September 3, 2009

Musings on Genetics

As some of you know, I dabble in rock climbing. I’m surpassingly mediocre at it, which is basically fine with me – long legs and short arms aren’t great for climbing, so I enjoy the challenge of trying to improve and just gape in awe at the regulars at the Spot.

Some people are born good at stuff. For example, I’m freakin’ great at riding bikes up hills. With the exception of a few close friends who may or may not be reading this and some probably-doped Europeans, I can pretty much beat 99% of people at riding a bike up a hill, without doing a ton of training. Of course, I *have* done a ton of training in my life, in order to try to get even better at it (ah, my wasted college years…)Here’s an article about a guy who can climb 5.14, supposedly without making much of an effort. What an amazingly annoying bit of hagiography! I should be impressed by someone who apparently makes no effort at all to be excellent at what he does, and just coasts on the talent he was born with? Dude, lots of people climb 5.14 – if it’s so easy for Mr. Litz, perhaps he should make a trip to the Frankenjura or something and try challenging himself.

Of course, it’s likely that the story is mostly untrue – you can be born very, very good at something – but it still takes a lot of work to be truly world-class, no matter if it’s rock climbing, playing the violin, or whatever. I’m willing to bet that James spends a lot of time “training” even if he doesn’t call it by that name.

So here’s what’s interesting to me – I have a lot more fun trying to improve at climbing than I do racing bikes, despite the fact that I’m *WAY* better at bike racing. In fact, I think it’s *because* I suck that I have fun – I know that I’m not ever going to be a great climber, so I don’t put any pressure on myself to do anything but overcome personal challenges. Of course, I’m never going to be a famous bike racer either, but at one point I thought I was, so it’s harder for me to not take it seriously.

I guess my point is this – we shouldn’t be idolizing people for what they were born with, we should be praising people for what they accomplish with the gifts they’re given. Why? Because I don’t want my (future) kids to think that if you’re not good at something the first time you try it, you should just quit and look for something else to do. And I also don’t want them to think that being good at something means they should just coast along and be satisfied.

As an aside, the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers is a fun discussion of this sort of subject. Well worth reading, even if you hate journalists posing as philosophers.