Barbarism, part 2


I want you to imagine what it takes to be good at something. There’s a figure of 10000 hours being thrown around a lot these days — I think Malcolm Gladwell was the one who put it about that it takes 10000 hours to become really good at anything — though this sounds like nonsense to me.* But it is eminently believable nonsense, because it (1) is a Secret of Success, (2) is quantified, and (3) is based on some sort of scientific study, maybe, we think. Probably. It has a number, so, you know, it’s probably science.

But now I want you to use your own experience here. Think of something you are really good at, a complex and demanding practice for which your skill is demonstrably much higher than the human average. Maybe it’s rock-climbing, maybe it’s playing a musical instrument, maybe it’s baking. It’s a practice you’ve spent years developing; it’s what you’ve poured your best self into (whatever that means to you). You have devoted yourself to this thing without regard to cost, personal inconvenience, and even suffering. Now, if you just said something like I don’t have anything like that, I’m going to agree with Peter Sloterdijk and say you should get one, fast. But if you are with me this far, then I want you to think of someone in your chosen field of endeavor whom you know is inarguably better than you. Stronger, fleeter, tastier. Just on another level — as different from you as Roger Federer is from the guy teaching tennis down at the Y.

OK. Think of how much energy it has taken to get to where you are now. Where you are right now is X. Where you started — your first awkward grappling with the rock face, your first fumbling at string or pipe, your first childish attempt at cupcakes (with a smile of encouragement from Mom) — that’s A. So all the work you’ve expended in getting good has described the span from A to X. Now think of how much energy it would take to get from X (where you are) to where that person is who’s on that next level, the higher plateau you can see but for which there is (at least to you) no marked path. Let’s call that the distance from X to Y.

My theory is that the distance from A to X is commensurate with (not exactly the same, maybe, but in the ballpark) the distance from X to Y.

Or put it another way: let’s say you’re about 90% as good as it’s possible to be in your chosen endeavor. The pro hanging out over there on plateau Y is about 92%. But the energy it takes to go from 90% to 92% is not the same as what it took to get from, say, 1 to 3. Not even close. In fact it might take nearly as much practice to get from 90% to 92% as it did to get from 0 to 90. What this means is that practice cannot be plotted on a straight line; it’s a line (parabola? hyperbola?) that climbs steadily for a while and then shoots upward in a steep curve, converging on but never quite reaching the terminus. Like an object approaching the speed of light, practice cannot reach the limit of perfection, the 100%, because it would take an infinite amount of energy to get there. Each increment of improvement after 90% costs an exponential amount more than the last increment.** The stretch between 90 and 100, between good and great, exacts an extravagant cost entirely disproportionate to the price of getting to 90 in the first place. It’s all massively mounting costs with increasingly tiny rewards. It doesn’t make sense.

Or to put it very simply: it makes much more sense to be good at something that to be great at something. Being great at something is inefficient. Why knock yourself out for 92% when you can manage 90% in half the time?

I know that I am using an argument whose numbers and math are all made-up. But the fake math is just there as a metaphor, to help make a slightly abstract point easier to visualize. What I write is borne out in my own experience and indeed in every conversation I have ever had with a really outstanding musician or scholar. Now, perhaps there is such a thing as genius; perhaps there are people who can hurdle to something very close to 100% without anything like the same strain it costs all the nearest competitors, like Mozart vs. Salieri in Amadeus. But I wouldn’t know about people like that, because I never met any of them. In my experience, nothing comes for free. You want greatness? One way or another, you’re going to have to pay for it. Which, in the domain of practice, means you’re going to have to work for it, put in the time, suffer.

We are always told that a capitalist system works the best because it promotes competition. Socialism encourages failure. Anything that shelters us from the hard cold winds of market competition, we are told, makes us complacent, indulgent, and lazy. A pure market ideology would insist that all shelters be torn down, that no-one be exempt from the iron law of human striving. By striving against your competitors, in business or anything else, you will naturally reach the highest possible levels of attainment. Although this process of competition takes place on an individual level, society as a whole is strengthened when its members, denied the false security of state subsidy and so forced to recognize their self-interest, learn to strive with reasoned selfishness. A society of strivers, each working for his or her own gain, will collectively make the closest thing we will ever get to a perfect society. This is Hayek 101, the basic rationale of the neoliberal state.

It appears that the spirit of capitalism would be the same deity presiding over Sloterdijk’s notion of practice and vertical attainment. But I want to suggest that it isn’t. What I want to argue is this: a system oriented to market efficiency above all else will actually work against the highest attainment in every domain except its own. For attainments in the field of money-making, the pursuit by the most talented minds at the most elite universities of the most sophisticated mathematical formulas for extracting ever more esoteric derivatives from market investments, the present time will no doubt will be remembered as a golden age. But in the fields of art and the humanities, the same system encourages the production of good (or goodish) work and discourages the production of great work. It stands directly in the path from good to better to best, from lowest to highest. It is inimical to the spirit of practice; it is therefore, in Sloterdijk’s terms, conducive to barbarism.

Next time: by way of an example, consider that fraught moment when you submit the first draft of a Ph.D. dissertation . . .

*Is this supposed to be the same for everything? For everyone? At all periods of life? You mean 10000 hours studying something when you’re 8 is the same as 10000 hours when you’re 70? Define “good,” anyway.

**Math is not my strong suit, so if a more mathematically-inclined person could rephrase what I’ve written more elegantly, I’d appreciate it.

UPDATE: Michael McClimon writes via Twitter,

Re: your math statement. It’s a logarithmic scale; the changes from 90-100% are orders of magnitude, not linear changes. i.e. it takes 10x as much work to get from 92-93% as it does from 91-92%, for example.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Barbarism, part 2

  1. Pingback: Barbarism, part 1 | Dial M for Musicology

  2. Pingback: Barbarism, part 1 | Dial M for Musicology

  3. Mario Champagne says:

    And the line that never reaches its limit is an asymptote, which can be horizontal, vertical, or oblique…

  4. Pingback: Barbarism, part 3 | Dial M for Musicology

  5. Adrian Smith says:

    Now, if you just said something like I don’t have anything like that, I’m going to agree with Peter Sloterdijk and say you should get one, fast.

    It’s possible to get something like that fast?

  6. philphord says:

    One could start tomorrow. I argue here that practice (in Sloterdijk’s sense of “practice”) never ends. But one enters into practice the moment one picks up a horn (or a tennis racket, or whatever) with an intention to keep going.

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