Month: August 2013

Watch This

Saw a movie last night called Somm, and my verdict is in: this is the Citizen Kane of wine-tasting movies. The documentary, by Jason Wise, follows four young men as they chase the near-impossible goal of passing the Master Sommelier exam (there are only 197 masters in the world). The exam is a true Everest, requiring crazy-deep knowledge of wine theory, history, and, yes, the magician-like ability to take a single sip of wine and precisely identify it by type, region, and year.

Anyone who’s ever tried for something really, really hard will be able to relate to the journey of these guys: the obsessions, the wild ups and downs, the group and family dynamics. And above all, the training. Watching these guys blind-taste a glass of wine is exactly like watching NFL quarterbacks practice their progression of reads, or watching a ballet dancer polish their moves. Their final test, where each goes before the judges and has to identify six glasses of wine, is more nerve-jangling than any Super Bowl.

Click the above trailer to get a taste. And be warned: watching the movie makes you very thirsty.

Talking Nature/Nurture with David Epstein, Author of The Sports Gene

9781591845119_custom-759e08f6cb64f394ca7c101cbc736d5d8b21611a-s6-c30If you were asked to pick two people on opposing sides of the nature/nurture debate, you might pick myself and David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you haven’t bought it already, you should: it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking look at the leading edge of sports performance, written by a guy who knows the territory. David, besides being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was  a collegiate runner for Columbia University. More to the point, he’s a terrific researcher and a fine, thoughtful writer.

Last week David and I had a wide-ranging barroom-style chat that covered Jamaican sprinters, the 10,000-hour rule, and the secret role of David’s mother in his new book. You might think we would spend the entire time hurling barstools at each other. You would be wrong. Partly because David is an incredibly nice guy, and mostly because science is shining new light on this area: when it comes to raw athletic skills (endurance, speed, leaping ability) genes are a difference-maker, particularly at the world-class level. With complex athletic skills (basically everything else), it’s far more about environment (quality practice, coaching, motivation, etc.).

Here’s how our chat went:

DC: David, let me start by saying how much I admire the book, your work, and how it made me appreciate physical talent in a different way. I can only presume that the skill you show in writing this book is mostly genetic.

DE: It’s funny — my friends think of me as a guy who thinks that training is a miracle, because it can totally transform someone. But the questions I get on TV are mostly, “What’s the gene for this, what’s the gene for that?”  Like this TV show I went on yesterday tweeted “David Epstein thinks that there’s an actual sports gene that separates athletes from the rest of us.” I totally don’t think that.

DC: I’m especially interested in this notion of trainability you write about — how when some people exercise, they get a lot more fit, and other people who follow the exact same regimen don’t improve at all, and it seems controlled by genes. I wonder if you found any evidence whether these same sorts of variances apply to the brain and the process of learning skills.

DE: Yeah, I didn’t get into skills as wide ranging as you have, but I did look at twin studies, fraternal and identical twins, heritability and things like that. Experimenters would have them doing skills like balancing on a plank that has a ball under it, and the identical twins would usually progress in a way that was similar to each other and different from the fraternal twins, and sometimes significantly different. But it depended on the tasks. For tasks that were really simple, everyone would get better at the same rate, fraternal and identical, and everybody would end up in a pretty similar state. But if the tasks were pretty complex, sometimes people would actually get more different from one another with practice. Identical twins would move together, and they would move away from the fraternal twins. So it seems, even though we don’t know the genes for all that, that in complex tasks there was usually a trainability phenomenon, or almost always a trainability phenomenon.

I had to cut 40,000 words from the manuscript, and some of the material I cut involved some studies like this. One of the genes was the BDNF gene, which stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” There’s studies with versions of BDNF called val and met, and they’d have people do a driving simulation and people with a certain version would tend not to repeat their mistakes as much, so when they would bring them back, a day or month later, they’d remember the course better. The same thing happened with putting pegs in holes.


How to Be Creative, Starring Jackson Browne’s Teakettle

I absolutely love this video. It’s from Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s new Eagles documentary on Showtime (and if you’re my age, here’s a warning: you will watch this obsessively,  because it’s a time machine to your teen years, and because it’s wildly entertaining for reasons that Bill Simmons details here.

But what I really love about this clip is that it shows how lead singer Glenn Frey began to master the creative skill that underpinned the band’s success. And he did it in an unusual way: by listening through his floorboards to his neighbor, Jackson Browne.

Here’s Frey:

 I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ’cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”

It goes on from there, all great stuff. For me, the takeaways are:

1) Proximity. Glenn Frey didn’t read a book about songwriting, or hear a talk. The breakthrough started with his social network — on making friends with a guy who was involved in the same craft, and at a slightly higher level. Frey and Jackson Browne became neighbors, and the lessons began.

2) Habit. Through Browne, Frey learned a lesson that eludes many creative types: it’s not about inspiration. As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.” Browne’s teakettle goes off at 9 a.m., the process starts.

4) Looping. Browne’s creative process is built on the act of circling back through the structure — changing a small piece and looking at the entire thing, then doing it over and over. This is the pattern with any creative act, whether it’s writing or juggling or comedy. It’s an act of construction, where each piece impacts the whole structure.

5) Repetition. Frey learns the repetition isn’t boring; it’s actually kind of thrilling, because it’s the tool that builds songs.

There are also a few other valuable lessons in the documentary having to do with peyote, groupies, and Stevie Nicks — but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy.

Speaking of enjoying, I hope you’ve all been enjoying the summer. Now that September almost here, I’ll be posting more often, starting with a Q/A with David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you have any questions for David, please let me know (we’re talking on Weds Aug 14).