“The genius is the one most like himself.”
– Thelonius Monk
I was always told to pick one thing. Pick one major in college to define my life, one career to put all my effort into, one way to make a living and carve out my way, one movement practice, or one sport in which to compete. I was told to find one great passion in which I could single-mindedly and relentlessly improve and immerse myself.
I did my best to listen, but it never sat well with me. When I’d dedicate periods of my life to a singular focus, I would ultimately feel as if I was acting against my character.
Those close to me would tell me I was impulsive and easily distracted and prone to letting myself be pulled in several directions. It created anxiety that nearly put me down, but I no longer believe what they said.
While I have more of a hyperactive temperament than many, I don’t think I lack focus or discipline. My scattered, excitable mind has played a role in how I’ve successfully gone in many directions, but some thought should be given to this message of living toward a single course.
Think about it. You’re bombarded with lecturing voices from every direction and channel in lifting and fitness. They say you need to walk the straight and narrow if you’re to improve. This is especially true for specific factions:
Fill in the blank.
First, Be Good At One
There is, in fact, a significant upside to first picking just one subject to grasp if you’re starting with no skill or focus in anything. It’s a fundamental requisite. Even if this first thing is wrong for you, beginning and concentrating your efforts on something is better than nothing at all.
Obsessing over if it’s where you belong or what you should dedicate yourself entirely to will only slow the process. And, it will keep you from learning how to understand and recognize when you eventually are drawn to something specific. That’s all that matters anyway—learning to concentrate. This intention is most important. It doesn’t matter if you become the best or whether or not you are even great at it.
Nobody would say that having many skills across the board is a bad thing and that a well-rounded person isn’t useful. But to be useful in many areas, you have to dedicate yourself and single-mindedly apply yourself to one dominant discipline first.
Create Your Model
Once you learn how to aim your effort in one specialty, you’ll have trained your mind to focus, and you can use this skill again in different directions. You’ve earned something invaluable—the power to become and remain disciplined in whatever direction you work.
With the strength to add more to who you are, accurately, and follow through with your intention, you can be more. You can extend yourself and become utterly multifaceted as you continue to add several subjects of study and practice.
If months or even years from now, you find that whatever you’ve been working toward isn’t what drives you, or the way you’ve been working at it is incomplete to what you feel will help you live with passion and purpose, that’s okay. You have your model, and you can refocus.
Imagine you trained for over a decade to squat the most weight you possibly could. Then you wake up and decide nothing would make you happier than to prepare for long-distance wilderness races. You feel an inexplainable call to go outside and take on that physical challenge.
Your entire approach to physical training will turn on its head. It would look nothing as it did before, but you still gained plenty from your ten years of dedicated strength training that will help in your new practice. All of the leg strength you’ve developed will help with the grueling miles ahead. You’ve acquired insight on how to periodize training for physical qualities from a macro view. Even though the focus is drastically different, you now have wisdom on how to push and rest and adjust instruction and how to do it accurately and promptly.
You’ve created your structure on grasping skills, so when you move into new spaces and scopes, you can integrate it all and become a competent force across many disciplines.
Find Your Specific Genius
If you follow through on this theory, you won’t be the best in any one section, but you may be the best across your particular set of categories of practice and expertise. And, this will be unique to you. It won’t seem like you have a random collection of skills, but instead, like you’ve created an overarching category of skills made up of the whole of you and the unremitting impact you can be.
Once you develop discipline in one thing, you have the rule over yourself, and you can discipline yourself in many practices. You may not have complete mastery over one particular space. Still, you can have mastery over yourself to cover the set of areas and even possibly create a new scope of aim even as an example for others.
There are phenoms in every sport, physical discipline, and study. They rise, sometimes very quickly, to the top of their field. Some of these athletes trade every bit of balance in their lives to improve in their singular pursuit. They sacrifice everything else to be the best in one thing. Many of the best professional athletes, though not all, fit into this category.
How many stories have you heard of what a mess your favorite ballplayer made of his personal life because he only cared about being the best in his sport? How many people have you met who have every macro counted out and are examples of living a life of fitness who have no personal or family living outside the group of people who think exactly like them? How many fitness influencers are actually in impoverished financial situations?
Those that make the conscious choice to work only to be the best in one thing may have a particular temperament for this. I don’t think I or anyone else is in a position to say that it’s inappropriate for anybody to live life like this if they choose.
But many, even some who dedicate themselves exclusively to some work, will never reach the peak in that area. It’s hard enough to have exclusive devotion and follow-through, but success also isn’t guaranteed even if you follow the model. This dedication requires a payment of sorts, and you may find that you didn’t want to sacrifice all of the rest to be good at one thing when you could have been good at many things.
Many people would do better to become capable and incrementally and indefinitely improve across several specialties. And, this is where you’ll find what makes you great, your genius.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.