The Absolute Need for Mastery of the Boring

A few weeks so ago, I watched two college teams play for the right to go to the NCAA tournament.  One team, down twenty points at halftime, rallied behind the sensational play of a single star and pulled out the victory by one point in the last seconds.  That was the way television commentators and the print media reported it.  I saw it very differently. One of the starting guards for the losing team missed seven out of twelve free throws, two of them in the last fifteen seconds.  This wasn’t a fluke, a bad day for that player – he had a year-long 40% free throw success percentage.  And just how many games in the NCAA tournament have been lost by “bad” free throw shooting?  Or won by good free throw shooting?  More than just a handful.

Good free-throw shooting is clearly important to basketball success.  Just look at the NBA.  While the free-throw shooting average for NCAA players is 69%, this year’s NBA average is 77%, and 98% of NBA starters have free throw percentages above 60%, with 75% of those starters making more than three-quarters of their free throws.

To my mind, this is a good example of what lies behind excellence – the ability to master even the most boring aspect of one’s profession. Another point associated with this is that simply knowing what a free throw is and when it is employed isn’t the same as being able to do it.  It requires practice – lots of practice. Shooting free throws day after day and improving technique is not exciting; it’s boring.  But the fact that there are very, very few poor free-throw shooters in the NBA is a good indication that mastery of the boring pays off.

The same is true in writing.  Learning grammar and even spelling [because spell-checkers don’t catch everything, by any means] is also boring and time consuming, and there are some writers who are, shall I say, slightly grammatically challenged, but most writers know their grammar.  They have to, because editors usually don’t have the time or the interest in cleaning up bad writing.  It also gets boring to proofread page after page of what you’ve written, from the original manuscript, the copy-edited manuscript, the hardcover galleys, the paperback galleys, and so on… but it’s necessary.

Learning how to fly, which most people believe is exciting, consists of a great deal of boredom, from learning to follow checklists to the absolute letter, to practicing and practicing landings, take-offs, and emergency procedures hour after hour, day after day until they’re second nature.  All that practice is tedious… and absolutely necessary.

My opera director wife is having greater difficulty with each year in getting students to memorize their lines and music – because it’s boring – but you can’t sing opera or musical theatre if you don’t know your music and lines.

I could go on and on, detailing the necessary “boring” requirements of occupation after occupation, but the point behind all this is that our media, our educational system, and all too many parents have instilled a message that learning needs to be interesting and fun, and that there’s something wrong with the learning climate if the students lose interest.  Students have always lost interest.  We’re genetically primed to react to the “new” because it was once a survival requirement.  But the problem today is that the skills required to succeed in any even moderately complex society require mastery of the basics, i.e., boring skills, or sub-skills, before one can get into the really interesting aspects of work.  Again, merely being able to look something up isn’t the same as knowing it, understanding what it means, and being able to do it, time after time without thinking about it and without having to look it up repeatedly.

And the emphasis on fun and making it interesting is obscuring the need for fundamental mastery of skills, and shortchanging all too many young people.

7 thoughts on “The Absolute Need for Mastery of the Boring”

  1. Brian says:

    True, true, true. I see that so clearly in software engineering. Many people saw (and still see) it as a chance to get rich without working hard. This was an especially bad problem in the DotCom boom.

    I saw many people who thought they would be a rock-star programmer but couldn’t do the work. True software engineering involves more than designing radical new architectures. It includes project planning, documentation, unit tests, and countless hours of “polishing” for a truly professional product. I see too many people who would like to swoop and dump some nugget of insight and then collect a huge paycheck. Sorry, but insights are cheap. Hard work with attention to detail is priceless.

  2. Ian Leafe says:

    Moderating comments must be very tedious?

  3. Rajeev says:

    I will throw out a few more….
    – practicing the movement pattern (ghosting) in squash
    – memorizing the multiplication tables at least up to the number 12 for budding engineers

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  6. I thought I was the only one who had the same point of view.

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