What's Your Tipping Point?

I hope you had a great Labor Day weekend. It’s always good to recharge your batteries. With that in mind, I’d like you to seriously consider an exchange between Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, and Bill Simmons, a sports writer from ESPN.com. The following was part of a feature called Curious Guy, which is a correspondence with famous people through e-mail. I’ve highlighted the parts that really stood out to me, and I’d like you to weigh them against your current work ethic.

Gladwell when asked by Bill why he writes so well responds:

"As for your (very kind) question about my writing, I'm not sure I can answer that either, except to say that I really love writing, in a totally uncomplicated way. When I was in high school, I ran track and in the beginning I thought of training as a kind of necessary evil on the way to racing. But then, the more I ran, the more I realized that what I loved was running, and it didn't much matter to me whether it came in the training form or the racing form. I feel the same way about writing. I'm happy writing anywhere and under any circumstances and in fact I'm now to the point where I'm suspicious of people who don't love what they do in the same way. I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he'd picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that's true, isn't that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer's version of Lent that I'm unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I've always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it's the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods."

Bill in response:

"On Mickelson and Sports Lent, I remember watching one of those 20/20-Dateline-type pieces about him once, and he was adamant about remaining a family man, taking breaks from golf and never letting the sport consume him ... and I remember thinking to myself, "Right now Tiger is watching this and thinking, 'I got him. Cross Phil off the list. This guy will never pass me.'" The great ones aren't just great, they enjoy what they're doing -- that's why MJ's first retirement always seemed genuine to me. He had pretty much mastered his craft, and the media was wearing him down, and then his father was murdered, and for the first time in his life, basketball was looming as a chore for him. And he was smart enough to get away and recharge his batteries. I always respected him for that. Well, unless the real reason he "retired" was because of his gambling problems and an ominous "You screwed up, you're gonna walk away for 18 months, and we're gonna pretend this entire discussion never happened" ultimatum from commissioner Stern.

But I think there's a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be there, as well, because there will always be days when you don't feel like doing your job, and those are always the true tests. Halberstam has a great quote about this: "Being a professional is doing your job on the days you don't feel like doing it." I love that quote and mutter it to myself every time I don't feel like writing because my allergies are bothering me, or my back hurts, or my head hurts, or there's some random dog barking, or any of the other excuses I use when I'm procrastinating from pumping out something."

Gladwell again:

"This is actually a question I'm obsessed with: Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight? The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder."