We all know Washington is hardly a boomtown for trophies. Yet lately the sports-minded citizen has witnessed any number of exquisitely talented phenoms: Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Alex Ovechkin, Robert Griffin III and John Wall. Furthermore, Kevin Durant was raised here, and Michael Phelps does his laps just up the road.
Bill James, the historian and statistician behind sabermetrics, observed in his most recent book, “Solid Fool’s Gold,” “Our society is very, very good at developing certain types of skills and certain types of genius.” For instance we are very good at fostering inventors and small business owners. But, James says, “We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills — better than we are, really, at almost anything else.”
James uses the example of Topeka, Kan. A town with a population the size of Shakespeare’s London, it produces a major league ballplayer every 10 or 15 years. But why? Why does Topeka turn out ballplayers as opposed to great playwrights? How is it that some talents flourish in certain places, while other forms lie dormant? “Talent — like stupidity — lies all around us in great heaps,” James writes. “Talent that is undeveloped because of a shortage of opportunity, talent that is undeveloped because of laziness and inertia, talent that is undeveloped because there is no genuine need for it.”
The neuroscience writer and blogger Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” takes James’s observation another step and tries to articulate some patterns that are responsible for “talent clotting,” as he calls it. We see it in other countries and in other eras, too: South Korea has its female golfers, the Dominican Republic its baseball players, Jamaica its sprinters and Kenya its distance runners. Why does a small Caribbean island turn out some of the fastest men in the world? Why did Athens between 440 and 380 B.C. produce Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides and Aristophanes, all in the same place and time? Why was Elizabethan London home not only to Shakespeare but Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson? Why was Florence between 1440 and 1490 the residence of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Donatello?
To Lehrer, 21st century America is a similar period of “excess genius” in sports, and he identifies some systemic commonalities. First, genius clusters tend to be found in diverse commercial centers open to immigration, where ambitious people meet. Second, they have systems of public education, so that knowledge is effectively shared and passed on. Third, they are supported by a cultural tolerance for risk taking,.