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,.
Lehrer and James believe these conditions are met in the American sports world. Kids in our population centers with sports aspirations are identified early. From that moment on we lavish them with opportunities to learn and train, from AAU and Little League to high school tournaments. We give them praise, rewards and world-class coaching. We put Little Leaguers on national TV and support female athletes with a law called Title IX. We award rich college scholarships and give unproven rookies risky high-dollar contracts as incentives.
Lehrer says: “What sports are good at is not wasting potential. If you have potential the sports world is good at identifying you and making sure you can reach it.”
David Shenk, author of “The Genius In All of Us: What Science and Super Achievers Teach Us About Human Potential,” argues that the genius drive is far more earned than bestowed. “Fundamentally it is a developed trait,” he says, and like Lehrer and James he asserts certain environments are better for that development. Sociologists who study the “sports geography” of places such as Jamaica and Kenya conclude that runners are produced not by fluke but systemically, and properties such as climate, demographics, nutrition, economics and folklore help create them.
So does competition. Friedrich Nietzsche believed that cultures with high achievement in specific areas are commonly marked by relish for rivalries. In ancient Greece, rivalry was not only expected on the playing field, but in drama, oratory and music. In the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelanglo, Raphael and Titian were pitted in civic art contests and, in 1500, the public literally watched Michelangelo and Leonardo paint walls side by side.
Athletics is becoming to American society what cooking is to the French or painting was to the Italians. How you feel about this depends on how much worth you assign to sport and competition. The jealous artist or academic may consider it a matter for unease, a lunatic and sinister obsession, even evidence of the Great American Crackup. But that doesn’t get us anywhere.
Why should the aspiration of the athlete be less useful than the aspiration of the poet? The Greeks didn’t make such a nonsensical distinction. Athletes are prospering and overpaid in the United States — at the very same time that they are understudied and underused. Critics rail against the excesses of the athletic scholarship. But maybe that’s because as Shenk told the British Observer, “We tend to quietly give in to the suspicion that some people are not as capable of being educated as others.”
In fact, great athletes know something critical the rest of us don’t: how to acquire genius through work. “If you look very carefully at those who end up being the best you discover — by doing intensive tracking of them — that they do practice more, and better, than those in the class below them,” Shenk says. If we look at the quantitative and qualitative difference in the habits of great athletes we can then extend them to achievements in other fields. We might start with staging more science contests.
An intriguing young neuroscientist named Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago is studying how athletes both choke and excel, so that we might all learn from them how to perform better. At NASA, human performance experts are doing the same.
What’s important, Lehrer argues, is to figure out what to do with this genius, how to use it for good. “What can we learn about how human talent develops,” he asks, “and how can we do it at a collective level?”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.