January 8, 2009
When I was a kid we had a pool table in the basement. It barely fit. We only had enough room to maneuver the stick when the cue ball happened to be near the middle of the table. The pool table didn’t have a slate bed. That would have been expensive. Our family liked bargains. One of our home court advantages was the knowledge that hitting a ball slowly along the North side meant the ball would roll to the edge and cling all the way to the pocket.
I played about a billion hours of pool on that table, mostly by myself when bored. There wasn’t much else to do on a freezing winter night in Windham NY. We only had three channels on TV and I did my homework at school.
As an adult, I realized my dream of getting a nice pool table. Thanks to my many hours of childhood practice, I don’t often lose. The exception is when I run into someone who also grew up in a cold climate and had a pool table.
Pool is a game in which there is a nearly perfect correlation between how much you have played during your life and how good you are. I sometimes joke that instead of playing actual games I could just compare my number of hours of lifetime practice to my opponent’s and declare a winner. Research shows this is essentially true for all sorts of skills.
So you would think that the secret to success is to practice more than your competition. But it’s never that simple. In order to put in that much practice you need the opportunity, such as having a pool table in your basement*. But you also need some sort of passion, or drive, or OCD to put in the time. Where does that come from?
Personally, I have felt the compulsion to practice particular skills dozens of times in my life. It happened with ping pong, drawing comics, tennis, computer programming, and other things. Practicing these skills always felt like something I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. The attraction was so strong that it felt like OCD. The only reason I wasn’t treated for my afflictions is that the activities to which I was drawn (no pun) were socially acceptable.
It makes me wonder if the passion part of our brains will ever be manipulated by drugs so that passionless people get just enough OCD to obsessively practice something until they get good at it.
* Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, talks about the importance of opportunity. It’s a great read.