David Brooks On What Mozart And Tiger Woods Had Going For Them
May 01, 2009, 04:45 PM
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NYT op-ed columnist David Brooks, I have been told on reliable authority, is a regular reader of my stuff. The one time he mentioned me by name, back in 2004, he was subjected to so much sputtering rage from the kommisars that he hasn't dared since. In his recent career change toward Malcolm Gladwell-style political correctness, I seem to have served as his off-stage anti-muse, inspiring Brooks to write columns telling New York Times readers that the things they and everbody they socialize with already publicly endorse are actually daring new scientific breakthroughs.

Here's a Brooks column so Gladwellian that it could be the Reader's Digest condensation of Chapter 2 ("The 10,000-Hour Rule: 'In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours") from Gladwell's recent bestseller Outliers. It's the kind of All-American B.S. that we've heard over and over our whole lives from motivational speakers:

Genius: The Modern View

By DAVID BROOKS

Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.

 Oh, boy ... How much do Gladwell and Brooks actually know about Mozart? The point is not that the symphonies that Mozart wrote as an eight or nine year old boy are derivative and unsophisticated, but that a little boy wrote symphonies that were good enough to be played in public at all.

Would Mozart "not stand out among today’s top child-performers." Of course he would. He was the most famous child prodigy performer in Europe when he was a little boy.

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.

Right. Because look how many other Tiger Woods have come along in golf since Tiger first became famous around 1991 and showed everybody Earl Woods's cookbook recipe for how to raise a prodigy. All that younger talent that came along in Tiger's wake is why, when Tiger was out for eight months with knee surgery, the PGA Tour barely missed him because of all the charismatic younger superstars who have taken over the golf world, like ... you know, uh ... Anthony Kim! ... And ... that other guy, you know, the one with the shirt. And those middle aged guys from Ireland and Argentina. And, don't forget, there's red hot Kenny Perry. (Oh, wait, he's 48-years-old. Never mind.)

Oh, well, I guess there just hasn't been anybody else like Tiger to come along in the last 13 golf seasons. There must not have been anybody else out there besides Tiger with "the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills." You know, it must be the notorious shortage of Sideline Dads out there. If only more fathers were intent on improving their sons' athletic skills, there'd be Tiger Woodses everywhere.

Look, to say that Mozart wasn't special because he was just like Tiger Woods is the kind of skull-crushingly stupid thing that you can only get away with saying if you're telling everybody what they want to hear.

Tiger Woods is 33 years old. He's been celebrated on national television for his golf skills for over 30 years. Here's a video (starts 0:45 in) of a two and a half year old Tiger being interviewed by Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart on a nationally syndicated TV talk show.

The truth is, unsurprisingly, that Tiger Woods is special. And so was Mozart.

The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

How many people whom you've never ever heard of have also put in 10,000 hours? How many people you've never heard of wanted to put in 10,000 hours of rigorous practice but couldn't find anybody to subsidize them because they lacked potential?

And why did Tiger Woods choose golf to put 10,000+ hours of rigorous practice into golf? Why didn't he choose, say, symphony composing instead? Could it be that he liked golf more than composing? And could it be that the reason he like golf more than composing was because he had more natural talent for golf?

Putting in 10,000 hours at something definitely helps, but it really ought to be the right thing.

How many kids lives get wrecked by this kind of thinking by their parents? When you read about 23-year-old Anthony Kim, who got a prototypical Korean-American maniacal drilling upbringing at the driving range where I hit balls when I was a kid, it's a story that appears now to have a happy ending. But just two or three years ago, Kim looked like he was headed for Skid Row, he was drinking so heavily in rebellion against his domineering parents. His parents now tell other Korean parents who ask how they too can mold a pro golfer: Don't even try.

You only see the stories with a happy ending. The stories you don't see would be about all the Asian kids whose parents thought they could have a Tiger Woods too, and turned their kids' childhood into a hell.

The rest of Brooks's column about effective ways to practice is fine, but the opening is such a load of tripe ...