Like so many others in my circle in the late 90s, I saw myself as a failed bike racer, a failed intellectual, and a failed artist. We were mostly man children, working in government or IT or engineering. We were hardly wealthy, but in the scheme of things flush with disposable income, most of which was wasted on clichéd and sad simulacra of the passions of our youth. And so we’d spend endless hours and small fortunes on things like Burning Man art installations, scouring usenet newsgroups for NOS Campagnolo components from Europe, and subscriptions to The Paris Review, Foreign Affairs, and a dozen other periodicals which looked great on the coffee table, but very rarely were read cover to cover.
It’s perhaps an urban legend, but around this time it was said that President Clinton would sit down every week to read The Economist cover to cover, in one sitting. At the time, “The Economist – not read by millions of people” was the magazine’s way of boasting about its broad influence despite a relatively small readership base. But that would soon change, thanks to punters like myself. I took to mimicking this likely presidential myth, dedicating Sunday mornings to the club ride and Sunday afternoons to reading The Economist and The New Yorker cover to cover, in one sitting. My favorite contributor at the time was Adam Gopnik, for his autobiographical pieces about being an expat in Paris at the close of the 20th century. But then along came a young essayist named Malcom Gladwell, whose piquant writing style and seemingly novel ideas were the perfect combination to stir the emotions of this failed intellectual.
And so it was, from the Tipping Point forward, that I followed this pop-scholar and his increasingly cynically controversial but eminently readable ideas. I even went to a few of his readings, and marvelled over his razor-sharp repartee and sick afro. But it wasn’t until Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule, that I was able to make a connection between Gladwell’s writing and my own life.
For several decades, I’d believed that my own personal failings were less a function of a lack of hard work and dedication, and more due to the absence of talent. This was especially true with the violin. A decade before picking up the absurdly Europhilic sport of road cycling, I was training to become a professional violinist, with my goals to attend the Berklee College of Music en route to moving to Italy, playing all the important concert halls, owning an Alfa Romeo, and affecting a highly sophisticated, impossible to place, English accent. But then cycling came along, and my daily routine changed. Instead of practicing music for six hours a day, I’d play for two and ride for four. And here was Malcom Gladwell explaining that this dilution of dedication was the reason I’d be rejected by Berklee at 16, and wash out of elite bicycle racing a few years later. It all made perfect sense.
At a certain point, I suppose, we need to accept that there are those with boundless pools of natural talent and abilities. And more often than not, these folks are blessed with massive potential in more than one domain. It’s easy, then, to blame genetics and parentage for our own shortcomings. And even easier to bristle and burn with envy at the gifts of others. On the other hand, we can choose to redirect our angst and frustration into productive energies. And in my case, this has been the key to reconnecting with the sport of cycling - which for more than two decades I’d only seen through the lens of humiliation and darkness. So whether it’s the blanket support and unconditional enthusiasm for young shredders everywhere, or specific mentoring and encouragement of those rare, rare, rare diamonds in the rough, the ones with immense and undeveloped and exciting potential - there’s a role to play, and one I’m thankful for.
The 10,000 hour rule is a silly construct, but a useful one for some folks. A few years after Outliers was published, the documentary about Jiro Ono was released, shedding light on my own work. The day before watching Jiro for the first time, I was discussing (well, mostly listening) with a friend Kundera and Nietzsche and the idea of lightness and the idea that if we can reject eternal recurrence, well: this is it! My friend’s view was that given this, that life would be wasted in the endless pursuit of virtuoso performance, especially for those (like ourselves) without natural talent. But my feeling was that the endless pursuit (which is defined by imperfection) would maybe provide the meaning that we sought in these otherwise decadent, empty times.
Not long after that, I wrote a piece about wheels and Jiro, and by extension, Gladwell. And while I am thoroughly aware that building wheels has absolutely zero socially redeeming values, is a relatively anachronistic and simple mechanical task, and certainly isn’t an economically important vocation, it’s the path I’ve chosen.
This morning I was chatting with a peer about machines that lace and build wheels, and how these new machines are faster, cleaner, and more accurate than we’ll ever be. And by almost every quantifiable metric, they will produce a better wheel than any human.
“So what’s the point?” he asked.
“This probably doesn’t mean anything to most people,” I said, “but I guess I try to imbue history and context into every wheel, you know?”
“Wut.” he said.
“You know, like when you lace a Gigantex rim, listen to Turandot. And when you lace an Ambrosio, listen to Tosca.” I said. “It’s not so much that you can feel it in the ride, but you know it, and the wheel knows it, too.”
“That is literally the dumbest thing you’ve ever said to me.” he said, taking a sip of his coffee.