What Kobe Bryant can teach you about writing

Today’s guest blogger is none other than Andy — my roommate, puppy daddy, former-RA, and oh yeah, boyfriend of 3.83 years. Although Andy wrote the “nonfiction novel” New House 5, he claims he is not a writer. Although he claims he is not a writer, he is constantly telling me what I’m doing wrong. (Just kidding!) No, in truth Andy is extremely supportive of me, serving both as cheerleader and butt-kicker, depending on what is needed. Plus he cooks! What more could I ask for?

It makes me really happy to have him guest blogging for me today. (Maybe it can even become a semi-regular thing?) Thanks, Andy!

I never used to think about writers. After all, I’m a businessman. We don’t have much time to think about “creative” professions. I negotiate for a living. I manage millions of dollars every day. I bought my first share of stock when I was 15. What do I care about writers?

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writers and more specifically, writing as a profession. I’ve lived with a writer for two years, and I admit, I’ve learned a lot. Being a professional writer isn’t the relaxed hippie lifestyle I imagined. It’s a harsh, demanding, unforgiving industry. If you can get an agent to like you, and an editor to like your agent, and a publisher to like your editor, and the bookstores to like your publisher, and a penny-pinching consumer to shell out $8 for the words you so meticulously crafted, you might be able to afford to feed yourself.

So the businessman (and the closet psychologist) in me began to wonder: what makes a successful writer? I stumbled upon one answer while watching the NBA finals. As the announcers talked about the fanatical work ethic and incomparable talent of Kobe Bryant, the avid sports fan in me began to put the pieces together. The characteristics that make a successful professional writer are the same traits that make a successful professional athlete.

The more I thought about it, the more similarities I found between people who try to make careers out of creative skills (writing, acting, artistry) and those who make careers out of athletics – a group I’ll refer to collectively as “Artists.” Some Artists are simply more talented than most others. I call these people “Gifteds” – those with pure, natural ability. There is a lot that coaching and practice can improve, but you can’t teach a basketball player to be seven feet tall, and you can’t teach a writer to imagine Harry Potter. Then there are Artists who eat, sleep, and breathe what they do – I call these people “ESBs.” ESBs shoot 2,000 jump shots a day during the off-season, or write until 3 o’clock in the morning to finish a story.

Gifteds who are not ESBs rarely become celebrities. They may get one book published, or play professional sports for a couple years, but ESBs who are not Gifted generally don’t end up at the top of their profession. They end up as coaches or professors. It’s the very small percentage of people who are Gifteds and ESBs that become household names. I call these people “Kobes,” after NBA star Kobe Bryant, an Artist who personifies the combination of sheer talent and unwavering dedication that I am talking about.

Bryant has the innate ability to put a round ball into a circular hoop from a variety of distances and angles. But he’s not a superstar just because he has a gift; he became a 4-time NBA champion because he is consumed with playing basketball and improving his game. If you Google “Kobe Bryant Workout,” it returns 320,000 results. Bryant’s famed “666” workout stands for 6 months a year, 6 days a week, 6 hours a day (which includes conditioning, cardio, weight-lifting and basketball). This is in addition to a grueling 82-game schedule. How intense are Bryant’s workouts? In an interview with Men’s Fitness magazine, Bryant says, “The key is to push yourself to a level where you’re hurting… you want to spit up blood, that sort of thing.”

If you’re looking for a writing analogy, you can easily replace “Kobe” with “King.” Stephen King is one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers ever. This is partly driven by his incomparable imagination (which some attribute to his witnessing of a friend being killed by a train when King was just a child), and partly because he is an ESB. King is one of the most disciplined writers in the industry, setting a daily 2,000 word quota and not allowing himself to stop writing until the quota is met. Writing is not just a job to King, it’s a lifestyle. In response to the question of why he writes, King simply says, “There was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and I can’t imagine not doing what I do.”

This observation goes beyond creatives and athletes. Doctors and lawyers and businessmen are ESBs and Gifteds as well; they’re just less visible than Artists. There’s a perception that “traditional” professions are more conducive to ESBs, “creative” professions more to Gifteds. A closer look shows that regardless of the profession, there are always ESBs, Gifteds, Kobes, and everybody else.

There are a couple points to all of this:

1) To all of you Artists out there, I commend you for trying to make it in such competitive industries. I have a newfound respect for you.

2) Regardless of your profession, it’s important figure out if you’re a Gifted, an ESB, a Kobe or “everybody else.” I’m not saying you can’t have a fulfilling and successful career if you’re not a Kobe, but understanding where you fall, and understanding what differentiates Kobes from the rest of the world, provides a reference point.

A final thought from the Eagle Scout in me: Be Prepared. The one constant for all successful Artists is that they took advantage of their opportunities. The humble Artists (as well as the disgruntled ones) attribute this to luck. I carry a fortune cookie paper in the liner of my baseball cap that reads, “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” Good luck to all of you.

