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Haruki Murakami On Talent, Focus And Endurance

"What I talk about when I talk about Running" by Haruki Murakami is a chaste tale of creative discipline, obsession, training, and practice. It’s an honest elucidation that talent is always overrated. In a very physical and explicit way, Haruki explains his very act of creative process. The story Haruki tells in this book is about his experience with running. Among other things, the book is a treasure trove of how habits work, why discipline is important, how creativity is a physical process more than anything else, and more. In the middle of reading you’ll feel that running, by no means, is a physical act but philosophical.

In the preface, Haruki talks about pain and its importance in any creative process and in the process of making things happen.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself.

In a chapter named “Who’s Going to Laugh at Mick Jagger?” Haruki talks about things i.e, setting a clear goal, not enjoying something but doing it for good, and the importance of setting a rhythm on our way. We all know that aiming high and setting a measurable goal is a must for making progress. We know a-z of the SMART method of goal setting but we seldom care. But to get somewhere you have to do things, sometimes things that you dislike do otherwise.

To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed—and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.

Haruki Murakami

Then he talks about one of the most critical problems of the modern society-the problem of outward validation. The crisis of self-esteem. However, it’s very important to ask how much outward validation is important for our work. Is it anything sustainable? Is a standing ovation mandatory for keeping good work going that we certainly know a good work? However, Haruki suggests our competition should be with ourselves and only for the sake of crossing our own set of limitations. 

Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible. For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

Mastering anything is not an act but rather a process. It takes time and continuous effort. You have to do it, and by doing it regularly you’ll make improvements. Everything is practice and faithful hard work. 

When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could only run for about twenty minutes, or thirty. That much left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky.

But as I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day, without taking a break.

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"The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill"-claims Will Smith while talking about his own secret of success. You have to work harder. To be successful you need hard work among other things. 

There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word. Not enough overall exercise, plus not getting my weight down. Without knowing it, I’d developed a sort of arrogant attitude, convinced that just a fair-to-middling amount of training was enough for me to do a good job. It’s pretty thin, the wall  separating healthy confidence and unhealthy pride.

In a chapter named “Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction, I Learned by Running Every Day” Haruki talks about how he keeps running on a continuous basis and why habits matter. Habit works in a very mysterious way. You need to keep it in use. 

I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. 

Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible; if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work. Input this canceled memory once again, and you have to repeat the whole journey from the very beginning.

Talent is perpetually overrated. The sugar-coated version of the story of success always tells the same narrative that our hero comes from a very underprivileged clan in society. Then he took charge of his own life. And through his sheer power of talent and hard work he becomes who he is today. We demoralize any contribution of any other attributes to the success of extraordinary people in our society but talent. Malcolm Gladwell showed this very flawed judgment of success phenomena in an elaborated form in his book Outliers.

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Talent is not something that comes from nowhere. It's the very likely result of focus and endurance. The myth that exists out there is dangerous. We put an unfair amount of importance on talent while making a case for success. However, talent is not the last thing, and it’s obviously not the typical case. The number of exceptionally brilliant people on the earth is limited. And all average people possess a benchmark limit of talent that is enough to become extraordinary. What one needs is an unfair amount of focus and endurance! 

The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal to make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it. 

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. [….] That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years. You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs.

Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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