How Hard do you have to Work? Or – Why Ethicists shouldn’t (aspire to) be Basketballers

I was looking forward to reading Robin Koerner’s blog article about Michael Jordan (https://www.robinkoerner.com/post/does-giving-everything-to-one-thing-lose-you-something ). I normally like what Koerner has to say. I also sort-of-kind-of feel I know him a bit (i.e. one of my children attended the John Locke Institute Summer School, so I’ve heard a lot about him) and he strikes me as a good guy. That’s if you like the company of people who are intelligent, intense and absolutely committed to what they believe. (I do – it makes me feel less weird.) So if I have a drawer in my mind labelled “intelligent people who think outside the box and are morally engaged” Robin Koerner’s business card is in that drawer, probably quite near the top.

I was surprised, then, as well as disappointed by his Michael Jordan blog. And it bothered me. It still bothers me. It bothers me because he gets so much so right (aka: I agree with him most of the time) but his answer to this one question – whether it can ever be justified to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of one goal – feels so incredibly wrong. I don’t just disagree with his conclusion (that it’s not only justified, it’s totally justified); I think his conclusion is based on three false premises. Widely-held false premises that affect the way many gifted/talented young people are treated and trained. So I’m going to call him out. The three false premises I’ve identified are:

(1) You’re only really able to be amazing at one thing in your life.

(2) The harder you work at something, the better you will do it.

(3) Personal relationships and many other aspects of “normal life” somehow get in the way of your chances of achieving greatness – either because they interfere with your commitment to that One Central Goal, or because they take up time which should be spent working hard to achieve that One Central Goal.

Before I get started, I had better acknowledge the limitations of my own argument: first, when I talk about hours of work, I’m only talking about the work that is required to become great at something through solitary effort – for example, the hours of practice that enable a person to become a virtuoso cellist; the hours of writing needed to deliver the Pulitzer prizewinning play; the hours of study and research needed to discover the solution to climate change. Secondly, there are specific activities which at any given time are essentially incompatible with particular types of relationship or “normal” lifestyles: a man living under an authoritarian regime whose artistic or political ambitions would render him a dissident is forced to make a choice between the safety of his family and close friends and the pursuit of his goals; a ballerina knows that if she has a child, her body may never return to its pre-pregnancy state so motherhood may end her career. These quandaries are very real and very relevant to a general discussion about sacrificing relationships and/or other aspects of one’s life in the pursuit of greatness. However, they were not the case for Michael Jordan, they’re not the subject of Koerner’s article, so having acknowledged them, I’m going to put them on one side for the rest of this post.

And turn to consider J.S. Bach (just because he seems to be a running theme through this blog). I have it on good authority that Bach was the father of 24 children. Granted, they didn’t all survive into adulthood, but many of them did. Even if he wasn’t a terribly active co-parent to any of them (and in fact, the evidence from their later musical involvement seems to indicate that he was) we have to assume that Bach had something of an ongoing relationship with each of his two wives (the first died) in order to father them in the first place. He also composed music for his second wife, enjoyed a close relationship with many of his students and, as Kappel-Meister, would have been extremely active in the church.  No-one in their right mind would accuse Bach of lack of greatness, or of failing to have made an impact on the world. From audiences for Pirates of the Caribbean (OK – Davy Jones plays cod-Bach, not actual Bach, but you know what I mean) to the Baroque Ensemble, millions of people over the last few hundred years have had reason to be glad that Bach devoted himself to his musical compositions. And to his wives. And to his children. And to the Church. Because any person who is really, truly committed to one endeavour (be it acting, engaging in political debate or painting Guernica) brings to that endeavour the whole of his or her self. And the broader that self is, the more passionately engaged with other aspects of life and the world, the more deeply that person cares about other things and people, the more there is to bring to the art or the endeavour.

Ah! But what about Beethoven? Beethoven, the solitary genius who never married or had children – wasn’t he as great as Bach, greater even?

It may be true that Beethoven never married, but he was certainly deeply involved with (and enriched by) his love of the countryside (“wasting” time on long walks, the experience of which then fed into his music – and not just the Pastoral symphony). He was deeply involved with friends and family, too: we have records of one side of some of his conversations from later life, from the scraps of paper his friends used to scribble on to communicate despite his deafness. In terms of family relationships, the devastation he felt over his nephew’s suicide incontrovertibly fed into the person he was – and the music he composed.

That entangled and difficult relationship between Beethoven and his nephew leads into a discussion of another, darker aspect of Beethoven’s biography – one that I suspect is relevant in a less obvious way to both the popular misconception of some link between genius and fraught (or non-existent) personal relationships and the false assumption that hours spent and greatness are somehow indefinitely correlated. It seems a biographical fact that Beethoven’s alcoholic father used to haul him out of bed in the middle of the night to make him practice. The question is whether those hours of enforced, midnight practice (achieved at the expense of sleep and a healthy childhood trust in the benignity of one’s parents or caregivers) were an integral and indispensible part of the great composer’s education?

The answer as I perceive it is complicated. Do those kind of childhood experiences indelibly mark who we are and, therefore, the kind of music (or art, or writing, or political ethicising) we achieve? Yes – surely. Whatever Beethoven would have written without that childhood trauma, it would not have been the Beethoven we have now (though only a sadist would put a child through that kind of experience in the hope of generating another composer of his stature).  Is there something about trauma or other deprivations of normal family life that can make particular individuals more driven to succeed, or more dependent on one mode of expression? Yes: the fact that music-making was probably the only way in which the young Beethoven could truly communicate with his father; the fact that playing music was the only way he could be safe from the danger of being beaten – those probably increased his need to express himself through music, and pushed him towards becoming the composer he was. But it’s not that he consciously sacrificed his family life (as a child or as an adult) in the name of some single-minded pursuit of his art; it’s surely the other way round: his single-mindedness about music arose out of the absence of stability, safety and solace from his family life.

