As Daniel Kahneman has argued, success equals talent plus luck. In his view, we give too little credence to the latter in assessing outcomes related to success. If we break it down further, though, we might argue that ‘talent’ can be subdivided into innate talent and then its application through practice and training. Indeed, there is an interesting debate going on about talent and its application, most recently seen in the book ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein (see a review and outline here).
The intricacies of that debate will not delay us here. But what about another factor under talent, that of passion?. Charly Wegelius’ autobiography ‘Domestique’ is a stark reminder of the sacrifices required to be successful as a professional cyclist. Wegelius has talent by the bidon full. But, crucially, he has an almost maniacal drive to make it as a professional cyclist. He devotes himself to this cause with monastic zeal, and is prepared to endure the tough racing and training, the privations, the isolation and solitude, the competition from all the other aspiring young pros, as well as shady team owners, mercurial sponsors, and over-zealous directors, and all for (at least initially) minimal reward in terms of remuneration and recognition. Late in his career, though, this raw passion for being a pro has taken its toll:
I hated cycling because of the gaping disparity between the way the sport looked on the outside, and what I knew to be the truth of it on the inside. I hated it because I had given my youth to it – so much of myself – and the payment was so meagre and fleeting, especially compared to those who took big risks and ignored the consequences. I hated it because I was so tired all the time, so tired that, from the age of 18 onwards, I couldn’t tell when I was sad or just exhausted. And I hated it because I wasn’t sure of I could really live without it.
Wegelius’ passion brought him success, but it was also an all consuming passion. “Me and my bike still needed each other,” he writes. Two sides to passion, therefore: the drive to take one farther than what just talent and its application can achieve, but also with a cost involved. Dedication brings its own rewards, but there is also a potential downside. Single mindedness is useful, although it can be at the expense of other parts of one’s life.
In anything we do, being passionate about the endeavour makes it easier to overcome barriers and hurdles and to stick with it when the going gets tough. Few of us are fortunate enough to make it to the lofty heights of world class professional success. Wegelius’ book reminds us of the sacrifices required to get there (if one also has the talent and the luck).