Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Keepie Uppie

Recently in the New York Times Magazine’s Youth Issue, we were treated to articles about a 21 year old fellow who is a highly successful online poker player with a net worth of about $5 Million, and a 16 year old female freestyle soccer player who is wowing people with her talent at keeping the ball in the air while doing tricks with her feet.

Dan Cates, the poker guy, is photographed in what appears to be a windowless grey room devoid of any decoration, with grey carpet and a grey couch. He is slouched on his office chair in front of two computers, with his feet up on the armrest of the couch, underneath a blanket. His face is pasty and he looks unwell. Perhaps it’s partially the blanket thing.

Indi Cowie, the soccer girl, is rendered in a series of colourful pictures, doing what she does best- moving the ball around in the air with her feet and head, jumping and flicking it all over the place. Looking at a video of her is much more instructive than looking at a photo. Here’s a short one:

What do these two have in common? Everything.

Each has become an expert in his or her field because of practice. An insane amount of it. Both have followed the idea Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book Outliers- that 10,000 hours of practice at something makes you quite good. That’s about 3 hours a day for 10 years-- or a lot quicker if you do more than 3 hours every day. Pick anything: learning another language, playing tiddlywinks, stitching needlepoint cats on throw pillows, masturbating—if you do it that much, you’re going to do it well.

It brings to mind Amy Chua’s controversial recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the one in which her teenage daughter has performed a piano recital at Carnegie Hall by the age of 14 but has never in her life been allowed to play with another child or have a sleepover. But of course in that situation, the mother was the driving force behind the success- she forced them to practice their instruments 3 hours a day. Indi Cowie just wants to do it. The magazine article says she sometimes accidently wakes her mom up at 5am when she’s practicing in the garage. What kind of teenager gets up at 5am voluntarily?

When she performed at her school’s talent show, Indi won handily, although in addition to the comments of “Isn’t she amazing?”, the other comments were “Who is she?” She has no friends except her 12 year old sister. And even though she’s performed at halftime at a Chelsea-Manchester United match in England and has had her talents featured in a PS3 soccer commercial, she’s a nobody at home, and her name is misspelled in the high school event program. Cates, the poker player, realizes he might have a problem and repeatedly mentions trying to achieve a “balance of life” with his magazine interviewer, even going so far as to fly to Texas to meet with a specialist who would help him understand social situations. (Personally, all I think he really needs is a bit of fresh air, vitamin D and some green vegetables, but what do I know?)

All of this mocking is just jealousy on my part, of course. No one is clearly ever going to feature me in the youth issue of anything, but it’s not just that: I want to be good at something too. (Not freestyle like Indi though – my knees could never take 3 hours of practice a day and besides, I refuse on principle to take on a hobby which is sometimes ridiculously dubbed “Keepie Uppie”.) I’m jealous of how society always rewards the experts , whether it’s with money, or prizes, or some degree of fame. Apparently being goodish at a number of different things without any kind of focus doesn’t get you anywhere.

I was lamenting this to my husband, who is, in fact, an expert himself. He’s got a PhD, won the dean’s medal in grad school, has been nominated for both teaching and writing prizes, and has been awarded a number of grants and a prestigious fellowship for his research. (Strange, since he has trouble finding the coffee filters every single time he opens the kitchen cupboard.) He said, “Look, honey, it doesn’t have to be a youth thing, you could start now. In ten years, by the time you’re 51, you could be really good at something.”

“I’m 42, not 41.”

“Oh,” he said.

Sometimes I think there’s a chance that he doesn’t even know how to spell PhD.


  1. Love it! Will show Radhika the keepie uppie, too. Hope your knees are well, Cathy. aloha, Susan And hello to the coffee guy.

  2. you compared a poker player with $5 million, a youth that played carnegie hall (her mother is crazy and full of crap by the way... and a girl who can do nifty tricks keeping a ball up.. like a busker with their juggling or a clown spinning plates?

    seriously? like... really? :P

    Man who just... wow

  3. Who are you, anonymous man? Are you the grey faced poker dude? No matter. But how much do you think Ronaldo gets paid for his nifty tricks?

  4. Ronaldo probably gets paid more than the poker player for his ball handling tricks, but only after he made a name for himself. and he didn't make a name for himself for his ball handling skills, that's Tiger woods

    like Michael Jordan. He makes thousands of dollars just to go into a restaurant and take a dump in their washroom, but that's not what made him famous and if I went into a restaurant i doubt they'd pay me as much (even if my bowels move at 4x the speed of jordan :P

    - Man of nutty bowel deposits? LOL

  5. That really is incredible talent. Does it help on the playing field?

    I have to admit, I'm not very good myself. My best is 12. lol. Have you got any tips besides practise, practise, practise?

    Anyway, if you ever want to play on your phone... (Shameless plug, sorry :)

    It's my first game developed for a mobile device.

    Let me know what you think!