Article: The New Yorker on "Physical Genius"
The New Yorker on "Physical Genius"
A lengthy article was published in the New Yorker (I found it via codinghorror.com FYI) regarding physical genius, and the myriad aspects of that phenomenon. It delves into the parts of the brain responsible for top-level physical acumen, as well as the activities, mental attitudes, and pathologies that set top-level practitioners apart.
It was written by Malcom Gladwell, who has achieved some fame of late in the Freakonomics/Black Swan type crowd. It's very lengthy so I will not repost unless there is a specific request.
I particularly liked how he talked about visualization, "chunking" and Gestalt psychology. In addition, it makes me feel inadequate as an intellectual and a Renaissance man, since I have not achieved (and likely will not achieve) world-class neurosurgical, tennis, hockey, or martial skills.
The beauty of the body knowing, of feeling an otherworldly or out-of-body flow state:
This is the hard part about understanding physical genius, because the source of that special skill—that "feel"—is still something of a mystery. "Sometimes during the course of an operation, there'll be several possible ways of doing something, and I'll size them up and, without having any conscious reason, I'll just do one of them," Wilson told me. He speaks with a soft, slow drawl, a remnant of Neosho, Missouri, the little town where he grew up, and where his father was a pharmacist, who kept his store open from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M., seven days a week. Wilson has a plainspoken, unpretentious quality. When he talks about his extraordinary success as a surgeon, he gives the impression that he is talking about some abstract trait that he is neither responsible for nor completely able to understand. "It's sort of an invisible hand," he went on. "It begins almost to seem mystical. Sometimes a resident asks, 'Why did you do that?' and I say"—here Wilson gave a little shrug—" 'Well, it just seemed like the right thing.' "
If you think of physical genius as a pyramid, with, at the bottom, the raw components of coördination, and, above that, the practice that perfects those particular movements, then this faculty of imagination is the top layer. This is what separates the physical genius from those who are merely very good. Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, his longtime rival, did not differ so much in their athletic ability or in how obsessively they practiced. The difference between them is that Jordan could always generate a million different scenarios by which his team could win, some of which were chunks stored in long-term memory, others of which were flights of fancy that came to him, figuratively and literally, in midair. Jordan twice won championships in the face of unexpected adversity: once, a case of the flu, and, the second time, a back injury to his teammate Scottie Pippen, and he seemed to thrive on these obstacles, in a way Karl Malone never could.
Yo-Yo Ma says that only once, early in his career, did he try for a technically perfect performance. "I was seventeen," he told me. "I spent a year working on it. I was playing a Brahms sonata at the 92nd Street Y. I remember working really hard at it, and in the middle of the performance I thought, I'm bored. It would have been nothing for me to get up from the stage and walk away. That's when I decided I would always opt for expression over perfection." It isn't that Ma doesn't achieve perfection; it's that he finds striving for perfection to be banal. He says that he sometimes welcomes it when he breaks a string, because that is precisely the kind of thing (like illness or an injury to a teammate) that you cannot prepare for—that you haven't chunked and, like some robot, stored neatly in long-term memory. The most successful performers improvise. They create, in Ma's words, "something living."
Total Comments 7
8/20/2009 4:35pm, #2
Cool. I also recommend his new book 'Outliers'. Very interesting.
8/21/2009 4:57am, #3
yeah i recognised a lot...
8/21/2009 5:43am, #4
I'll get back to BLINK when I've more time. (Assuming it doesn't go over my Head...)
8/21/2009 5:55am, #5
I loved Blink and The Tipping Point. I actually started a thread a few years ago drawing parallels between Gladwell's analysis of improv comedy and martial arts.
8/21/2009 6:13am, #6
8/21/2009 7:06am, #7
Very interesting article, thanks for the link.
IMO physical geniuses are partly able to do what they do because they've moved way past obsessing over techniques. They do that early in their careers, but then once they know what the techniques can do, they shift their attention to the process of actually playing the game, including (crucially) the possibilities of making mistakes. Their confidence comes from the experience of knowing that no matter what happens, they'll be able to turn a mistake to their own advantage, to the point where they're not only comfortable with, but positively enjoy the process of improvisation within the game.
Ueshiba called it takemusu, "martial creativity".Check out the Bullshido.net Western Martial Arts Forum for all things Western, martial and arty.
Bartitsu: the Gentlemanly Art of Self Defence (est. 1899)
8/21/2009 10:08am, #8
Shu-ha-ri. Repetition/mimicry, developing one's own game and preferences, then dropping technique and working totally from innate subconscious ability. Can't skip a step. I think you're right; physical genius is partly a symptom of getting to the ri step.What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable. -Xenophon's Socrates