the myth of prodigy.

March 2, 2007 — 5 Comments

“Just keep working hard. Talent only gets you the chance. Your success is dependent on what you do with it.” — Tucker Max

If you haven’t read Gladwell’s piece on The Myth of Prodigy you ought to check it out.

I was in a very similar place as Gladwell. I was a bit of a running phenom as a child; running a 6 minute mile in 5th grade. But then it started to slip away.

[Children] “will often strike a pose that is simultaneously rebellious and lackadaisical. It’s a way of staying in place: trying harder brings more risk of failure, which they cannot handle, so they lower their expectations, finding nobility in slacking off and mediocrity. Losing hurts less when they embrace it.” –Robert Greene

As competition grew fiercer, I capitulated instead of fighting it. I accepted my own fate as a novelty. I admitted I was a flash in the pan, that I was nothing special, that it was all a fluke. I didn’t make the jump from 6 minutes to 5 minutes for almost another 7 years.

I’ve learned a lot since then–even as a runner. For years I wasted time reaffirming my delusions–that I hated hard work and I hated running. It was a lie, what really I hated was failure, and that’s what happened when I tried. Your mind likes to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. Addressing the symptoms means correcting an anomaly, curing the disease means admitting you were wrong. I had to step back and be disappointed in myself. Admit that I had been taking a dive because it was less painful than taking a loss.

I’m trying to do it differently this time. I don’t plan on wasting this. That quote I posted up at the top, I try and think of it a few times a day. I think I’ve broken myself of those destructive habits. I worked a little Pavlov’s magic on myself on a treadmill. Everytime I wanted to stop I sped it up a little. Each goal I set–I’ll stop at 3 miles–I exceeded by .1 or .2. I excised those demons (laziness) by refusing to indulge them.

But I figure that just “learning” isn’t enough. I want results this time. Success that I can point to, that no one can ever take away. Is it really impressive to brag about what you almost were, what you could have almost had? Did I really deserve any of it all, if I let everyone down?

And now as I soak myself in sweat every night of the week, running mile after mile, I know what it feels like to have the candle burning at both ends. I can feel my trial period slowly running out, the novelty quickly become more of a burden than an aide. Out of the two roads, I’ve already chosen one, and it led to nothing but misery and self-loathing. This time I think I’ll take the other. The genuine self-awareness followed by hours at the gym.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

5 responses to the myth of prodigy.

  1. Jesse Penfold March 5, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Awesome post. Overcoming fear of failure is probably one of the most important things people can learn. Not just understanding the concept, but actually practicing it.

    Malcom Gladwell had some good things to say about it in his back & forward with Bill Simmons sometime ago:

    “This is actually a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?

    The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. I swear that’s why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I’ll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience.”

    I definitely suffered from this attitude when I was playing basketball, against tough competition I would play within myself to reduce the risk of failure but also leaving no chance of really succeeding. It was also evident at times with my writing, I would put writing off for fear of reading over my work and thinking it sucked.

    Another good example of what you are getting at is Kevin Durant – see this article:

    http://www.statesman.com/sports/content/sports/stories/longhorns/02/28/28durantnewtruck.html

  2. “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.” — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    Your post reminded me of this quote. When I was younger growing up became harder as it does for all of us. Instead of working harder I began to resent life for not being as simple as it was when I was younger. I embraced mediocre at school then in life. I hated hard work and believed if something did not come to me naturally then I was destined not to be good at it no matter how hard I tried.

    Failure is a part of success. Do not let the prospect or the reality of failing deter you from trying again. Brush it off and move on. Temporary failure only becomes permanent if you let it happen. – Tucker Max

    I accepted the scraps of life. I blamed society, my friends and my parents, for my “rotten luck” in life. I did not just drink from the tap of self pity I bathed in it. Hell it was alot easier than looking inwards and seeing my own fears.

    Then one night I came across an article Tucker had written in Esqiure. His voice and attidude was such a departure from anything else I had ever read, so I immediately checked out his site.

    For months I went through the process of Tuckerfandom. First wanting to be him, learning I couldn’t be him, getting anger at not being able to be him, then attributing his success to luck, fate or some other equally pathetic excuse.

    Nevertheless I kept coming back and slowly the message of what Tucker was about crept through. Be the best version of yourself possible.

    Honestly, this thought scared me because it meant examining myself. Seeing things as they were, not as how I would like them to be. So I tried to bury it as deep and fast as possible. But just like the scratch at the roof of your mouth that would just go away if you jut stopped tonging it, this thought kept kept on coming back.

    Ultimately, conclusions started to form and I had my “fight club” moment.

    I was working as a the night shift as a part-time janitor in a TV studio. It was my first day and I was told to clean out the garbage from all the different studios. I had always wanted to be screenwritter/director in high school. I had won numerous awards for acting and even co-directed a school play. Standing in that studio looking around I couldn’t stop but reflect on where I was in life. I was never more certain of how far away I was from my goal than when I was standing right beside it.

    I’d rather try my best and fail, then risk nothing, but gain nothing. At least that way I can go to bed knowing where I stand…But that failure is relatively easy for me to deal with, because at least I know I tried, whereas most people never even do that. – Tucker Max

    That night I quiet my job, bought a plane ticket back home and enrolled into school the very next day.

    This happened about 8 months ago since then I’ve waged war on myself. Fighting all my old habits vigilantly.

    To say it’s been easy would be a lie. However, by putting everything into what I want to become holding and saving nothing back, I’ve never been happier than as I am now.

    “I am the master of my fate I am the captain of my soul” – William Ernest Henley

  3. i do the same thing when i am running. I thought maybe i had Runner OCD. As soon as I hit one goal I look at the other numbers wether its calories or time or miles which leads to this fight in my head and sometimes i will stay on till i have ran 8 miles.

    I read your post from today about what its like to run and swim and i know exactly that moment. I swam long distance and it makes me think of this one race in highschool where it was so close and i was pulling ahead and i could hear the roar of everyone cheering when i would take a breath and then it was my peaceful place as soon as my head turned where it was just me and the water. There is nothing like that feeling, that high that you get. I have no idea why people do drugs

  4. i do the same thing when i am running. I thought maybe i had Runner OCD. As soon as I hit one goal I look at the other numbers wether its calories or time or miles which leads to this fight in my head and sometimes i will stay on till i have ran 8 miles.

    I read your post from today about what its like to run and swim and i know exactly that moment. I swam long distance and it makes me think of this one race in highschool where it was so close and i was pulling ahead and i could hear the roar of everyone cheering when i would take a breath and then it was my peaceful place as soon as my head turned where it was just me and the water. There is nothing like that feeling, that high that you get. I have no idea why people do drugs

  5. i do the same thing when i am running. I thought maybe i had Runner OCD. As soon as I hit one goal I look at the other numbers wether its calories or time or miles which leads to this fight in my head and sometimes i will stay on till i have ran 8 miles.

    I read your post from today about what its like to run and swim and i know exactly that moment. I swam long distance and it makes me think of this one race in highschool where it was so close and i was pulling ahead and i could hear the roar of everyone cheering when i would take a breath and then it was my peaceful place as soon as my head turned where it was just me and the water. There is nothing like that feeling, that high that you get. I have no idea why people do drugs

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