Olympic gold, Haiti and training for date with history

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 17, 2010

It’s obvious how Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule resonates with the achievements of Canadian skier Alexandre Bilodeau and other 2010 Winter Olympics competitors. But what possible implications could that rule have for Haiti’s earthquake catastrophe?

Over my wife’s gourmet Valentine’s Day rack of lamb dinner, Mary Anna and I were glued to our TV as Bilodeau brought home Canada’s first gold medal for his breathtaking performance in the men’s moguls.

But was his success the result of some overnight whim? Did Bilodeau simply wake up one morning a few days before the Vancouver Games and say to himself, “I think I’ll take up skiing and go for gold”?

Not at all! His 23.17 second knee-flexing descent to fame was preceded by years of intensive, disciplined training. This time-consuming training honed to perfection his physical and mental gifts, while he enjoyed the loving support of family and fans in preparation for a moment in history not of his own making but for which he was ready when it arrived.

Bilodeau’s mounting the podium could have been a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers: the Story of Success.

In Outliers, the celebrated author also of The Tipping Point emphasizes the “10,000-Hour Rule.”

According to this rule, “‘ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,’” Gladwell explains, quoting from neurologist Daniel Levitin. “‘It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.’”

Gladwell cites in support of this claim the examples of information technology pioneers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, musical giants Mozart and the Beatles, and yes, athletes like Western Hockey League Memorial Cup finalist Scott Wasden. Each of these, he argues, was born at the right moment in history with unique abilities, but that in itself was not enough to explain their success. It was their passionate commitment to disciplined hard work that made the difference.

Even Mozart, “the greatest musical prodigy of all time,” he says, “couldn’t hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in. Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Canadians who would like to see more public financial support for our amateur athletes aspiring to international competition will take heart in Gladwell’s statement about the cost of such time commitment:

An “interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time,” he says. “It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program – like a hockey all-star squad – or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.”

I suspect that Alexandre Bilodeau would agree.

But how could this possibly have anything to do with the current crisis in Haiti? How does anyone prepare for such a disaster that in an instant resulted in over 200,000 deaths, countless injuries and orphans, and untold property damage?

Yes, we acknowledge with profound gratitude the response of competent medical teams, orphanage operators and other specialists from around the world. And yes, we give thanks for the many other volunteers, Haitian and non-Haitian alike, who have lent their sweat and exhaustion to restoring some sense of normalcy to this devastated island nation.

Some are mending broken bones; others are mending broken hearts or bathing corpses with their tears. All are affirming hope amidst the despair.

But a 10,000-Hour Rule? Far more! Theirs has been a lifelong preparation. These are people grounded in goodness. Nor did they come by this goodness in some last-minute flash of light – at least, I’m fairly sure most didn’t. From their earliest years, family, friends, religious and other social institutions and traditions, and life itself, have shaped – and continue to shape – their hearts and minds to honour values of respect and service in preparation for just such unexpected moments as this.

Their motivation has not been merely a gold medal, but the Golden Rule. They have loved their neighbours as themselves.

On this note, I’d like to extend an invitation to all our readers to attend a free public forum at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at Java Jamboree Coffee House in Cochrane. The topic: “The Haiti Catastrophe: What Are We Learning,” with panelists Michael Bopp, John Chan and Richard Maillet, and moderated by yours truly.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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