June 23, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 22: Talent vs. discipline, redefining wrong, and deep work

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1.  What creates elite performers: innate talent or raw discipline?

"You would think the sports world would have to see the relation between practice and improvement—and between the mind and performance—and stop harping so much on innate physical talent. Yet it's almost as if they refuse to see. Perhaps it's because, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, people prize natural endowment over earned ability. As much as our culture talks about individual effort and self-improvement, deep down, he argues, we revere the naturals. We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don't like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary. Why not? To me that is so much more amazing." — From Mindset by Carol Dweck

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Annika Sorenstam, Cristiano Ronaldo, Danica Patrick, Lionel Messi, Marta, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Michael Phelps, Muhammad Ali, Ronda Rousey, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Simone Biles, Sue Bird, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Tracy Caulkins and Wayne Gretzky.

Besides being some of the greatest athletes of all time, what do they have in common?

Three things: commitment, work ethic, and discipline. Talent? Maybe not so much.

In their book Peak, Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool explore the debate between innate talent and discipline. Other than height and body size, the notion that a lack of talent limits us is untrue, according to the authors.

"The belief that one's abilities are limited by one's genetically prescribed characteristics manifests itself in all sorts of 'I can't' or 'I'm not' statements.

"In this new world it no longer makes sense to think of people as born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn't a way of reaching one's potential but rather a way of developing it."

The authors argue that the key to extraordinary performance is: "thousands and thousands of hours of hard, focused work."

In summary, you can be a world-class athlete without talent, but not without discipline.

Note: Aside from their sports requirements (Jordan's height, etc.), the athletes may not have been genetically gifted, but the stars had to align. Each needed the right parents, coaches, and financial resources to pursue the sport professionally.

2. The experiencing self and the remembering self

"To take charge of our stories, it is helpful to take on board an interesting perspective only now being fully discussed in the realms of psychology through the work of Daniel Kahneman: that we cannot talk about happiness without distinguishing between two selves that both operate within us: the experiencing self and the remembering self.

"When we look back over our lives and decide if we have had a happy time in this world, it is the remembering self that is making that judgment. However, it may be that some of those choices we made, which satisfied the future remembering self, were not at the time the most enjoyable experiences and therefore did not provide particular pleasure to the experiencing self.

"For our purposes, Kahneman's separation of those two selves seems to correlate with what we might intuitively understand to be the separation of happiness and pleasure: the former comes from a judgment we make, a sense of things being or having been right or as we would like them to be, and tends to be retrospective; whereas the latter relates to what we are being made to directly feel right now. Thus you might choose to spend an afternoon attending to a sick relative rather than go to a theme park with friends, choosing the least' pleasurable' option and leaving your experiencing self less fulfilled. But this choice might furnish your future remembering self with a better story of how you spent your afternoon and even contribute to a wider sense of happiness regarding what you do with your life." — From Happy by Derren Brown

By separating these two selves, we can distinguish between the two poles of happiness.

The experiencing self is prone to activities that induce instant gratification, such as shopping, playing video games, and eating junk food. When we engage in these pursuits, our brains release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. These flashes of joy are fleeting and provide only a transient taste of happiness.

The remembering self prefers the sense of tranquility that permeates every sphere of our lives. Our health, career choices, life partners, physical environments, connections with others, hobbies, and leisure pursuits all contribute to our well-being. These large-scale themes shift our baseline happiness towards heightened levels and therefore deserve the majority of our attention.

Practical Advice

1. Redefining wrong

"At one such [poker] tournament, I told the audience that one player would win 76% of the time and the other would win 24% of the time. I dealt the remaining cards, the last of which turned the 24% hand into the winner. Amid the cheers and groans, someone in the audience called out, 'Annie, you were wrong!' In the same spirit that he said it, I explained that I wasn't. 'I said that would happen 24% of the time. That's not zero. You got to see part of the 24%!'

"A few hands later, almost the same thing happened. Two players put all of their chips in the pot and they turned their cards faceup. One player was 18% to win and the other 82% to win the hand. Again, the player with the worse hand when they put in their chips hit a subsequent lucky card to win the pot. This time that same guy in the crowd called out, 'Look, it was the 18%!' In that aha moment, he changed his definition of what it meant to be wrong.

"When we think in advance about the chances of alternative outcomes and make a decision based on those chances, it doesn't automatically make us wrong when things don't work out. It just means that one event in a set of possible futures occurred. Look how quickly you can begin to redefine what it means to be wrong. Once we start thinking like this, it becomes easier to resist the temptation to make snap judgments after results or say things like 'I knew it' or 'I should have known.' Better decision-making and more self-compassion follow."

— From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Redefining wrong in this way removes the sting from regretting a decision. Many believe that a bad outcome results from a bad decision, failing to account for the black swan events in life. Instead, we could estimate the probabilities rather than use absolute assertions of wrong or right. When an unlikely event comes to pass, we won't be surprised or blame ourselves for circumstances beyond our control. We can say, "There was always a 12% chance of that happening; I did my best to prepare, but fate prevailed."

2. Deep work vs. shallow work

"Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

"Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.

"Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate."

— From Deep Work by Cal Newport (View my highlights)

The concept of concentrating on a task without interruption is not a novel one, but we've never given it a name. Some people describe it as being in the zone, but this term refers to a state rather than the actual work.

Newport argues that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare while simultaneously becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.

Whether we are employees, freelancers, or business owners, we compete for attention. Either we want to climb the corporate ladder, build our client base, or scale our business. The market only rewards those who are creating value. Mediocre content is the consequence of shallow work, leaving us disposable as a worker. Our boss or audience can find a replacement, or a competitor can quickly produce a better product. Deep work is more challenging to cultivate and therefore produces a higher-quality output. As such, it makes us more valuable. Business writer Eric Barker refers to it as the superpower of the 21st century.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Elizabeth Gilbert on how our assertions can bind us:

"Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them."

2. Confucius on the single word to guide one's life:

"Zigong asked: 'Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?' The master said: 'Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.'"

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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