Victory Through Attrition
In a book on the major wars that shaped the course of history, the strategist and historian B.H. Liddell Hart found that in only 2% of campaigns “did a decisive result follow a plan of direct strategic approach to the main army of the enemy.” The majority of campaigns are won through attrition. The consistently successful armies of history, Hart writes, all had the “power of endurance to last.” That’s what this week’s SIX at 6 is all about that: the power of staying power.
Until It Surrenders Its Secret
More than 200 years after his death, a secret collection of Sir Isaac Newton’s hand-written papers were sold in an auction. The economist John Maynard Keynes purchased the collection. Keynes hoped to uncover insights into how Newton developed his laws of motion or his theory of gravity. But the upwards of 1,000,000 words, Keynes said, “have, beyond doubt, no substantial value whatever…It is utterly impossible to deny that [the collection is] wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it.” This—that Newton spent years producing millions of words that had no substantial value—is Newton’s “peculiar gift,” Keynes says. “Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it,” Keynes says, “and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank.” Newton, however, “could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret.” Newton’s peculiar gift was that he stayed with problems longer than most would have.
Stay On The Bus
The photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen once gave a speech to the New England School of Photography. In Helsinki, Finlad—where Minkkinen was born and raised—there is a bus station. It’s in the heart of Helsinki and has some twenty-four platforms. The buses make the same first few stops on the way out of the city. “Let’s say,” Minkkinen said, “metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer.” The third stop is the Museum of Fine Arts, metaphorically speaking, and you present the best of your three years of photographic activity. The curator suggests you check out the work of the great Irving Penn. The great Irving Penn took off from the platform you took off from, only years earlier. Realizing that what you’ve been doing has already been done, Minkkinen says, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab, and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.” You spend another three years working on a new style. You go back to the Museum of Fine Arts. The curator takes one look and asks, haven’t you seen the work of the great Sally Mann? You get off the bus, grab a cab, and head back to the bus station looking for another platform. But this time, Minkkinen himself is there waiting with some advice: “Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” Just as the buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line for a little while, Minkkinen says, you can’t help but be partially derivative for a little while. Stay at for months and years, “and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, your originality will become visible, and even the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed to have been done before [will] all with the stamp of your unique vision. Why? Because you stayed on the bus.”
If You Just Stay With It…
The comedian Steve Martin had no talent for the banjo. To begin to try to learn, he got a book called How To Play The 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger. One of the first lessons was how to make a C-chord. Martin put his fingers down on the strings and strummed a C-chord. “I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. To him, strumming a C-chord sounded just like strumming with no fingers down on any of the strings. “I was not naturally talented,” he writes in Born Standing Up. But, he said, “I just stayed with it. And I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, if I just stay with it, one day, I will have played for forty years…Anybody who sticks with [the banjo] for forty years will be able to play it.” Martin stayed with the banjo and in 2001, he and his banjo won a Grammy for “Best Country Instrumental Music Performance.
How Many People Would Quit Right Now?
Whether you’re trying to learn an instrument, figure out your unique artistic stamp, or how to prove a theory of gravity, you will inevitably experience what Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” The Dip is frustrating. In The Dip, there is no perception of progress. In The Dip, your efforts seem to produce no substantial value whatever. And in The Dip, most people quit. Chris Bosh talks about a helpful reminder he says to himself anytime in he’s in The Dip: “I always like to think, ‘how many people would quit right now?’ That’s the first thing I think about. Then I keep going.”
The Interesting Thing About 10,000 Hours
Malcolm Gladwell talks about a point most people either misinterpreted or overlooked in the “10,000-Hour Rule” chapter in Outliers. His point was not that you just have to put thousands of hours into something to get good at it. His point was that you have to be able to put in thousands of hours into something to get good at it. “The interesting thing about ten thousand hours,” Gladwell wrote, “of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time.” You have to be able to stay with it. You have to be able to overcome The Dip. You have to be able to stay on the bus. You have to have staying power.