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Monday, June 21, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Many, many years ago, I read an interview with Mickey Mantle, the late star center fielder for the New York Yankees. Mantle was the son of a man whose dreams of baseball glory ended in the minor leagues. Mantle's father saw in his son the chance to achieve the dream of playing major league baseball. From the moment Mantle was old enough to hold a bat, his father or grandfather would spend hours on end throwing baseballs to him, teaching him to bat both right and left handed. They also spent many hours teaching Mantle how to field cleanly, throw strongly, and throw accurately. Looking back, Mantle admitted that most kids would have rebelled at spending so much time practicing baseball, but he loved every minute of it. Mantle eventually exceeded his father's dreams, not only reaching the major leagues but becoming a star on the most storied team in major league history and earning a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Many famous athletes have similar stories. Tiger Woods' father had him playing golf at the age of three. Former tennis pro Jimmy Connors' mother had him swinging a tennis racket at the same age. The professional success of both men shows that neither one minded all of the practice necessary to make it really big.

For all three of these men, the dreams of sports glory started with their parents but became their dream, as well.

In contrast, a psychology instructor I had told of one of his childhood friends. Before the boy was 10, he was one of the top ranked tennis players in the state of Florida. The kid was a very talented tennis player, enjoyed going to tournaments, and liked having a high ranking. At the time, he didn't mind all the practice required to maintain that ranking. But by the time the boy was 14, he wasn't so thrilled with it. He wanted to do things with his friends, go on dates with girls, and generally do the same kind of thing your average 14 year old boy likes to do. That did not include spending hours every day practicing tennis. The boy told his father he wanted to drop all the practice and just play for fun.

The problem was, the boy's father really enjoyed having a son who was a top tennis player. The boy's father offered his son a boat if he kept playing and maintained his ranking. The boy played for a couple of more years but, at age 16, balked again. His father offered him a brand new car if he kept at it. Again the boy player for a while longer. Eventually, the boy headed off for college and no parental bribe could get him back onto the tennis court. Not only did the boy stop practicing and playing in tournaments, he stopped playing tennis entirely. The dream of tennis glory had been his father's, not his.

Why am I writing about these people? Well, let me toss out another story, then I'll get around to the point.

Very recently, I read about a study performed on college level music students. The students were divided into three groups. In the first group were those who were expected to achieve star status; famous soloists, first chair positions in orchestras, or conductors of major orchestras. The second group were those expected to be excellent musicians, holding down regular positions in big name orchestras or even lead positions in smaller orchestras. The third group was composed of those expected to be music teachers, marching band leaders, and other necessary support positions in the music business.

The musical habits and history of all of the students were gathered through detailed questionnaires with the goal of identifying what made some students future stars and other students future music teachers. All of the students were extremely talented, so there had to be other answers. Those answers proved surprisingly simple to find, once all of the data had been compiled.

The students in the first and second groups -- the future stars and excellent musicians -- practiced nearly twice as much as the third group. Further more, they designed their schedules around their practice time, making sure to practice when they were well rested and alert. In contrast, the students in third group made practicing the last thing they did during the day, when they were tired and much less alert. No one in any of the groups enjoyed practicing, but the top two groups considered it far more important to their success.

To find the difference between the first group and the second group, the researchers had to look at the students' musical history. The students in the first group had, invariably, chosen to take their music seriously at a much earlier age than the students in the second group. The students in the first group were putting aside serious time for practice at the age of 11 or 12. The students in the second group didn't get serious about practicing until they were in high school. By the time the students in both groups reached college, the students in the first group had put in twice as much practice time as the students in the second group.

Put simply, the most talented musician in the world will fail if they don't have dedication equal to their talent.

Now, what's my point with all of these stories? It's the not-so-surprising finding that those who show the most dedication in practicing their chosen craft, sport, or art tend to be those who find the most success. This applies to writing as well as to any other craft.

Professional writers all have stories of fans asking them, "What do I need to do to become a professional writer?" The writers always answer, "You write."

A look at the face of the fan asking the question shows that they don't care for the answer. They are, I suppose, looking for the secret handshake that tells publishers they're talking to a Professional Writer. Except, of course, there is no secret handshake. And, honestly, the answer "You write" isn't sufficient, either.

The answer should be, "You write. Then you write some more. And when you're finished writing, you write more. Then, when you're sick and tired of writing, you sit down and do some more writing."

While writers are fortunate in that there are no muscles to train as there are in sports and music, there is a brain to train. And the brain needs to practice writing just as much as muscles need to practice playing chords or swinging at a curve ball down and away from the batter.

To an extent, that's where the Friday Challenge comes in. Our aim is to get you writing and to get you thinking about ideas you might not have considered on your own. The writing you do for the Friday Challenge gives you some of the practice you need and feedback we hope will both help you learn and keep you focused when you start getting sick and tired of all of that writing. As with any teacher, we can help you toward your goal but ultimate success lies with you. Talent is great. Dedication is better.

So, why are still sitting here reading this column? Go write something!
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