And I’d be willing to wager that it was the blazing need to engross himself in his art rather than the hours of practice themselves which enabled him to become a great musician. It was not the quantity of time spent at the piano, but the ability (and need) to focus 100% when he was there which provided the conditions necessary for his output.

When I ‘came up’ to Oxford, an older, DPhil student gave me a piece of advice he in turn had been given by his tutor. A piece of tradition (I like to think) that’s handed down from generation to generation. It was this: work for six hours a day, six days a week and you’ll get the class of degree you deserve. I applied that piece of advice then, and I came out with a Distinction (my course’s equivalent of a First). And I’ve tried to apply it ever since. Six hours a day; six days a week. Work less, and you probably won’t achieve what you’re capable of. Work more, and you probably won’t achieve any more; you just run the risk of burning out. 6/24; 6/7. When I was preparing for Finals, I was engaged in Theatre productions, throwing dinner parties, reading new books that had just come out that had nothing to do with my subjects, running a youth group…  6/24; 6/7: my impromptu hen-night (before my impromptu wedding) was the same night as I performed a Beethoven concerto; I won a national piano competition with a six-week-old baby whom I was breastfeeding in the dressing room. 6/24; 6/7: it leaves plenty of time for all the other things that matter to you. And I think it’s those other things that ensure that your mind has outside enough stimulation in other areas that when it sits down for its six-hour stint, it’s overjoyed to be back in gear, not overstuffed with information and demands.

It’s not that I have never sat down to work for more than six hours in a given day. Like anyone who achieves anything, like anyone who cares about what they do and thinks it’s important, I can get obsessive. There have been moments in my life when the cakes have been in the oven and I’ve let them burn; a terrorist alarm could go off and I’d ignore it;  NOTHING could possibly get my attention: this speech I’m writing has to be perfect. IT JUST HAS TO BE PERFECT!!! But then, the fit passes. And the thing is: I get obsessed with what I’m doing because I care about it so much, not because I think there’s any value in being obsessive. I think that’s the case with most of the people who strike us as really dedicated to what they do: it’s not that they achieve greatness because they practice for 8 hours a day; they achieve greatness because they are so focussed on what they are doing that sometimes they lose all track of time and happen to have spent 8 hours, or 10 hours or more practising. Again: it’s not about the quantity of work you put in; it’s about the quality of your focus when you are doing that work. And the quality of that focus sometimes means you might forget to do anything else and results in quantity, too.

As Robin Koerner well knows, there are intrinsic goods and extrinsic goods. As he freely admits in his blog, when we are chronically insecure, we go after the extrinsic goods – like his Cambridge First in Physics. (Or, I suspect, his Uncle Felix’s millions.) Those things are nice. They’re useful. They can make us feel good (temporarily).  But they can only motivate us temporarily. On his death bed, I’ll bet Robin Koerner isn’t going to be thinking “Yes – I left to the world the fact that I did really well in my undergrad degree.”  He’s not in Physics any more; he’s found a pursuit that’s to him much more intrinsically satisfying and more meaningful. But, as he describes so poignantly and disappointedly  in his blog, there’s no way of “achieving” a goal that’s an end in itself: the activities we pursue because they have value in and of themselves are what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices”; they are endlessly fulfilling because we can never achieve perfection. One can become a Grand Master, one can win a World Chess Championship, but one can never play the ultimate game of chess. There’s always another opponent who might present another challenge.  Likewise (in Koerner’s own sphere) we can never achieve the perfect political system.

“Practices” – activities which are intrinsic goods – are limitless and limitlessly demanding. They are the things into which we pour our whole lives, our whole selves, with all of their experiences. And because they demand our whole selves, they need us to be the fullest possible human beings we can be. A person who gets up and practices their instrument at 5 in the morning in preparation for a competition may well win the competition. And if he’s wise, and he’s ready and he has a life outside of music, that competition may be a stepping stone to a brilliant career. But if his whole life consists of practice, there may well not be a career at all, because he’ll have nothing new or interesting to bring to the music he plays, and audiences will ultimately get bored and dissatisfied.

It bothered me deeply that Robin Koerner felt the way he felt confronted with Michael Jordan’s interview because Koerner himself is not only a person of profound integrity and considerable kindness – qualities I suspect he’d lose if he went hell for leather for success in the way he seems to wish he could – he’s also involved in educating and providing a role model to academically gifted teenagers.

And as I keep reiterating on this site: if we are concerned with the moral, social and emotional development of our Gifted and Talented youngsters, the first thing we have to avoid is bringing them up to believe in the fallacy that in order to be great at something you have to sacrifice everything else to it. Especially integral parts of yourself. Especially your humanity. Those who are going to be great at something can achieve that greatness in 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. If you see someone who’s regularly spending more time than that, I suspect that either they have been educated into the false belief that in order to achieve their potential, they have to overwork OR they aren’t focussed – which might mean they’ve not yet discovered their passion (see my next blog). Alternatively, it could be a sign they’re treating what they are doing as an extrinsic good, not an intrinsic good. They want a First, rather than being passionate about Physics. They want to win the competition, rather than wanting to offer a revelatory interpretation of Messiaen. They want to be a best-seller rather than wanting to write the book that will leave their reader in tears, or with a whole new vision of the world.

There’s nothing wrong with extrinsic goals, but I don’t think they’re ever, ever worth sacrificing your life to. And the wonderful thing about intrinsic goods is: the more of a life you have, the more you have to bring to them and the more likely you are in the long run to be great.

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