The Talent of Obsession: Chess, multi-monomania, and the 10,000 hour-rule
“This is not gonna stop. It keeps going on and on.” ~Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction.
Since junior high school, I’ve been a semi-regular chess player. In high school I was on the chess club for two years. I had absolutely no formal instruction, just as with virtually every other skill (or obsession) I have.
I believe I am afflicted with what I call multi-monomania. A monomania is an obsession with a singular activity. A monomaniacal person is otherwise sane, though his or her obsession can appear odd to persons not so afflicted. I say that I am multi-monomaniacal because I go through phases of being obsessed with singular activities, but the obsession rarely lasts for very long, with a few exceptions. In the past, my monomania has manifested itself in softball, weightlifting, writing, fencing, pistol shooting, and chess. I’m sure I’m missing a few things.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell writes about the “10,000 hour-rule”. This rule is based upon the studies of Anders Ericcson, and professor at the Florida State University who found that what separated elite violinists from the merely exceptional was the number of hours they’d dedicated to practice. The elites got in 10,ooo hours while the could-have-beens logged 8,000 on average. Gladwell goes on to document how some very well-known people’s life circumstances enabled them to log 10,000 hours of study and practice in their chosen field, while some other people’s lives, due to environmental circumstances, make it nearly impossible for them to discover or use innate talents.
Gladwell does not dismiss talent. He merely states that past a certain point, say IQ or less concrete measurements of ability, opportunity matters more. He says that somewhere after an IQ of 120, the level of intelligence it takes to be a very successful college student, time, opportunity and hard work begin to make the biggest difference.
We have a love/hate relationship with the geniuses of the world. At once we want to believe that there are people born special and yet we despise the thought because this would mean that most of us could never achieve spectacular results. But I am now suspicious of the term genius and what it means. In fact, I believe most geniuses are merely monomaniacs. Take Mozart for example, whom people often remember for his childhood genius. After all, he wrote music at a very young age. But as Gladwell points out, young Mozart’s music was terrible by any measure. Mozart’s obsession, not merely innate genius, drove him to practice for thousands of hours, and thus become a legend. Eddie Van Halen would walk around his house as a kid, with his guitar strapped on, playing all day long. He locked himself in his room, stalking his obsession.
Obsession is underrated. When I was younger, I became obsessed with men’s league, slow-pitch softball. I know this seems a strange obsession, but the sport is very popular, involving thousands of people in various cities around the nation. I first began playing at around the age of 17, playing with grown men who were much bigger and stronger. I’d always been a good athlete, and had a lot of power hitting a baseball. But softball required that the power come entirely from the hitter; the ball simply didn’t come in fast enough to bounce off a bat with significant force. I wanted to hit home runs, to hit for power. One guy on that team told me: “Doug, you’re not gonna be able to hit home runs.” I knew he was wrong. I was small, 160 lbs maybe. 5’8″. But I had the power of obsession. I had a hand-eye talent. I put the two together. I would practice for hours, hitting. A couple of friends and I would go to a field and pitch balls to each other, entire days spent swinging a bat. Lunacy. I jumped in on every game I could. I started lifting weights to increase my power. Several years later, I was the cleanup hitter on a state championship team.
Another obsession was weightlifting. I saw its power to increase athletic performance when it came to softball. Why not see what kind of limits I could push? I bought Pavel Tsatsouline’s, Power to the People. In the book, Tsatsouline outlines a simple plan to gain strength: Practice often on a small set of lifts, namely the deadlift and the side press. Tsatsouline’s premise is that if you treat weight lifting like training a skill, you’ll consistently get better. He is right.
A miracle ensued. About 3 years after buying the book, I deadlifted 485 lbs with only a weight belt, and drug-free. The lift was video taped in the basement of the police department I worked in. At my body weight of under 180 lbs, a 485 lb deadlift would have been enough to win a state championship.
At some point I also became obsessed with fencing. Yes, a weightlifter wanted to jump around in white tights. I won the first tournament I entered, amateur class (less than two years experience).
Then there’s chess, at random intervals through my life. As a kid, I was mildly obsessed, but did not have the life experience or formal training to know how to study the game properly. I didn’t know why I lost or won. I could beat almost anyone who had a similar level of experience, but fell flat when facing advanced players and I had no idea why.
Charles Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist and avid chess player, believes chess can become a monomania. It’s quite obvious this is the case in some. In fact, you can’t find a world champion who doesn’t spend the greater portion of their life playing an unimportant game. Bobby Fischer, considered by some the greatest chess player ever, famously stated: “Chess is life”. How much more monomaniacal can you get? Of course, Fischer succumbed to full madness before the age of 30…
Pavel Tsatsouline taught me several things, via his knowledge of Russian studies on learning skills:
1) You should practice your chosen skill at the expense of others.
2) You should make your practice regular; a little daily practice is more effective than a lot of practice lumped into a short time. Cramming is not the best way to go.
3) Through the “Reminiscence Effect” you can learn by resting. As you practice your skill, you will encounter periods in which you actually get worse at your skill. Small amounts of time off (not too much, however) can lead to increased skill.
4) Slowly increase the complexity and difficulty of your skill practice–but not too fast!
So it’s chess again for me. Well, there’s a few other obsessions I have right now, but chess is one of them. I recently made it a duty to play chess every day, or any day that I could, and to become a better chess player. I have Chess Titans on my computer, and play it almost daily. In a short time, about two or three weeks, I’m beating the computer on levels which whipped my butt before that.
My thesis, is that almost all genius is actually obsession. The monomaniac gains an unusual pleasure in the area they study, and they study it intensely to the exception of most other skills. The younger the monomania sets in, the more likely the person can reach Ericsson’s 10,000 hours. Talent may cut some hours off, but it’s only the time that makes a “genius”. The key is that to a monomaniac, the hard work does not feel like work at all.