My friend Scott Cooper linked me to an article the other day that touched off another of our far ranging discussions. I sometimes think I should just scrap the blog posts you get and simply post the conversations that Scott and I have.
So anyway, Scott saw this article in the BBC about the psychology of world class athletes and how it relates to everyday activities. Link here. The article makes this case:
Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don’t have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it’s also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn’t mean that you’re mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.
So footballer’s immense skills aren’t that different from many everyday things we do like walking, talking or driving a car. We’ve practiced these things so much we don’t have to think about how we’re doing them. We may even not pay much attention to what we’re doing, or have much of a memory for them (ever reached the end of a journey and realised you don’t recall a single thing about the trip?), but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t or couldn’t. In fact, because we have practiced these skills we can deploy them at the same time as other things (walking and chewing gum, talking while tying our shoe laces, etc). This doesn’t diminish their mystery, but it does align it with the central mystery of psychology – how we learn to do anything.
The point being that while these skills and aptitudes may vary in degree, they are similar in kind. What makes things work for athletes is not so different from what makes things work in other facets of our lives. Art and sport, in fact seem fundamentally connected in some of these aspects. For instance, I always try to get my students to understand that what they do as artists at a potter’s wheel is not so different from what they may be doing playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, or even performing dance. There is an obvious connection in motor skills, sensitivity and physical intelligence. Potters need to hone their body knowledge and develop sophistication with their hands: Positioning, anticipation, responding to subtle cues, technique, and problem solving are things that both artists and athletes know intimately.
And what about the role of ‘luck’ and risk? Part of my response to Scott went like this:
“The Dutch will need to get very lucky to win this tournament, but so far no one else is playing better than them consistently. They don’t always look good, but seem to be clinical when it counts most.
And maybe that holds true for us as artists? That its better to be lucky when its needed than simply ‘good enough’? Remember that survivorship bias article that suggests we need to put ourselves in the position where there is enough random chance that the odds of something good happening are multiplied?
“Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.”
The teams in the tournament that are predictable seem to face the greatest odds, because they can be countered by appropriate measures taken. In a game where you sometimes only need to score once to win you can sometimes take the outrageous chances, and when they pay off that’s all you need. Its sometimes worth failing outrageously if it occasionally puts you in a position to exceed predictability.
Its hard for me to say what kind of soccer my art would translate into. I have reasonable technique, not great but generally more than adequate. My imagination is decent but not as fearless as I’d like it to be. My execution could definitely be better. I’m not as invested on the outcomes enough to qualify as world class. I’m still essentially making sketches, so for that aspect of my ‘game’ I’d say I was still probably out playing pick-up on the local field. But I would say that my eye is pretty good. And I’m not a plodder with my nose to the grindstone. I’m trying to look up as I’ve got the ball at my feet. I don’t mind changing directions in mid-stride, of attempting the daring and possibly foolish for the breakthrough chance at glory.
To add more weight to this idea of taking risks here’s a commencement speech Daniel Pink just gave this year:
And an excerpt of what he said:
“Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…
This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…
The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.
This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.“
Now those are words we can all live by, not just as artists and athletes.
Make beauty real!