October 2010

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Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. Not because he told us it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something. No, because he invented a number to define what everybody knows.

Everybody knows it takes practice to become good at something. Whether you are pumping gas or running the Oval Office, it takes practice.

But does it take 10,000 hours to become good at pumping gas? Or tying your shoes? Or riding a bicycle? No.

10,000 hours is a year and two months in straight time. But let’s say you work nine hours a day five days a week. You’ll need just over four years to get to 10,000 hours.

You need more than four years to become a good doctor or lawyer, many more. To become a good janitor or bellman? Less than four years. 10,000 hours might be about right for an athlete but it seems like the more important measure is years, years of doing a few hours a day.

In other words, becoming good at anything requires a variable amount of practice time depending on what it is you are trying to become good at. We all know this, but it is a godsend to have a nice round figure to throw around: 10,000 hours. His figure makes it so much more official. More real! It gives us a catchy shorthand.

Malcolm Gladwell wrapped up what we already knew — we need practice and experience to become good at anything — in a neat little (inaccurate) bow for us. Not 8,874 hours. Not 20,188 hours. 10,000 hours. And because it was in a bestselling book it becomes cultural fact and this crock will now be with us forever. A new myth to add to our myth-laden zeitgeist.

If there is anything those with world-class talent have taught us, whether an athlete or lawyer or doctor or artist, it is that no matter how good you are you never stop practicing or learning or perfecting your art, whatever that art is. You don’t stop when you get good or “world-class,” you reach your peak many hours later.

At the same time, you might hit 20,000 hours and still not be world-class. If time was all you needed, there would be many more talented people around. The truth is, for every world-class talent there are 1000 people who put in just as many hours but are not as good.

The real theory should be, if you’ve put in 10,000 hours doing something you are probably competent at it. But that probably won’t sell as many books.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been giving myself an immersion crash course in soccer for the past few months, particularly the English game since I’m playing fantasy English Premier League.

Here are a few terms I had to learn:

Clean sheet
This is what we would call a shut out.

Fixture
Game or match. This one had me really confused for a while.

Gaffer
The head coach/manager of the football club.

Silverware
The trophy or trophies. And there are a number of different trophies to play for in football. The word is so overused it has left the realm of clever and concreted into permanency as with us calling the football the “pigskin.”

Stick
Harassment given by the fans at the stadium to opposing players. As in, “He always gets stick when he comes back and quite rightly so.”

Then there are the multiple nicknames for each team and sometimes more than one name for the home stadiums. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

But the EPL appeals to me. I like its international flavor and I like the passion of its fans. Since I’ve been dating Courtney, my interest in Europe has been on the increase so that is a factor, too. More accurately, my interest in international affairs and Europe has been reawakened. In college, I majored in International Relations and studied in Berlin.

Getting back to soccer, though, the sport appeals to me for another reason. The passion of the fans reminds me of the fun I used to have at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The new Mile High Stadium (I can’t bring myself to say its name) is just not the same. The new stadium is very nice but it’s different. Too nice maybe. And the higher income bracket crowd is definitely too soft. Nobody should be yelling, “Down in front!” at a football game. You’re not at the symphony people!

I was already thinking the above when I read this quote in Bloody Confused:

The away side at [Fulham's] Craven Cottage began to shudder utterly, which freaked me out slightly and promoted two disparate thoughts. It made me think of the 6.1. earthquake I’d felt in Los Angeles on October 1, 1987…. And it made me think of old Mile High Stadium in Denver, before it yielded to a new stadium across the way. Occupying the Mountain Time Zone, the least populous of the American mainland’s four time zones, the fans of the NFL Denver Broncos don’t get a ton of national credit for their passion, but passion they possess, as one of the few professional-fan groups with passion to match England’s. Normally, for anything to rival English zeal, one must visit a college stadium or coliseum, even as a neutral fan. The old Mile High Stadium in Denver, though, remains the only American stadium to cause wavelets in my press-box coffee, and when I think of Denver set against the stunning Rocky Mountains, I think of those wavelets.

Old Mile High Stadium used to be provide a tremendous home field advantage. The new stadium, not as much. I think the stadium itself is not as loud but mostly I think it’s the gentrified crowd. More revenue for the team (club seats, etc.) but a less engaged and less loyal crowd (in bad weather, for instance) means fewer home wins. It does not help to get rid of your two best and most exciting players either but that is another story.

But the corporatization of American football is happening to English football too. Sponsoring brands are splashed across the front of all English football jerseys, for example. And the old hallowed grounds are giving way to modern stadiums with more amenities but less character.

From Fever Pitch:

Even sadder, though, is the way that Arsenal have chosen to redevelop the stadium…..[I]t is inconceivable that football at Highbury will ever be the same again.

The big clubs seem to have tired of their fan-base, and in a way who can blame them? Young working-class and lower-middle-class males bring with them a complicated and occasionally distressing set of problems; directors and chairmen might argue that they had their chance and blew it, and that middle-class families — the new target audience — will not only behave themselves, but pay much more to do so.

This argument ignores central questions about responsibility, fairness, and whether football clubs have a role to play in the local community. But even without these problems, it seems to me that there is a fatal flaw in the reasoning. Part of the pleasure to be had in large football stadia is a mixture of the vicarious and the parasitical, because unless one stands on the North Bank, or the Kop, or the Stretford End, then one is relying on others to provide the atmosphere; and atmosphere is one of the crucial ingredients of the football experience. These huge ends are as vital to the clubs as their players, not only because their inhabitants are vocal in their support, not just because they provide the clubs with large sums of money (although these are not unimportant factors) but because without them nobody else would bother coming. [Italics in original.]

Fever Pitch was published in 1992. Since then Arsenal has built a new stadium called Emirates Stadium or “the Emirates” for short. The stadium is named after Emirates Airlines, the major sponsor of Arsenal. Highbury is being converted into housing.

But the English crowds still seem more passionate, even with some of the grand old stadiums giving way to modern specimens. The major contributor in my estimation: the English crowds sing. Funny songs, lewd songs, all kinds of songs. If we could get Bronco crowds to sing at the new Mile High, I think we could go a long way toward recovering the Mile High Magic. So turn off the rock music that is blasted throughout the stadium and let’s start a new American sports tradition.

Once again a bit behind here at FifthLung.com!

I’ve been reading Dutch guidebooks but the main book books I have going currently are…

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche. Normally I avoid books like this like the plague. I assume they’re pure bullcrap like Deepak Chopra. But this guy is pretty interesting and says some thought-provoking things like:

Naturally there are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.

The “real issues” relate to spirituality, from what I can tell. The number one “real issue” is death. If I were to sum up his book so far, he wants us to think more about death. A lot more. Which does not sound too cheery. I’m all for introspection and reflection and he’s right that we Westerners do fill our lives with compulsive activity, but I’m not sure the best replacement for that is nonstop thinking about death.

He has another good quote about the materialistic life, a riff on the “golden handcuffs” idea of acquisition. Of this type of life, which he calls the “samsara,” he says, “And all that this samsara holds out to us to drink is a cup of salt water, designed to make us even thirstier.”

Brilliant Orange, by David Winner. This is an interesting study of Dutch culture through the lens of Dutch soccer, or Dutch culture alongside Dutch culture. He talks about how the Total Football revolution in Dutch soccer was tied into the 60s revolution in the rest of Dutch society.