Graphical lessons, wee!

Graphical lessons, wee!

We as a culture are obsessed with genius. There exists a cult of genius. We aspire to genius. When we find we are not somehow naturally gifted (genius) in something, we often give up on it or at the least put less effort into it. This is nowhere more common than in mathematics.

I just finished a book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg, where he talks about the winnowing of math students in exactly this way. Ellenberg sets up his point by giving us the cult of genius claim: “It’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter.” He then likens this preposterous claim to English saying, “I’ve never heard a student say, ‘I like Hamlet but I don’t really belong in AP English. That kid who sits in the front row knows all the plays and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine.’” No one says that because the belief is English knowledge can be gained through reading and writing more. How is English any different than math though?

I find a lot of similarities between the cult of genius in mathematics and the cult of genius/genetics in athletics – be it CrossFit, weightlifting, or any other pursuit under that broad umbrella. I see this take shape in two main forms: one has the athlete giving up on progression or achieving a specific skill or benchmark because she believes she lacks the genetic predisposition, the other devalues the commitment and hard work of an athlete who has attained said skill or benchmark.

There exists a plyo box in our gym with this quote from Mark Rippetoe on it: “Training is a process, not the events of one day.” The loftier your goals the longer that process takes. This axiom is one that should be revisited often by every athlete looking to make progress in her chosen field. Do not prematurely give up on a skill or goal because you meet an obstacle in the way. I borrow the title of an excellent book by Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way. Put the effort, time, and hard work in to wear down that obstacle and finally overcome it. Do not give up because you believe your genetics are not predisposed to success or because you are not already some genius of movement.

Hard work and determination is the missing element there. It is the idea of grit, of courage and resolve, of strength of character that always wins out. What about the other athlete that seems to meet obstacles and then overcome them with rapidity and fluidity? What you often do not see is the foundation that athlete has forged with hundreds and thousands of hours of hard work. Do not undervalue that hard work. Moments of breakthrough always have the unseen grueling work behind them. Honor that.

There will always be someone better than you. Athletes are often comparing themselves to other athletes too frequently, and just as pervasive much sooner than they should be. Take weightlifting for example. A new athlete at Ktown might compare her weightlifting technique and numbers to Samantha Lane. Samantha has been at the gym for 6+ years though, so that isn’t a fair comparison. Samantha might compare herself to some of the best female weightlifters in Knoxville, but all of them have years of hard work in many different athletic pursuits before they ever came to weightlifting. The best female lifter in Knoxville will compare herself to nationally ranked lifters. Nationally ranked lifters will compare themselves to world-class lifters. Current world-class lifters will compare themselves to the greats of all-time. The cycle never ends. And it can be vicious if you become beholden to it. Consider your range of vision and perspective – be careful not to only see those ahead of you.

The beauty of CrossFit is it is hard work. The tough part of CrossFit is it is hard work. Embrace the grind. Make it a part of your routine. Make it a part of your core philosophy in life. Do not fall prey to a cult of genius or genetics. What looks like a gift of genius or genetics is always built on a framework of very hard and often unseen work.

“Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person.” – Ellenberg