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Is there a dark side to becoming the best?

Yes.

To many it’s good news that we’re rarely limited by natural talent. Spend 10,000 hours constantly challenging yourself and you too can be an expert.

But what does that mean if you want to be the best? The amount of practice and devotion required can pass into the realm of the pathological.

Harvard’s Howard Gardner studied a number of creative geniuses (among them Freud, Einstein, Picasso) and found that to reach those heights requires enormous sacrifice in other areas of life — what amounted to a Faustian bargain.

Einstein lived in self-imposed isolation, Freud had an ascetic existence and Picasso became a selfish monster.

And Gardner’s study reveals that without these personal sacrifices they would not have been capable of their great achievements.

If hours alone determine genius then it is inevitable that reaching the greatest heights will be indistinguishable from pathological obsession.

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence. The nature of this arrangement differs: In some cases (Freud, Eliot, Gandhi), it involves the decision to undertake an ascetic existence; in some cases, it involves a self-imposed isolation from other individuals (Einstein, Graham); in Picasso’s case, as a consequence of a bargain that was rejected, it involves an outrageous exploitation of other individuals; and in the case of Stravinsky, it involves a constant combative relationship with others, even at the cost of fairness. What pervades these unusual arrangements is the conviction that unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

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About Eric Barker