The Rage to Master

Mar 16, 2016

What defines a prodigy, across every sport and art? According to a prominent psychologist, it’s the “rage to master”… It’s a mad hunger to hyper-achieve that can be seen in the eyes of Phelps, Ledecky, and few others… 

You know the look. You see it behind the blocks, as they walk out stone-faced, on another plane of existence. They have those highway eyes, looking far off down the pool to a destination they’ve already determined. It’s somewhere no athlete has gone before. They’re about to do something that will astound. All we can do is sit back and watch.

You know the look. The one at the finish, soon after they touch the wall. They turn and see the clock, and then they combust. All the focus and execution and pain comes pouring out of them in a defiant celebration. You know they’re happy, but they don’t look it. They look angry, full of righteous rage.

Ellen Winner, the psychology chair at Boston College, would probably identity that look as the “rage to master.” The aptly named Winner wrote the book on child prodigies – literally. It’s called Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. What appears to be anger might better be described as a maniacal persistence, an all-consuming devotion to the task. “They’re singled-minded,” she says. “They just want to get better and better.”

I came across Winner and that quote in a recent ESPN magazine article about Bryce Harper, the grotesquely talented slugger for the Washington Nationals. Harper has been a baseball prodigy since Little League. Now he’s the reigning National League MVP, who’s coming off one of the greatest statistical seasons in history. He’s 23-years-old and already appears to be a lock for Cooperstown. (Barring a freak injury or doping scandal – both of which have derailed many a fine career…) Harper is also the most polarizing figure in his sport. In short, he seems like an asshole.

Whether that’s true or not is besides the point. Fans will never truly know the stars on the field. The persona they present under the brights lights is seldom the same one they bring home to family and friends. But here’s what’s impossible to deny about Harper: He wants it, bad. The guy burns to succeed. His eyes – both before and after feats of athletic brilliance – have that same scary intensity we see in Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky.

It’s a rage to master that can’t be taught or coached into being. It requires that exceptionally rare combination of otherworldly talent and the youthful work ethic to match. And it does need to happen young. Deciding to kick it into the gear when you hit college might get you far, but it won’t get you to another universe of all-time sport-redefining greatness. To get there the real work needs to happen well before the age of 18, for years on end.

This is well-charted territory, whether we’re talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule or talent being overrated. But this isn’t about the work that went into it, this is about the peculiar psychology that sparked it. Where exactly does that rage to master come from?

It’s easy to mine the prodigy’s family for answers, but that quickly becomes a frustrating exercise in armchair psychology. Some families are happy, some broken. All are unknowable. Extreme abilities seem to come not so much from genetics (though that certainly plays a role) as from a blessed ether. Some children just get it, and they master whatever “it” is quickly. And then they strive to improve, and improve and improve, until it consumes their lives. The talent is matched by desire.

Until we find them standing on some important stage, under the lights, delivering performances so special it’s hard to fathom.

It can be worrisome, when you look closely at these raging prodigies. For the love of the game – what a cute, trite thought. It’s hard to witness much joy as you take in these specimens. It’s there, I’m sure, underneath the layers of blind passion, but happiness is a surface concern when you’re devoured by your commitment. I don’t envy the parents or siblings of such prodigies. This rage to master can white out all other priorities. It can make mortal successes seem silly, even when perspective confirms that those other concerns are far more important, in the end, than mastering whatever it is that must be mastered.

Yet when these rare comets share their gifts, goddamn is it hard to look away. That look – before and after – is a peak inside another dimension.

We’ll never know where it comes from. But we know it when we see it.