This Explains a LOT

21 10 2012

By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo

Tonight I discovered Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks, and while more than one post resonated with me, this one hit me in the stomach. It concerns the decision of a world-class chess master, Ken Rogoff, to give up chess and become an economist.

Money quote:

[A]t graduate school he became convinced that dividing his attention meant that both his chess and his economics were suffering. He had to make a decision. [He chose economics.] “Part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually…Not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.”

In other words, if you want to be the best at something, you’re more likely to succeed if you cut off other distracting interests.

As I said, it hit me in the stomach, because I’m a jack of all trades, still trying to make my mark at 55, while remaining unable (unwilling?) to risk doing one thing incredibly well.

Then I read this from Michael Nielsen in the comments to a different post, this one:

On a very closely related note, here’s a great story about the world’s leading string theorist, Ed Witten, as told by a grad school friend of Witten’s (source:http://www.colby.edu/colby.mag/issues/84n3/ivory.html )

“How long will you need to find your truest, most productive niche? This I cannot predict, for, sadly, access to a podium confers no gift of prophecy. But I can say that however long it takes, it will be time well spent. I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to Senator George McGovern, then running for the presidency on an anti-war platform. He also wrote articles for political journals like the Nation and the New Republic. After some months, Ed realized that politics was not for him, because, in his words, it demanded qualities he did not have, foremost among them common sense. All right, then: history, linguistics, economics, politics, were all out as career choices. What to do? Ed suddenly realized that he was really suited to study mathematics. So he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at Princeton. I met him midway through his first year there–just after he had dropped out of the mathematics department. He realized, he said, that what he was really meant to do was study physics; he applied to the physics department, and was accepted.
I was happy for him. But I lamented all the false starts he had made, and how his career opportunities appeared to be passing him by. Many years later, in 1987, I was reading the New York Times magazine and saw a full-page picture akin to a mug shot, of a thin man with a large head staring out of thick glasses. It was Ed Witten! I was stunned. What was he doing in the Times magazine? Well, he was being profiled as the Einstein of his age, a pioneer of a revolution in physics called “String Theory.” Colleagues at Harvard and Princeton, who marvelled at his use of bizarre mathematics to solve physics problems, claimed that his ideas, popularly called a “theory of everything,” might at last explain the origins and nature of the cosmos. Ed said modestly of his theories that it was really much easier to solve problems when you analyzed them in at least ten dimensions. Perhaps. Much clearer to me was an observation Ed made that appeared near the end of this article: every one of us has talent; the great challenge in life is finding an outlet to express it. I thought, he has truly earned the right to say that. And I realized that, for all my earlier concerns that he had squandered his time, in fact his entire career path–the ventures in history, linguistics, economics, politics, math, as well as physics–had been rewarding: a time of hard work, self-discovery, and new insight into his potential based on growing experience.”

I look back at some of the stuff that I’ve busied myself with while continuing to work as a musician: astrology, tarot, religious studies, weaving, knitting, acupuncture, herbology, the Spanish and Japanese languages… all the while dealing with chronic depression, anxiety, and undiagnosed sleep apnea. I’ve not mastered any of the above… but I’m pretty good at all of it.

All this life experience is folded into writing – the one form of self-expression that encompasses it all.

Am I back? We’ll see!

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