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8 Comments

  1. Alex

    Hi Andy! :-)

  2. y’hear that kristan? you should be a professional basketball player. =)

  3. Mengfei

    Your title sounded just like a chapter heading to one of pop science books (eg “What Cheerios teach you about decision making”) I bet you could even turn this into a TED talk :)

    The one hesitation I have with your advice is figuring out whether you are a Gifted, ESB, Kobe, or “everyone else” That seems like an impossible, if not potentially disheartening task. Why don’t we just acknowledge the two pieces of the puzzle and aim for Kobe?

  4. Aisha

    Haha there’s a rumor that Stephen King has a writing team working for him, because 1) It doesn’t seem possible for one person to pump out that many novels in such a short period of time, and 2) Apparently his writing style differs a lot in a few of his books (my boyfriend thinks so anyway.) Just a rumor, though!

    I had no idea Kobe Bryant practiced that much, that’s amazing.

    I really liked your entry. I agree that many celebrities are gifted and extremely passionate about their work, and lucky to boot.

    (Hehe about the fortune cookie paper in the liner of your cap. I used to carry one in my wallet until it got wet and became illegible.)

  5. I have to admit… I’m not an ESB. I like to think I’m a Gifted, haha, but who really knows. (I know it’s really a scale, but the categories just serve to simplify.)

    So then the question becomes, what concrete things can I do to make up for not being an ESB?

    I’m sure you (Andy) will let me know. :P

  6. Joe

    I mean, isn’t it sort of blatantly obvious that someone who is both incredibly gifted and incredibly dedicated will be good at something? That’s like saying a lemon will be yellow or you can drive a car.

    And both your interpretations of “gifteds” and “ESBs” are a little off. Players like Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady did a fine job of getting famous and being commercially successful without working exceptionally hard to do so. Wade Boggs busted his ass and made the Hall of Fame despite lacking the natural gifts of a more talented player. There are hundreds of athletes and writers on both ends of the spectrum who gained notoriety. There’s no guarantee of success or failure for either type of person.

    Finally, just a little thing, but I think King is a pretty poor choice of someone to call an immensely talented author. Is he good? Yes. But it’s not like he’s submitted an 81 point performance or anything like that (i.e., a book that will be remembered forever). His 2,000 word quota shows that he’s obviously an “ESB”, but greatness doesn’t necessarily follow mass production. Vonnegut or Kingsolver or even Rowling would have been a better example to use.

  7. Okay closeted psychologist…who is a boy band enthusiast!

    Totally reminded me of the Malcolm Gladwell article, which is also based off Outliers. I feel that any athlete in professional sports is some what gifted actually.

    You are gifted Kristan, so maybe it really is writing more (hint nudge) and finding that opportunity (like Amazon, Kenyon) and launching yourself because you have the right moment!

    • Angie’s recent blog post: Hope

  8. Andy

    Apologize for the late response, I didn’t realize it’s proper blog ettiquete to respond to comments.

    Alex – Hi to you, looking forward to finally meeting you at your wedding, or maybe sooner

    Albert – I think Stan would be a better professional golfer. She’s getting pretty good.

    Mengfei – Stan came up with the title, but it’s totally something I would have come up with too. I definitely think it’s possible to figure out what you are, but agree that it could be disheartening, demotivating, or irrelevant depending on the person. I actually think your advice – “acknowledge the two pieces and aim for Kobe,” is better advice than my “figure out what you are for reference.” So thanks for interpreting my blog better than me.

    Aisha – Thanks for the comment. My fortune is getting pretty old and smelly, I may have to toss it soon.

    Stan – I will definitely let you know. I think I did 5 minutes ago.

    Joe – Agree it’s intuitive, that’s the point, to attempt to simplify what makes professional success for Artists (using my own subjective definition of success). Wade Boggs was a Gifted – his gift was his hand-eye coordination, which got him into the Hall of Fame. I asked Cal Ripken once about great hitters and he told me “Wade Boggs is one of the most gifted hitters I have ever seen personally play the game.” I worked in the Minnesota Twins organization for 2 years and saw the ESB/Gifted/Kobe dynamic play out a lot, I think it’s more visible it the minor league and college level for athletes. I think King is successful because he’s found a way to write that millions of people enjoy and connect to, and he’s become a houehold name doing so. I don’t know much about Vonnegut and Rowling, they may also be good examples. I have to admit I’ve never heard of the other one you mentioned.

    Angie – I’m working on some new boy band songs, perhaps another performance is in the future. Completely agree that any professional athlete is gifted, as a sports fan I often compare the best player on the team to the worst, but I lose sight of the fact that the worst player on the team is more talented at his/her sport than 99.9999% of the human population. I’ve never read Outliers – I probably should, I like Gladwell’s stuff. And I agree that Stan is gifted :)

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