Dedication, a benign addiction

Record Breakers - identAsk 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.

Dedication’s high status comes thanks to the closing song of Record Breakers, a BBC children’s programme of the era, itself dedicated to witnessing world records. A weekly broadcast cataloguing bids for 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 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 an astonishing 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.

But, still, 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 astonishing musicians, footballers, bricklayers, programmers, teachers, dancers, runners, cobblers, artists, cooks, students and world-conquering cherry stone spitters.

To focus on dedication, however, is a bit of a dreary take on the matter. The raw fuel for our ability to repeat things is not quite so lofty and rather more exciting. It is our ability to acquire benign “addictions”, like the ones we can get with computer games, where we feel we get enough reward to make us want to try again. Blinking pixels are not needed. Left alone with a cup-and-ball it is probably not long before we start getting a kick from catching the ball in the cup.

Dominos fallingThis capacity to get hooked on practising 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 in the bathroom. Who cares if it scuffs the wallpaper if it pays off like that?

We might find it hard to carry on once in awhile if we do not get the kick of reward we once did. Here we might need to use some willpower, ingenuity and “dedication” to find a way to get the process of reward going again. A break might help. But, so long as we can find new ways to get hooked again, perhaps by focussing on a different kind of reward or finding a new, related activity, the process of improvement can restart where we left off.

So, the vast majority of our “addictions”, using the word to mean a benign obsession with improving, are very helpful. They provide a kind of motor which gets potentially boring things done. Occasionally, however, we can start repeating activities which do us harm, perhaps draining our mental, emotional, social or financial resources. It is no big surprise. We play life by ear, weighing things up intuitively, so occasionally mistakes are made.

It is only in these negative cases, when there are “adverse consequence”, that the word “addiction” is applied in the medical sense. The common use, however, seems a more helpful way to look at it, seeing our repetitive capacities as mostly normal and useful, with a counterproductive offshoot. Keeping similar behaviours together under one term seems less needlessly divisive than trying to segregate some cases based on the fraught question of whether they are harmful?

We do not like to make unwise choices and like it even less if someone else points it out. Who is to say a daily golf or cherry stone spitting session is not the way to inner peace or world record triumph? Horses for courses. History is full of stories of people told they were wasting their time, only later to demonstrate they were not. Our judgement and autonomy is important and we are right to defending our right to chose.

The flipside of this is that we have nobody but ourselves to weigh up our choices. And our outlook as individuals is limited and sometimes skewed by receiving rewards which seem bigger to us than they really are. But where our intuition fails us advances in science and systematic thought can offer useful insight, allowing us to stand back and recognise illusory rewards and see hidden costs.

Dysfunctional golf addictions are, thankfully, rare, being linked to erratic clothing choices. But overcommitments to gambling, eating, smoking and sex are known to have negative effects on our bank accounts, health and relationships. Regularly taking psychoactives like alcohol, opiates and cocaine can start to hog our resources without us realising. Social media too can arguably take more than it gives back.

Tragically Roy Castle, the host of Record Breakers, died at just 62 in 1994 of lung cancer. He 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 and now harmful. Our outlook changes.

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 was also well aware of the benefits of enjoying the process. 

NOTE: “Alcohol Companion”, a book exploring some of the complex and contradictory effects of alcohol, is published on July 4th. ■