Thursday, May 7, 2020

Managing the Curve

I was talking to my buddy Phil earlier about the nearly ideal conditions being presented for day drinking, which is basically my single favorite activity.  I told him that my new-found ability to sleep until 8:30 or even 9am has had some incredible consequences;  there are days when I can start drinking less than 3 hours after I wake up, and the extra 2 to 3 hours of sleep I get after waking up at dawn basically can kill off any semblance of a hangover.  It's wonderful.  It's like I'm a new me.  Never you mind that I am abusing NyQuil and taking double the suggested dose of melatonin on a daily basis, or that I just ordered four packages of edible gummy bears.  Never you mind that at all.

So anyway Phil and I are talking and I told him I had some days when I was propping at Hustler about a year ago where I was off and literally would wake up at 2am (on days I was on my alarm was set for 12:48am, and I had to get out of the house by 1:14 to get to my shift on-time at 2:00) and just couldn't do anything.  Like...nothing is open.  All the bars in Laguna had literally just closed.  And it wasn't like I could do much of anything in my apartment.  I felt guilty even walking around, it was the middle of the fucking night!

So obviously a few of these days I end up going to "breakfast" at either the White House or the Cliff at 8am and just start drinking immediately.  I mean, we're talking like waiting for them to open level here.  It was great.  Phil then relayed to me a story of his greatness.

"Yeah I did that once for the world cup final at 8am.  Probably had 6 drinks in two hours, then the waitress called me a pussy for not ordering another one.  So we split a bottle of wine, then decided to go out sailing.  Ended up getting towed in by the coast guard"

"My.  Man"

"We were never that hammered but upon review we obviously weren't operating at 100% lev"

"Yeah, eventually it's like calculus.  The area under the curve matters, not just the current height"

"Oh, you don't have to tell me that.  Managing the curve is probably one of my top 10 skills.  #flattenthecurve"

"Phil Johnson:  Flattening the curve since 2003"

And that got me thinking about, well, a lot of stuff.  And I couldn't really figure out where to go with this post and it sat here for a day and a half literally 15 words ago until Phil gave me the punchline.  And he's right, it's a good punchline.

It's REALLY hard to be REALLY good at something.  Anything.  I played a lot of Duke Nukem as a kid, and it lead me to the following truism:

No matter how good you are, there's someone better than you could imagine ever being.  And no matter how bad you are, there's someone worse than you were the day you picked up the activity.

Think about it.  And there's two ways to go can either think about things that you consider yourself "good at", or just a random activity and how good the best people in the world are.  Either way it's mortifying.  I don't consider myself to be much of a writer, but even I'll admit I have to be like top 20% or something.  Stephen King writes for several hours EVERY day except (sometimes) Christmas.  No matter what you think of him you have to admit he is prodigious and has sold a ton of paper.  This book is fascinating, and it explains a lot about how he came to be...well.  Himself.  At one point he's talking to someone and takes him down to his basement library, which is the entire bottom level of his large house.  The man asks if he's read every one of the books.  King looks confused and then says "I guess there are probably a few I've only read once?"  You see if you want to be a good writer you almost have to be a voracious reader.  And he's perhaps the most voracious of all time.

The level of dedication to a craft that is required to reach the highest level is mind-boggling.  But the natural talent required is perhaps equally stupefying.  There is no amount of work, no amount of dedication, no amount of sacrifice that would allow me to have become, say, a world class pole vaulter.  Because what do you have to be before you can become a world class pole vaulter?  A world class pole vaulter!

That's exactly right.  It's dumb, but it's true.  You think there's a universe in which I could have been Phil Ivey?  Absolutely not.  Could I be a lot better at poker than I am?  Sure.  But could I be Phil Ivey?  Not a fucking chance.  Just not the way it works.

So that's how you get these incredible outliers, the combination of absurd natural talent and other-worldly work ethics.  Know anything about Michael Phelps?  His coach was accused of abusing him as a child.  Stuck with him.  He's gotten in trouble for drugs and alcohol on a few occasions.  Not a problem.  He swam two a days for for 20 years to become who is he, which is basically a goddamn monster.  Same deal with Jerry Rice.  His workouts were the stuff of legend.  But could anyone else have been him, no matter what?  Nope.

And the reason for that, I think, is that talent and work aren't additive, or at least they don't project that way when you get to the highest levels of activities.  They're multiplicative.  Hard work gets you more when you're absurdly talented.  When you're up in that rarefied air gaining ground on your competition becomes almost impossible.  They are already so good, and most of them are working just as hard or even harder than you and becoming better everyday.  Or if they aren't there are new younger stronger people on the way up to replace them.  And they are all naturally gifted.  If you want to really stay in the top 1% of anything you need to be gifted AND work hard basically forever.

So yeah, I guess that's a little depressing if you think about it too long.  Hard work can really only get you so far;  the distribution of talent is uneven and unfair, and there isn't much you can do about it.  Except perhaps try to focus your efforts on things where you do have some natural ability, because by doing that your hard work will get you further.  I've read a few books, about this concept, and it goes something like this.

First of all, you need to figure out what you're good at.  People sometimes have a hard time assessing what they have talent for because, typically, those things have always been easy for them.  Other times people just assume they are good at everything and overrate their skills across the board (they say that only the clinically depressed can accurately assess their own abilities).  The point is it's kind of hard to know what you're good out without outside advice.  

Once you know what you're good at, just try to build a life that takes advantage of those skills.  This may seem obvious, but it goes counter to a lot of corporate culture these days.  Employees are encouraged to address the weaknesses on their performance reviews in order to get promoted or in general just level up.  Now don't get me wrong to some extent this is useful (if you're just a rude asshole that's going to hold you back; you need to work on getting up to basic 4/10 people skills if you want to succeed), but as an overall strategy it is somewhat misguided. 

Instead of focusing on the things where you have lots of room to improve (and therefore probably don't have much natural ability), consider focusing your efforts on improving your strengths even further and getting into situations where those strengths are extremely valuable.  If you can achieve that, even to a small degree, you'll find that your life has basically been set to easy mode, since you'll be constantly solving problems that feel easy to you (even though they really aren't).  And wouldn't that be fucking wonderful?

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