String Theory

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his essays on tennis. I am reading the book at the same time the Wimbledon tennis championships are being played. I’ve become a sort of tennis nut.

While Wallace was a very fine player, he never qualified for a major tournament. He wonders what makes a great tennis player? I think his answer is true for greatness of any sport and, perhaps, any form of superior performance.

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one…They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind…might well be: nothing at all.

I am reminded of how Woody Allen defined greatness during an interview at The New Yorker Festival in 2000. He said:

… you do what you do, you do what you do best, and if others like it or think it's great, then that's fine. And if they don't, that's fine too. But you always have to do what you like to do and what you do naturally. Talent is a gift, not something you can try to attain. You can work at perfecting it, but first it has to be there.

Malcolm Gladwell’s view of greatness (or success as he calls it) is a little more complicated. In Outliers: The Story of Success, he says there are five factors determining outstanding success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck..

Yes, you need to have a natural talent and practice, practice, practice. But you also need a fair amount of luck and be given the opportunity to express yourself, however you can do that.

Timing also plays a role, say in tennis, the opponents you play at that time, the stage of your development and something as simple as the time of the day, the light on the court, and how many hours you slept the night before.

Gladwell’s conception goes well beyond the simplicity of Woody’s and Wallace’s view. It recognizes the multiple factors that govern any behavior and the unpredictable way they combine in any individual. For this reason, it seems to me the most reasonable current account of “greatness” in any field.


Linda said...

This is a very interesting post, Richard. I've thought about this a lot - what separates those at the top of their field, sport or art. I have not read Outliers, but it on my reading list. I think there is another characteristic not specifically mentioned but what Wallace and Allen come close to: Those superior performers/competitors/artists have a deep and enduring belief in themselves from the beginning that keeps them at their game no matter what.

Wallace says: They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two." That reminds me of bridge anecdote about a legendary bridge player who said when he is playing bridge, a naked woman could walk by and he would not notice. His compatriots set up a real live test - and he passed!! I believe the player was Bobb Wolff, but not sure, but the saying is now common among bridge players to illustrate the level of sustained concentration required to play and win at the top levels.

And, speaking of bridge and your comments about Jewish intellectual excellence in your post "A Long Saturday," the highest levels of the cerebral game of professional, world-class duplicate bridge is dominated by Jews.

Richard Katzev said...

An equally interesting comment, Linda. You are right about confidence, although sometimes it can be misleading if you don't have the necessary talent, or don't practice much, etc.

Concentration is crucial too, even when a naked woman passes by. I'm sure I'd fail that test.

Yes I'm aware of Jewish skills at chess. What is it about chess or being Jewish that leads Jewish individuals to excel at chess?

Linda said...

I don't know what it is about Jewish skills at chess, bridge, etc. It is a mystery to me. If you ever figure it out, please let me know what I need to do to get smarter.

The "naked woman distraction" test is probably a myth, but it has permanent traction in the world-wide bridge community now. So you think you would fail, huh. I am disappointed in your powers of concentration.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Yes, I will definitely let you know.

It would be impossible to play chess with the naked Eve Babitz: