Genius, Joy, and Wayne Gretzky

Preparing to embark upon the college search process with your son? Read this first, from our Director of College Counseling Carl Ahlgren.

wayne-gretzky-nhl11In an interview with Malcom Gladwell from 2010, the popular author tells the story of a young, rambunctious Wayne Gretzky. The story is originally told by Gretzky’s parents, and describes their ploy years ago of distracting a two-year-old Wayne by placing him in front of the television when hockey games aired. Young Gretsky sat rapt in front of the TV while the game progressed, but when the game concluded, he wailed uncontrollably. He so relished the game, that once it concluded, Gretzky was inconsolable. As he grew into boyhood, this intense affection blossomed and sharpened. Soon, he learned that he was happiest when playing hockey, and continued to relish his time on the ice, not as one who was driven to improve in the conventional sense, but as a boy who was happiest playing the sport he loved.

Gladwell begins with the story in order to chip away at our traditional understanding of genius and success. He suggests that our culture reflexively assigns genius status to those who have found tremendous achievement in a particular field, reasoning that profound intelligence or innate physical gifts are accountable when one reaches the pinnacle of their field. Instead, Gladwell argues, the Gretzky story and others like it reveal the potent role of joy and the ways this joy inspires “engagement.”

This is a more nuanced understanding of the old saw, “practice makes perfect,” which gently suggests that if one continues to practice the piano or a jump shot often enough, regardless of one’s affection for music or basketball, success will soon be achieved. Of course, some kind of success may indeed be achieved, but engagement suggests something very different. Engagement is the very natural and personal response we have to an activity that gives us great personal happiness and satisfaction. When we engage, we pursue an activity zealously and without regard for the short term success we may or may not find.

Gladwell posits that Wayne Gretsky’s physical gifts were likely no more advanced than any of his teammates, but that his constant joyous engagement in the act of playing hockey led to hours and hours of ice time, and these happy hours eventually trained his brain and his body to master a unique creativity and a set of unusual skills that could only result in profound success.

Teachers and college counselors see this dynamic on an almost daily basis. We often sense that the difference between a good student and a great student is due to raw cognitive skill, but do we know for sure? The good students are truly good.They follow directions. They complete their assignments fully. They are conscientious and responsive. Their notes are meticulous. The great student will likely have good notes too, but he is likely thinking about what he is writing and hearing, rather than seeking simply to master it. He enjoys achievement, just like the good student, but is also personally intrigued by the relationship between Medici wealth and Renaissance creativity, the elegance of a geometric proof, or the promise of nitrogen energy for our global transportation needs.

These, I admit, are rare students, but the key to their eventual success, and the quality found more broadly in all kinds of students, is engagement. Engaged students it should be noted are only occasionally successful from the start. Gladwell uses Mozart and the Beatles as examples of young creativity that was for some time deemed mediocre and banal. This talent, however, when merged with the joy these young musicians gleaned from music-making eventually elevated Mozart, Lennon, and McCartney to an iconic status that we often attribute to natural genius.

Engaged students, musicians and athletes often have some sense of why they do what they do. They persist even when challenges, obstacles, and criticism appear. Why would they quit? The activity makes them happy!

ImageEngaged juniors and seniors embark upon the college search process with a sense of excitement and discovery. They are eager to see what is out there, and where they might continue to find joy. They enter into the process not with a road map or a recipe book, but with a thirst and curiosity for what the next four years might look like. They likely have a sense of what they’d like to study, but rarely are certain about a major.

Their strong, though less engaged, peers – the good students — are often quite certain of their major. They will often respond conscientiously to parents and college counselors, and will take good and necessary steps within the college search process, but they will do so with an established goal in mind. This goal is often the byproduct of a number of voices, impressions, and visceral responses to campus visits, and they are rarely questioned or carefully considered. These campus visits can be somewhat joyless events, where parents ask earnest questions and teenagers resist rolling their eyes. It is a duty, and the duty is almost always accomplished, but only rarely is something meaningful learned from this kind of campus visit.

Both kinds of students can have a successful process and outcome. But there is a very high likelihood that the engaged college applicant will write a fresh essay and enjoy a richer interview. The good and dutiful applicant might write a solid essay, but will too often do so as a supplicant rather than an applicant. He will be tempted to treat the interview as an audition, hoping to offer just the right answers to questions that are likely designed simply to draw out his interests. The engaged senior will treat the interview as one more opportunity to learn about undergraduate life, and share his interests.

Gladwell’s Gretzky story is one with powerful and nuanced lessons for students, applicants, and their parents. Like so much of what Gladwell has written, the thesis of joyful engagement may suggest that a pre-ordained collection of behaviors and methods may not be as effective for reaching our goals as we have believed.

What do you think? Leave us a comment below.

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