If you never try, how will you know? And if we find something we like, say pottery, we can hope that not only will we continue to like doing it, that it will have longstanding relevance and interest in our lives, but that through training and perseverance we may someday get to be good at it. If we are lucky we will have a talent for it. If we are lucky we will have the opportunity to exercise that talent. If we are lucky we will be able to nurture the seed of that talent so that it grows into a healthy tree with all sorts of fascinating branches and deep roots. If you are a teacher, that is your gift to your students.
So, to put the finishing touches on another interminable ramble, find what you like doing. Then, explore your talents for these things. Put yourself in the position to take advantage of your opportunities. Don’t waste too many of them. Work hard, but not mindlessly. Work with a purpose. Let that purpose be your joy and the dreams it takes to get there. Imagine the possibilities. Dare to dream. Its an open question whether a lazy genius is better off than an industrious drone. Don’t be either. Talent and hard work together are more than the sum of their parts. That’s the alchemy. That’s what each of us can find in our own way.