Yesterday I finished reading The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. It's an interesting piece of nonfiction about the creation of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. (There's also some stuff in the there about the making of a 19th century serial killer. But that's another story). I then spent several hours watching the Olympics in Rio. In both, I was reminded of what is essential in the making of magic (a.k.a. a sequence of inspired moments that result in one truly magnificent creation).
I noticed this play out most noticably between two of Larson's main characters. Daniel Burnham, an architect, and Frederick Olmsted, a landscape architect. Burnham was a no nonsense kind of guy. He wasn't necessarily all that creative or even original. But he was tenacious. His dream was to finally show the world Chicago's power and potential by creating a World's Fair that would surpass the one previously held in Paris.
Olmsted, by contrast, was a bonafide artist. He was full of grand ideas and lofty ideals. I don't think it would be a stretch to say he was a genius at what he did. But he was also given to anxiety and depression and was plagued by the idea that nothing would turn out as he intended. He was suspicious of those whom he worked with and was convinced everyone would eventually destroy all his hard work. I'm sure it comes as no surprise one of these men accomplished what he intended for the fair, and the other, not so much.
The thing is, Olmsted was right to doubt everything. A reasonable human being would have taken one look at what these men were trying to accomplish and say it was simply not possible. And it's not as though Olmsted hadn't succeeded in the past. He helped design such magnificent creations as Central Park in New York City and the Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. But when in came to the 1893 World's Fair Olmsted couldn't look past the obstacles. In my reading of Larson's book it seemed as though Olmsted checked out pretty early. A part of him gave up. And there's no amount of genius that can make up for a lack of heart.
I'm continually amazed at how often I come across this idea that perseverance trumps talent. History likes to remember geniuses. They get held up as the gold standard for what it takes to accomplish something truly magnificent. But it's more often the scrappy, determined types like Burnham who make the most difference in the world. These are the folks who keep fighting for their dreams, day in and day out, even when everything turns to shit.
Take, for example, United States swimmer Cody Miller who won the bronze medal last night. Miller, already at a disadvantage because of his short stature, has a congenital chest deformity that limits the amount of air he is able to take in. He also has asthma. Yet despite this (or because of it) he pushed himself beyond these obstacles to win a bronze medal at the Olympics. Talent, genius, giftedness, all that stuff is great. But it doesn't amount to much in the face of obstacles. For this, one needs a whole lot of heart. And by this I mean the willingness to live like an "old man," as Miller put it, sticking to a rigorous training routine. Even world-record-shattering swimmer Katie Ledecky, when asked "What's your secret?" answered matter-of-factly, "There is no secret." She just works hard, she said.
Magic, it seems to me, is most often made by the dogged, scrappy, tenacious types and is the result of a lot of unglamorous hard work. I find this incredibly inspiring.