What the World’s Top Athletes Can Teach You About Learning
What if the best way to learn how to ride a bike was to learn how to ride a unicycle?
When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was acting.
I just had to figure out how to be chosen by directors at auditions.
So I got to work.
I went to theater school, registered into agencies, built myself a portfolio, created a network, and eventually went from an unknown small-town kid in Belgium to appearing on TV and at the cinema.
I even got recognized twice!
But this is not the subject of this article.
Rather, the topic explores the principle behind the fact that it was learning everything but acting…that taught me how to act.
Want to Be an Actor? Learn to Direct
When I was living and studying in Rotterdam, one of the best times of the year was the Rotterdam Film Festival.
The Festival gave avid movie-goers like me the occasion to assist in public interviews of renowned actors and directors such as Olivier Assayas, Charlotte Rampling, or Barry Jenkins, Moonlight director.
Jenkins’ conference was the one I had anticipated the most because I knew he would win the Oscar for best movie.
When the time came to listen to him, I wasn’t disappointed!
Jenkins spoke about his debut, how he was “discovered” then funded to make Moonlight, and why he had written the movie in Brussels (it was the most boring town in the world, had he been told).
While Jenkins’ life was interesting to know about, one piece of information particularly stayed with me, something I had been on the lookout for many, many years.
It was how directors chose the actors to play in their movies.
As Jenkins proceeded to answer, I was on the edge of my seat. After all, being chosen by a director is an actor’s main job.
The rest is rather easy.
Know your lines, come on time.
That’s it, actors life is rather chilled.
And there I was, about to learn the secret directors had been keeping for themselves for so long.
Here’s how it happened.
During the audience Q&A, someone asked how Jenkins had cast the actor that was playing the boy.
Jenkins took his mic and answered the question.
He said “when I was a student, I read a book called “In the blink of an eye” and they talked about the importance of keeping eye contact. So, we chose the actor that blinked the less at the audition”.
I was bewildered.
Broadening My Knowledge
The first thing I did the following day was to buy the book and read it cover to cover.
At the end of it, I can’t deny I was disappointed. All that interested me in the book was what Jenkins had said.
I had learned nothing else, or so I thought.
As time went by, I started noticing I was thinking about movies differently.
In a certain way, the book had taught me what an editor expected from his director.
I was puzzled. I hadn’t expected a book about editing to teach me directing.
And yet, I would experience this phenomenon in many other areas of my life.
Later that year, I read Yvanna Chubbuck’s The Power of the Actor.
I remember being impressed with the care she took detailing the importance of relationships between characters, and how each of these characters was in fact acting out of a need to maintain a relationship with someone else.
That book taught me screenwriting.
Finally, I later read Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, in which he detailed the adventure that making a movie is, how it is produced from screenwriting to the premiere at the cinema, and finally, how it makes money.
That book taught me about acting because it taught me how directors viewed actors, and what they expected from them, similarly to what Jenkins had said about casting actors.
And there I was, reading books about acting that taught me screenwriting; reading books about editing that taught directing; and reading books about directing that taught me acting.
After I put into practice what I had learned, I obtained later that year the first big (and only) role of my acting career (which I permanently stopped a year and a half later, but that is another story).
Barry Jenkins and all the other directors had taught me how to act.
I had unraveled the secret.
All Is Connected
In his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, journalist and author David Epstein outlines how the best sports players never focused on one sport only but played a range of sports until eventually dedicating themselves to a professional career.
This is to some extent the same conclusion that Vikram Mansharamani makes in his book “How to think for yourself”, outlining that experts make mistakes more often than people less specialized than them but with a wider breadth of knowledge does.
This leads me to question whether the direct path to learning a skill is the correct one? If you want to learn marketing, shouldn’t you learn sales instead? Or psychology?
A Vision of Knowledge
We tend to view knowledge as bubbles. The bigger it is, the more knowledgeable you are.
But I don’t think it is accurate.
Rather than bubbles, I tend to see knowledge as a sphere made out of tiny pieces of information that, once coming together, form the whole of the form, each cores connecting the others.
This leads me to think that if one wishes to learn about human nature, one should dig into economics.
By the same token, if one wishes to learn about economics, one may be interested to study entrepreneurship instead.
The Bottom Line
The ultimate secret I am seeking through my reading and thinking is a sort of theory of everything, a process, an explanation that could be applied to any problem and always give the best answer.
I imagine this theory to be a giant sphere made out of all the knowledge in the world, where each piece of information is connected to all the other cores and illustrating the perfect representation of the broader picture.
The only problem is that this sphere is probably impossible to build.
Indeed, as the saying goes, as our island of knowledge grows…so does the shore of our ignorance.