[edgtf_blockquote show_mark=”yes” text=”Let’s look at Arrichion’s deed before it comes to an end, for he seems to have conquered not his opponent alone, but the whole Greek nation…. They shout and jump out of their seats and wave their hands and garments. Some spring into the air, others in ecstasy wrestle the man nearby.”]
— Philostratos, Imagines 2.6
As can be seen from the opening quote, adulation for top athletes is a universal phenomenon, its origin lost in the mist of time. Through our admiration, I believe, we pay tribute not only to the athlete’s achievement or performance, but also to what we see as exceptional moral desert.
While few of us have directly experienced what it requires to achieve true elite status in any sport, we can all relate with the hard work, the dedication, the tenacity and yes, the courage, that athletes must muster year after year as they push through the pain and the exhaustion of training and competing at the very edge of human capabilities.
We can plainly see, etched in their very bodies, the result of their sustained commitment. We need only look at ourselves in comparison to intuitively understand the gap that separates our own commitment to high performance from the one on display before us. We know that elite athletes were likely born with innate capabilities that far surpass our own, but we also understand the near superhuman efforts that have gone into extracting the very most from what nature has endowed them with. Despite their gift, we are certain, they would not be where they are if it wasn’t for an irrepressible pursuit of excellence in their chosen discipline.
While we readily acknowledge the commitment and tenacity required of top athletes, it’s easy to ascribe the work of intellectual giants to mere brilliance or genius. In fact, producing world-class intellectual work requires many of the same virtues of courage, tenacity and dedication that are required of top athletes. Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity at the age of 36 offers a great example of this. It is well known that Einstein struggled for seven long years on his journey to General Relativity, going through periods of exhaustion, despair and desperation. So much for just doing the “genius thing”.
The fact that he had to work so hard at it doesn’t take anything away from his accomplishments – quite the contrary. He’s still Einstein – the one and unique – and there is no amount of work or effort that would allow any of us common mortals to achieve what he did: one of the most towering intellectual achievements in human history, arguably the greatest the world has ever seen. But easy, it certainly wasn’t.
Uncommon achievement, whatever the field or endeavour, requires uncommon effort. Getting back to elite athletes, research points to mental toughness – the ability to push through in the face of difficulties – being a key factor in athletic performance. But there’s more to it than that. Research from the Johns Hopkins University Mind/Brain Institute has found evidence that elite athletes ”are born with brains inherently more suited to winning”. In fact, “What sets elite athletes apart from us is not necessarily their bodies, their strength, or their agility,” Fetsch says. “What really sets apart the gold medalists from just the also-rans is the quickness and flexibility with which their brains are converting input from their senses into commands to move their muscles.”
I find it fascinating that what we sometime refer to colloquially as “genius” in the field of soccer, hockey, basketball or any other sport you may care about may turn out to be the reflection of exceptional mental abilities in the very same intellectual way that we understand genius in fields such as science, music, literature and others.
Whatever the field, genius tends to peak early, as Arthur C. Brooks recently explained in The Atlantic, quoting some research from Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management :
“Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones has… shown that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Are there outliers? Of course. But the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent. Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern. Simonton has shown that poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer.”
They inspire us and make us better by showing us what’s possible, but as Brooks explains, uncommon achievement also tends to come at a steep cost:
“[The] waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically. Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends. Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily.” (Also see Arrichion’s fate in the closing quote below.)
Some people are gifted in multiple fields – the talented mathematician who is also an accomplished cello player; the celebrated engineer and physicist with an Olympic medal in track and field; the astronaut who becomes a respected politician. Excellence in one field is already impressive but our admiration is compounded in the face of excellence on many fronts.
Having said this, Einstein wasn’t a world-class athlete, and Kawhi Leonard isn’t a world-class physicist. By and large, people tend to ascend to the very pinnacle of only one field, one facet of their lives. This is often to the detriment of other aspects, a reflection perhaps of the sheer single-mindedness with which one’s gift must be cultivated in order to achieve the very top of anything.
Where does that leave all of us who are not endowed at birth with the kind of gifts required for atypical achievements?
We are all differently endowed, but can all choose to make the very best of the various talents we have received. We are all beautifully multifaceted, but are easily tempted to pour everything that we have into one narrow aspect of our lives, to the detriment of all other; and we easily forget that there is still a lot of living left after our so-called “prime” has come and gone.
With more or less success, I try my best to do well on a variety of fronts and to stay away from unhealthy extremes so that my life, taken as a whole, is one that I can look upon one day as having been a good and balanced one. This is far from easy to do and I have come to realize that striving for the elusive golden mean is a quest for excellence in its own right.