Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talent: The Right Side of HSE

Any discussion about the skill-acquiring process must begin by addressing a curious phenomenon that I came to know as the Holy Shit Effect. This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. The HSE is not the feeling of hearing Pavarotti sing or watching Willie Mays swing – they’re one in a billion; we can easily accept the fact that they are different from us. The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us. It’s the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kind down the street is suddenly the lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It’s the feeling of, where did that come from? – Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code”

In my last post, I discussed my long-held theory regarding talent and cycling-related happiness. However, as I wrote it, I started to question my definition of the “talent” in the context of that theory. Over Thanksgiving break, I decided get some additional perspective on the concept of talent, by re-reading “The Talent Code”. I had read the book before in 2010, and I was excited to find that it was actually among the relatively few books that weren’t culled prior to moving to Pennsylvania. This is even more impressive considering that at least half of my small remaining collection of physical books consists of the complete series of Sookie Stackhouse novels. What I found was that “The Talent Code” stood up to the test of time much better than the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and also that my 2010 self did not properly appreciate its wisdom the first time around.


Yo, girl, we need to talk about your wheel size, your hip hinge, and the fact that you're paying some dude $150 a month to make you faster while you're still holding on to a deep-seated sense of learned helplessness.

I will likely be referencing this book in the next few posts, so I won’t go into too much detail on the non-HSE parts for the time being, but it might be useful for me to preface the rest of this post with a brief summary. The book seeks to uncover the secrets of various “talent hotbeds", and it is divided into three sections: Deep Practice, which discusses the myelin that insulates neural pathways for the skills that a person practices most and best; Ignition, which discusses the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that people take from the world that motivate them into deep practice (and will make the R. Kelly song play in your head the for the entire middle third of the book); and Master Coaching, which talks about what the best teachers do to increase both ignition and deep practice in their students. A better summary can be found here, if you’re interested.

For today though, I’d like to focus on how the book made me realize that the thing that I’d been calling “talent” in my theory was actually HSE. For some reason, the concept of “HSE” reminds me of the saying, “History is written by the winners,” and then turns around in my mind to, “HSE is written by the losers.” I think that is because to the person displaying the “sudden” success, it might not seem like a surprise at all. Only an outside observer (who is often on the losing end of this situation) will perceive the success as natural ability that came out of nowhere. The whole point of the book is that the success has likely been longer in the making than one might think.

So I began to roll this narrative around in my mind. I once again thought of Syd Shulz’ post on challenging the stories that we tell ourselves and acknowledging our tailwinds along with the headwinds. As much I see myself as the scrappy underdog who has put up with a whole lot of defeat in service of a few minor victories sprinkled across a decade, I’ve come to realize that I am the only one who has been watching this clich├ęd sports movie in my head from the beginning. Was it possible that at some point I’d been the subject of someone else’s HSE?

While this recent string of posts sprung from my disappointment in the successes that I didn’t have this season, I can’t discount the successes that I did have. It’s dumb to imagine that the women of the West Virginia Enduro Series eventually Googled me and read all 300-and-something blog posts describing everything that happened in my cycling career prior to the moment that name appeared at the top of the Big Bear Women’s Sport results. To everyone else, I was just some woman who showed up and won the sport category at nearly every race this year, in some cases beating women with more enduro racing experience under their belts. While I was beating myself up because I was so far behind the expert women, other people, if they were paying attention at all, were probably thinking I must be very talented. LOL.

However, my greatest example of being on the winning side of HSE was my 2011 cyclocross season, when I surprised myself more than anyone. From a traditional sense of cycling training, that season should not have been a success. I didn’t even begin riding until March that year because I was recovering from surgery. I’m not sure that I did a ride over two hours long the whole year, and frankly I didn’t spend that many hours on the bike at all. At the time I couldn’t explain why I did well that season, which is why I sometimes joke that cyclocross is a combination of science and magic, just like Lil’ Bub.

After re-reading “The Talent Code”, I realize that what transpired that season wasn’t magic; it was just a different kind of science than what most cycling training is based on. I guess I was wasn’t ready to absorb science that didn’t talk about watts the first time I read the book.

While I wasn’t putting in tons of miles in 2011, what I did do was lift heavy weights often and with great consistency, and the time I spent of the bike was mostly short, intense efforts. When cyclocross season began, my threshold power was meh, even by my relatively low standards, but I could accelerate better than I ever had before or since. When I exploded off the line and lead for half a lap of the first race of the year before crashing into a hole and fighting my way back through the field to my first-ever podium, that was the ignition to my “sudden explosion of talent”. After that I raced nearly every weekend for three months, usually on both Saturday and Sunday.

The fact that I kept getting better through that season doesn’t make sense in terms of fitness, since I wasn’t really “training” between races, but when I think about it terms of firing neural circuits, making mistakes, and re-firing those circuits better and more efficiently, it totally does. There is really no substitute for the deep practice that I get from actually racing cyclocross, and part of my struggle to recreate that success since moving to State College has been the inconvenience of living 2-3 hours from real races with the starting line, course tape, and timing cues that I need to ignite me into that state. And there is a reason that "cyclocross practice" is among the top phrases that make me cringe, along with "lean protein" and "requirements gathering". Unless I have the cues present to get me into that deep practice state, it's just riding bikes on grass, and I hate riding bikes on grass.

What I have gained by reflecting on my own moments on the right side of HSE was that talent might not have been the right word to use in my cycling happiness equation. Maybe it’s more about pleasantly surprising yourself when you exceed the results that you believe you’ve earned. That’s actually kind of perfect, because even prior to this conclusion, I had planned for my next post to tackle the problem of entitlement when the forks get too high. What I’m learning in this is that the currency of competitive cycling is so much more vast and complicated than most of us understand, but hopefully some further examination of what’s usually written off as genetics, or even magic, will provide some guidance as to how to negotiate it.

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