Recipe for Disaster Can Be the Recipe for Success

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I have a theory that tragedy can lead to the exact circumstances vital to success, in the same way that certain temperatures produce the right texture in cooking or particular weather patterns can result in a breathtaking sky.

The ingredients in a recipe for success, in any field I can think of, includes the acquisition of knowledge, discipline, training, motivation, and (arguably) some degree of natural aptitude.

My thesis is this: Introversion combined with loss or adversity can lead to isolation, and if a safe refuge happens to coincide with a focused interest, this creates intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation leads to a greater likelihood of continued “deliberate practice,” hailed by many as the differentiator between good and brilliant performers (or “experts”). Intrinsic motivation is — in some cases — as powerful as any helicopter parent with an agenda. If the only way you can feel safe or secure is by practicing a certain task in focused and deliberate repetition, then you will eventually develop a skillset therein.

Beyond the whole nature and nurture argument, scientists and philosophers have long debated what divides the mediocre from the notable, and the notable from the unforgettable.

How does someone develop “talent?”

Talent Requires Practice And Feedback

Talen OverratedDr. K. Anders Ericsson introduced the idea of deliberate practice after numerous studies on memory, wherein the participant memorized a list of digits through efficient and rigorous practice and technique. He developed this theory in the midst of the search for some source of extraordinary abilities, and made his conclusion based on the lack of evidence linking achievement to genetics or some other innate quality. In Ericsson’s own words, “the search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict or at least account for the superior performance of eminent individuals has been surprisingly unsuccessful.”

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defines the concept of deliberate practice beautifully: “Deliberate Practice … has [been] identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful — they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.”

Talent Requires Time

In his book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin builds upon the ideas of Ericsson, mentioning a study of pianists that finds no indicators of genius or “talent” surpassing their peers, even after over half of a decade. More likely, he asserts, geniuses who possess great talent are more like Mozart and Tiger Woods. Huh? Doesn’t that just prove the opposite point? Not according to Colvin. Both of these prodigies had fathers who worked obsessively to foster certain skills. Mozart was raised by a composer who had more success as a teacher than a musician, and Tiger’s dad was a similar. Older and on his second marriage by the time of Tiger’s birth, he poured his vast knowledge and training expertise into his son, revolving around his passion for golf.

Nobel Prize winners Herbert Simon and William Chase came up with an interesting theory: There were no master chess players in less than 10 years of focused study, thus citing the necessity of time rather than a “knack” for the game or some innate ability. Indeed, time was a greater factor than natural giftedness.

Talent Requires Knowledge


Anything done well requires knowledge. For example, one may be equipped with social skills, good phone etiquette, and have a background in technology, but they will still need proper training and a few weeks (or months) to become an effective front desk assistant or support specialist, no matter which company they’re working for or how many similar experiences they had prior. Once they know the rules and policies of the business, as well as the peculiar ins and outs of their position, their skills will be more aptly directed.

Geoff Colvin writes about knowledge in the application of skill. He gives the example of a 1957 experiment in which people and computers were tested in chess competitions. The computers were equipped to “evaluate 100 million positions per second,” and yet Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, won. Even upon upgrade, the computed victory was not guaranteed, with 3 draws and a forgettable winning ratio.

Though Colvin doesn’t make any special distinction between one type of knowledge and another, it’s clear that two separate “smarts” are at work here. Humans beat computers in chess due to what I’ll call experiential knowledge, or the ability to put ideas and rules into context based on prior experience. Having had various moves and their consequences imbedded in human memory rather than relying on a computer’s encyclopedic knowledge from a database, analytical thinking had (through years of practice) become seemingly intuitive.

Intuition is just another way of saying that someone has the ability to evaluate. For a bit of outside reading on that, check out Read Montague’s book on decision-making, Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect, in which he discusses the importance of processing values and weighing outcomes. In essence, someone’s ability to discipline themselves, to take that time to engage in deliberate practice, pursue knowledge, and accept feedback, depends on what they value and to what extent.

Montague discusses addiction theories at length, partially because they explore the reward system of the brain so directly, using new developments in neuroscience. For instance, it’s widely known that bursts of dopamine released unpredictably produce a significant bent towards repeating the behavior that produced the “high.” Connect this to the theory that learning a skill set also requires a “high” to set the learner up for an intrinsic sense of motivation.

Talent Requires Motivation

If a task is too easy, the learner loses interest. If it’s too hard, they get frustrated. However, with difficulty that tests their ability (slowly building it) within an attainable margin, the brain is stimulated to a neurological “Goldilocks” state. In alcohol studies, they’ve found that the exact Blood Alcohol Level at which people seem to feel euthymic before dipping into the depressant effects of the drug was 0.4-.06. This seems to produce the “Optimal Buzz.” For those rehearsing a task with focus on technique and repetition, this “buzz” is reached with proper pacing.

Social scientists and self-help authors worldwide frequently divide motivation into extrinsic and intrinsic, saying that intrinsic results in a higher rate of success as it’s less likely to falter under changing external circumstances.

My uncle, after watching a commercial about pursuing your desires that asked “What moves you?” answered, “A good laxative.” (Bingo! Extrinsic motivation! And  … gross humor.) This resulted in a prompt negative reaction from my aunt, thus ending that joke from running any further (Bad pun intended). This was also extrinsic motivation, as no one wants to get elbowed in the ribs or sleep on the couch. However, my uncle’s best friend from childhood has almost no filter, as his intrinsic motivation for such humor far outweighs the external effects of a dirty joke delivered to just about any crowd. Thus, that friend is almost a never-ending jukebox of dorky dad jokes and dirty bar jokes.

I guess he’d be flattered to hear that he’s reached “expert” status.

Intrinsic motivation is, in a way, better nurtured by a period of semi-isolation while perfecting your craft, whatever it may be, and that is where I theorize that adversity, or even tragedy, can be your greatest teacher.

Author Susan Cain giving a TED talk in 2012 (Wikipedia)
Author Susan Cain giving a TED talk in 2012 (Wikipedia)

Introversion, even temporary rather than innate introversion, is a state of being over-stimulated. It makes sense that people with PTSD, social phobias or extreme anxiety are often more content to challenge themselves in solitary pursuits, or at least activities requiring long periods of time engaged in an activity that takes focus off of multiple (perhaps unsettling) distractions.

(*This is yet another idea explored by Susan Cain, author of “Quiet.”)

Being driven by the motivation of escaping catastrophe and defying the odds through hard work and focus is the very definition of intrinsic motivation.

Aimee Mullins, in her inspiring and informative TED Talk, “The Opportunity of Adversity,” surmises that, “Until we’re tested, we don’t know what we’re made of. Maybe that’s what adversity gives us — a sense of self.”

Having a sense of self, and of one’s abilities, is what some psychologists might consider a protective factor. Contrary to the opinions of those who see adversity as an obstacle, I would argue that adversity can not only give you a sense of self but motivate you to pursue ideas and skills rather than rely on outside circumstances to line up in some sort of idealistic pattern. In a way, hardship can provide a buffer against discouraging peers, unsafe environments, narrow-minded viewpoints, and other detriments to the development of prolonged interest and work ethic.

You’ve got Google. Go search for a list of high achievers from broken homes, poverty or traumatic pasts. The results may surprise you.

Photo above: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lonnie Mack (L-R) are considered two of the greatest guitar players of the past 50 years. Some call them geniuses or virtuosos and it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Dig deeper into both of their lives and you will find that both worked and practiced long and hard, in isolation and then sought out and received feedback from their peers. Both had great knowledge of the music that had come before them and were motivated by that music to be the best they could be with their chosen instruments: the guitar and voice. (YouTube)