This past weekend I caught a clip of an old Radiolab interview with author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell. The interview, which originally aired on WNYC in 2010, covers, among other topics, genius—specifically, what it takes to become a so-called genius in a certain pursuit, whether that pursuit be an intellectual or a physical one. And I found the most interesting, arresting, and moving part of the interview to be about love.
According to Gladwell, who’s done a lot of research in the areas of genius and success, not to mention hours and hours of thinking about them, believes that it’s not innate talent that produces success and so-called genius in any given pursuit but love. That is, it’s the love of what one does that creates an extreme proficiency in a certain area, not merely one’s talent.
In the interview, Gladwell, who grew up in Canada, supports his views with a few examples, one of which involves Wayne Gretzky, who some believe to be the best hockey player of all time. Here’s what Gladwell says about "The Great One":
Because Wayne Gretzky loves hockey so much, he thinks about it all the time, and does more than that, he engages the sport in a way that no one else has ever engaged it. There’s this thing that he famously did once, where he scored a goal from behind the net; he flips the puck over the net and it does a little thing and goes in. The reason no one had ever done that before was not just that no one could do it—lots of people could do it—it had never occurred to anyone else before, no one had engaged the sport on that level.
So why is Gretzky engaging it that way? Why is he thinking about it that deeply and creatively? Because he can’t get hockey out of his head. Whenever I encounter someone like that, I cannot get past that sense they give off that they have found their calling, that they are actively in love, almost in a romantic way, with the thing that they do. Absent that, you can’t be a genius, I’m sorry, you can’t.
Of course, there’s a common argument that follows this position that goes something like this: But there are millions and millions of people that, no matter how much they love something, will just never be geniuses (or even great) in that something. To this, Gladwell concedes that love alone can’t create success or genius, but he does believe that without love for what one does, thousands of hours of practice won’t happen, a high level of engagement won’t happen, and thus extraordinary success won’t happen. Here’s Gladwell talking about his opponents on this topic:
Why are people so hostile to the notion that what genius is is an extraordinary love for a particular thing? Why are we so hostile to the notion that what separates the genius from the rest of us is the genius loves what he or she does more than we do? Love is not the complete explanation, love is the way in.
And so, on this Valentine’s Day, I invite you to take stock of what you love with respect to your job, career, or other pursuits outside your job that you might not be getting paid for doing at the moment but would like to get paid for doing at some point in the not-so-distant future. Do you love any of these things? If so, is it possible that the success or lack of success you have or haven’t achieved in these areas has to do with your love or lack of love of these areas? If so, what would happen if your love of these areas deepened? Is it possible you could be even more successful if you just had a little more love?
It sure sounds possible to me. Because if there’s no emotion around what you do, then there likely won’t be extraordinary success around what you do either. Of course, there might be some success, but that success won’t look anything close to greatness.
Follow me on Twitter: @vaultfinance.
Secrets of Success (Radiolab.org)
The Physical Genius (The New Yorker)