So how do the high-achievers at the Winter Olympics do it? Well, ask a Brit who grew up in the 70s or 80s what is needed to “be the best” or “beat the rest” and they are likely tell you, without much hesitation: dedication.
The pat response comes from the closing song of Record Breakers, a BBC children’s programme itself wholly dedicated to witnessing world records. A weekly broadcast cataloguing bids for global supremacy in every conceivable area must say something about the Britain’s flagging self-esteem at the time.
The show’s late host, the multitalented entertainer Roy Castle, sang from experience, having been the fastest tap-dancer (24 taps/s), longest aeroplane wing walker (3 hours, 23 minutes) and player of 43 different musical instruments in four minutes. This gave the closing refrain extra gravitas.
From the show flowed millions of impromptu rival record attempts by its half-pint viewers, including one spirited bid for the distance record for cherry stone spitting. The secret is, we learned, to maximise muzzle velocity by forming a barrel with your tongue. Alas, even armed with this valuable knowledge dedication was not enough to come close to the record, which now stands at a colossal 28.5m.
Other featured records, however, seemed to go completely against the dedication theory, relying entirely on chance, like being tall. Here it was clear no amount of dedication could change our place in the world rankings. In another case we were told Donna Griffiths started sneezing in 1981, at the age of 12, and continued for two-and-a-half years, clocking up a million sneezes. Chronic disease seemed like a foul play at the time, but less so now.
Despite a few questionable examples, it does seem dedication — a posh word for persistence — is required for success in every case requiring skill or physical training. We need to repeat things many times to improve on our innate abilities, often dramatically, allowing some of us to become unbelievably good musicians, footballers, bricklayers, programmers, teachers, dancers, runners, cobblers, artists, cooks, students and cherry stone spitters.
An engine for learning
Dedication sounds like hard work, but it is made easier by our ability to acquire benign “addictions”, like the ones we get with computer games. The right blend of reward and dissatisfaction we will make us want to try again. Blinking pixels are not needed. We can get a kick from something as simple as catching a ball in a cup or knocking one into a hole in the ground with a set of metal clubs.
This capacity to get hooked on practising and learning can create a domino effect which can take us from beginner to expert with minimal effort. Allowing ourselves to get carried away like this is fun and, potentially, a free ride to success. Taking it to extremes can have extreme payoffs, like Jimi Hendrix who kept a guitar slung round his neck even in the bathroom. Who cares if it scuffs the wallpaper?
We might sometimes find the rewards fade. So we might need to use some willpower, ingenuity and “dedication” to find a way to get the process going again. A break can help. But, so long as we can find new ways to get hooked again, perhaps by focusing on a different kind of reward or finding a new, related activity, the process of improvement can restart where we left off.
So the majority of our “addictions” are helpful to us. They provide a kind of engine which allows us to enjoy a potentially gruelling learning curve. Sometimes, however, we can start to repeat activities which do us harm, perhaps unduly sapping our mental resources, health or money.
It is in cases where there are “adverse consequences” like this that the word “addiction” might be applied, making into a kind of disease. But this does not stop the problems from emerging from the same capacity for repetition that is typically helpful to us.
We do not like to make unwise choices and like it even less if someone else points it out. And history is full of stories of people told they had made a mistake only later to show otherwise. Our autonomy is important and we are right to defend our right to chose.
Informing our judgement
Where our intuition fails us we can get useful insight from others, using their perspective to recognise illusory rewards and hidden costs.
Dysfunctional golf addictions occur. But it is more common to make over-commitments to gambling, eating and smoking. Regularly taking psychoactives like alcohol, opiates and cocaine can also start to hog our resources without us realising. Social media too can arguably take more from us than it returns.
Tragically Roy Castle, the host of Record Breakers, died at just 62 in 1994 of lung cancer, despite being a non-smoker. He himself believed it was the result of working the smoke-filled pubs and clubs of his heyday. So a dedicated entertainer may have fallen victim to an addiction seen then as a benign social custom.
Castle worked on the show up to the end, inspiring the British smoking ban and leaving behind a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for lung cancer. His onstage ebullience suggest that, as well as singing the praises of dedication, he enjoyed the rewards. Our passion for repetition has two sides. ■