Neurological freaks and the Drive to Excel
|Peter Boettke|I am currently reading Chris Ballard's very good book, The Art of a Beautiful Game. It is a book about NBA
players and the game they play and more importantly the approach they take to playing that game. As such the book is as much about the psychology of individuals who excel in their chosen field of endeavor as it is about the games (and championships) won and lost.The beginning of the book hooks the reader in with a discussion of Kobe Bryant. Among his peers, he is considered the most dangerous competitor. And by many analysts he ranks with Michael Jordan and Oscar Robinson as the most skilled basketball player of all time. When Jerry West saw him in a pre-draft practice he walked out and just said draft him he is better than anyone we have on the roster right now. Since that time, Bryant has only worked harder each year to improve his game. In the chapter we are told that Bryan't off-season work-ethic is rivaled only by Larry Bird. We learn of 5:30am work outs and 8 hour skill, training, and conditioning sessions --- often still working by himself in a gym to perfect his moves. He also reads everything he can about the game and its history, and watches film constantly (old as well as new). He is simply put, obsessed with the game. As Ballard puts it: "Kobe Bryant is a total nerd. It is just that, while some people are Star Wars nerds, Bryant is a basketball nerd."It is the single-minded focus that elite athletes (and other elite performers) possess which led to one psychologist describe these individuals as "neurological freaks". Yes they have amazing physical attributes, but the mental attributes tied up with competitiveness, confidence, and focus are what separate the gifted with talents to exceptional performers. Idan Ravin, a former lawyer, not basketball trainer for several NBA players sums up what separates those who are good from those who are great as follows; those who are great have the "killer instinct" which can be broken down into: love of the game, ambition, obsessive/compulsive behavior, arrogance/confidence, selfishness, and nonculpability. In short, you must be at a fundamental level ruthless. Bryant repeatedly beat a HS team by scores of 100 to 12, and one game actually had an 80-0 lead, but played as hard on the next point as he did on the first point. It is the only way he knows how to play, all out all the time. As Bryant says: "If you are going to beat somebody, you have to beat them to a pulp." Bryant pay the greatest respect to his opponent by giving that opponent his best every minute he is on the floor. He is constantly trying to prove himself by improving himself at the game he loves.In recent works on talented individuals, this basic lesson of the Kobe Bryant example is repeated by others who have excelled in all different walks of life --- from art, to music, to literature, to science, and to business. I have always loved this picture of Ali knocking out Liston as capturing the intensity of competitive moment in athletics and life. I think scientists have this when they tackle a difficult puzzle before anyone else, or succeed in crafting an argument that meets objections and overturns received wisdom. Just as Michael Jordan exhibited during his NBA career, and Roger Federer continues to exhibit during his tennis career. And it is a thing of beauty to witness.