Engineers know more and more about less and less, until eventually they know everything about nothing. Architects know less and less about more and more, until eventually they know nothing about everything.Anonymous folk wisdom
In the past four days, I’ve had half a dozen ideas of things to write about here. Each on its own would have been fun and interesting, but one of the problems I’ve always faced is too many possibilities. I’m just interested in a lot of things, and that has its own power. When you appreciate a diverse array of fields, it gives you the power of metaphor, of seeing one thing in terms of another, of making connections between things that people normally see as discrete.
But when you know one single thing… wow, you can be really great at it.
I’ve recently finished a novel called Leopard, in which I play out one of the reasons I never wanted to have kids. Would I encourage my kids to develop a thousand interests, to be the “well rounded” person with sufficient Velcro to stick to any circumstance? Or would I encourage my kids to be monomaniacal, and thus have the opportunity to reach truly elite heights of performance?
Here”s a passage from Leopard, in which a US Olympic coach is talking to his junior team members:
“I’m going to give you some names,” he said, “and I want you to tell me what they have in common. Ready?” We all nodded.
“Round One. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams.”
Tennis players. “Yes, but more importantly.”
World champions, world #1’s. “Yes, but before that. Let me add some and see if it changes your mind. Ready? Simone Biles, Shaun White, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Pioneers in their sport.
Greatest of all time.
“I’ll add a few more. Beyoncé. Hilary Swank. Leonardo DiCaprio. Emma Stone. Bruno Mars.”
Now we were all just lost, quiet.
“I’ll tell you what they have in common. And they share that same trait with Xu Xin and Ma Long and Timo Boll and Jan-Ove Waldner and Chen Meng. They decided, when they were really young, that they were going to dedicate themselves fully to their talent, and they chose training over college.”
What would it be like to be that good? What would it be like to be trained from birth, to have coaches and agents compete for you, to be drawn ever forward into the next level of excellence? And what would it be like to leave everything else behind?
In a strange bit of meta, the story line for Leopard was suggested to me by a character from one of my other novels. (Yes, they’re real people, shut up.) Katie, in her first date with Colin in the book The Opposite of Control, was talking about wanting to write a young adult book related somewhat to her own childhood as an elite gymnast:
“So I have an idea for a character, she’s fifteen, an athlete, and she and her best friend are on a team together. I don’t know what sport yet, I could do gymnastics but that feels too easy. I’m thinking basketball, or track, or something. Anyway, they’ve been friends practically since before they were born, their moms knew each other when they were teenagers. And they’re both terrific athletes, both have colleges coming to recruit them. But one of them wants a kind of more normal life, wants to date and go to college for math and play other sports. The well-rounded kid, right? And the other one wants to be in the Olympics, wants to be the best in the world, and she knows that means that she has to miss out on almost everything else. She can’t play a musical instrument, because there’s no time to practice. She can’t play softball, because she might get injured. She can’t go out with friends, can’t hang out with boys, because she’s either training or practicing or doing homework or sleeping. She doesn’t even go to, like, birthday parties, because there’d be Taco Bell and a birthday cake, and she can’t eat anything but her training diet.”
“What a great premise,” he said. “And they’re both jealous of the other one, a little bit, having the life they didn’t choose for themselves.”
“Exactly right. They completely love each other, they’d do anything for each other, but their relationship is coming apart a little, partly because they’re envious, but partly because they can’t just hang out the way they used to.”
That little snippet—three-tenths of one percent of one book—became an entirely new book three years later. Being a generalist is a trait good for a writer, because it allows you to empathize with a hundred ways of life. But you always look over your shoulder and say “what if…?”
When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything else in the world to be a professional bowler. I was good at school, I loved the pastor at our church, I liked to sing, but there was something about bowling that was truly spiritual for me, a set of bodily and intellectual expressions that could have been made manifest in no other way.
I chased that goal until I was 25, becoming awfully good but realizing in the end that I would never be good enough. But I grew up with another kid who went further. A kid who won a regional professional tournament when he was 16, a kid who got a job in a bowling alley in junior high and high school exactly and only because he could afford to practice. He had no interest whatsoever in school, went to class only in order not to go to jail. He never had a girlfriend, never had another hobby. He was purely a bowler. The very best I’d ever seen.
He made it to the lowest level of professional competition before his anger and his frustration and his drinking derailed him. He went back home and went back to work in that same bowling alley, which is where his memorial service was held when he died at age 54.
Several years later, in my early 20s, I had moved to another state and continued to compete, and ran into a couple of other bowlers who had come specifically to Amarillo, Texas to be part of the West Texas State University bowling program, at that time the equivalent of Duke basketball or Alabama football. They were far and away the two best bowlers I had ever known. One of them, Bud Loveall, went out on the tour for four years before going into a career in IT.
The other, Jack Jurek, also went out onto the tour in the mid-80’s (he’s the guy in this clip who’s smart enough not to wear pants with two different-colored legs) before moving back to his hometown and buying a bowling alley. But he kept competing, and won two professional tournaments, in 1996 and 2009 (at age 46), and now coaches at Villa Maria college in Buffalo.
What is a life made of? What makes some people resilient and others brittle? What is it that led Walter Ray Williams to win 47 professional bowling tournaments, and Jack Jurek, as great as he is, to have won two? And Bud Loveall, a national all-star, to win none? And my high school friend to die early and broken, and have his funeral in a small-town bowling alley? And me to be a writer?
I don’t know that this essay is about anything. It’s the musings of a committed generalist, someone who’s lived my life knowing an awful lot about an awful lot of things, able to make loads of connections while always wondering what it would be like to be the very best at one thing.
If there’s such a thing as karma, in which we are reincarnated in order to learn some lesson that we couldn’t in an earlier life, I might have been really good at one thing in my last life, and needed to be sent back to see another way. Or I might get to do that next, to learn a new way of singular excellence after this broad life. (Or I might become a cow, who the hell knows?)
The river of time flows downstream and fast, and we can’t row back to see what was out that other tributary. And any of us who believe we know what’s further ahead are just deluding ourselves. But we can always wonder.