What is it that makes people good at what they do?
Iâ€™ve just finished watching House, one of my new favorite shows of which I didnâ€™t get to see too many episodes this season. The show is very well written. Banter that is smart makes me feel smarter and sometimes even inspires a bit of thought on my own part, at least something other than Franklinâ€™s newest stupid scenario* or a poem about how much I like cheese***.
But I digress. What makes someone a stud doctor (other than shapely abs and biceps complimented by a sharp mind and sharper scalpel) or a great attorney or a good salesman? What defines a great athlete or musician? What type of person is looked upon as an amazing mechanic?
The fact is that every one of us can recognize it in some way. I have a friend Ian who is typically one of the best Ultimate Frisbee players within about a 300 mile radius of wherever he goes. Anytime Iâ€™ve gone somewhere and say Iâ€™ve played with him, there seem to be at least a few people who know who he is, and then say something to the effect of â€œthat guy is insane.â€
You canâ€™t really pin point it though. Sure I could say â€œwell heâ€™s 5â€™10â€ and could dunk, easily, if he could jump as high in basketball as he does on the Ultimate fieldâ€ or â€œhe can throw a flick** about 110 yardsâ€ (which is the farthest Iâ€™ve ever seen anyone throw) but in the end that isnâ€™t what makes him great, at least not in my opinion.
Another buddy of mine from college, Jim, can play literally any instrument at a very high skill level after spending about two weeks on it. Iâ€™m dead serious. He learned to play guitar well in two weeks. He wanted to work on singing, concentrated on it, and now has a great voice. I wonâ€™t go into his piano playing (the instrument he actually â€œplaysâ€). But if you ask people what makes him great they wonâ€™t say â€œbecause he can play anything he wants and is musicalâ€ and they sure as hell wonâ€™t be able to point out a particular riff of music or tune he sounds good on â€“ bottom line is he sounds good on everything.
What people will admit to, and quite readily, is that they have found a Way. More specifically, they have found their Way. I am witnessing more and more that to truly be great at something you have to own it.
All of Ianâ€™s teammates will tell you they donâ€™t always like playing with him. Theyâ€™ll admit heâ€™s amazing but at the same time say â€œdonâ€™t watch him if youâ€™re trying to learn our offense.â€ Why? Because Ian doesnâ€™t like the offense they run and therefore pretty much does what he wants. Ian very much just plays his own game. If he thinks you should run somewhere to catch the disc, he will throw the disc there first and expect you to go get itâ€¦.then get mad if you miss it.
Similarly, Jim is now using his talents to be a Junior High choir director and work at his church. I tell you this right now, he is so good at piano that he could easily (if he practiced) be recording with any jazz player out there right now. But you know what? Jim doesnâ€™t care. Jim doesnâ€™t want to be a jazz piano player. Heâ€™s just playing his own game. Did I mention he is one of the most inspiring teachers Iâ€™ve ever seen? Iâ€™m only a few years younger and the guy still blows my mind whenever I get to talk to him.
The question then is what resolves people to do that? It certainly isnâ€™t being stubborn and it isnâ€™t being egotistical. In fact if you asked me which two people I thought the most would be humble and point at all the other greats without even considering themselves, I would point to Ian and Jim.
I donâ€™t think its luck either. Sure maybe theyâ€™ve stumbled into being themselves or maybe thereâ€™s an inner strength there that is somehow imparted from childhood learning, but everyone can find their own Way somehow.
For me the solution doesnâ€™t stem from something like â€œwhat am I good at?â€ or â€œwhat do I do better than anyone else,â€ those answers would render one woefully pompous and still struggling for some unreachable rung on an invisible ladder with a made-up gnome steadying it and being tickled by a fat, make-believe elf who eats clams casino on his lunch breaks.
The question that gets me is â€œWhat is it I do that I pour myself into so much that the action becomes a part of myself?â€ Iâ€™m starting to get an inkling and Iâ€™m starting to understand that all actions can be injected with self in order to make them my own, but Iâ€™m still working on it. Hopefully I will get there sooner rather than later, but I guess until I can figure out my game, Iâ€™ll ride the bench and marvel at the all-stars.
* Old timey Mississippi river-boat captain
** Also known as a forehand. For you non frisbee players (probably all of you), it’s basically a side-arm throw.
***See post above this one.