The arrival of a real summer has turned me into a lark. I’m now up before the chickens, who look dopey and confused as I open the door to their palais des poulets at 6am. Until now, my greatest achievement as a farmer has been to train every form of livestock not to expect so much as a howdy-do before 8am. Even the cows keep the same hours as rock musicians and poets.
Soon after I’ve done the agricultural rounds, I make myself a pot of coffee and turn to things cultural. In the country, culture arrives via email, and it’s called The Writer’s Almanac. I click on ‘Listen’, which begins with a few bars of piano music followed by Garrison Keillor’s familiar voice telling me what happened on this day in the past before he reads a poem. Today (July 1), it’s In Praise of the Potato by David Williams, perfect timing, because our fields of potatoes are in flower, acres and acres of white flowers skimming a sea of dark green leaves, a vision as lavish as a royal wedding.
But it’s the glimpse of the past that wakes me up. On this day in 1858, the joint papers about the theory of evolution, written by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, were presented to the Linnaean Society. It was a long and rather dull meeting, and neither man was present. Wallace, only 25, was still in Malaysia. Darwin, age 49, was mourning the death of his young son.
The revolutionary ideas the two men had arrived at separately were not the theory of evolution. For years, scientists had known that species were created and became extinct. What Darwin and Wallace revealed was the mechanism of evolution, the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest, theories that changed our understanding of the world forever.
Our own species is lucky that Darwin published On the Origin of Species when he did. It’s hard to imagine a scientist taking the time today to develop his thoughts. Darwin percolated his ideas of natural selection for 20 years, and would have taken longer if Wallace’s paper hadn’t catapulted him into publishing. Darwin wouldn’t have enjoyed a 21st-century reaction ot his work. Bestseller lists, television programmes, a trail of books with versions of the idea appearing everywhere and special editions of The Economist examining the implication of the theory on the global economy.
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The problem is, we now like our science wrapped up in sociology and psychology with anecdotes and case studies that reach snappy conclusions. You could call it Gladwellian Science, after Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (main idea: ideas spread the same way infectious diseases do) and Blink (main idea: snap judgements can be as good as decisions based on methodical hard work). In his third book, Outliers, Gladwell writes about success, challenging the myth of the solitary genius who springs forth from nowhere and against great odds.
Mr Gladwell’s theory (not exactly genius) is that genius is a combination of good fortune-being in the right place and the right era and in the right family-combined with hard work. Really hard work: 10,000 hours in fact, the number of hours of ‘deep practice’ that are required to become a world-class expert in anything.
I feel certain that Roger Federer clocked up 10,000 hours on the way to becoming the brilliant tennis player he is. Ditto Andy Murray. I also believe that Daniel Barenboim and Plácido Domingo practised 10,000 hours before they got where they are today. But there comes a time in your life when you realise you don’t have 10,000 hours of obsessive work left in you and whatever success you may achieve now is moderate and more dependent on good fortune than endeavour. Now is the time to dump the books on success and read the original sources. To start the day with The Writer’s Almanac and be grateful that you have survived this long, that you are fit enough to stride out at dawn on summer days that are pure poetry.
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