The Power of Crumminess

Here’s a little-appreciated fact about talent hotbeds: their facilities tend to be rundown. Rusty. Makeshift. Overcrowded.

In a word, crummy.

Exhibit A could be the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has produced Michael Phelps and a squadron of other top national swimmers despite its considerably-less-than-lovely setting.  Or Anand Kumar’s tin-roof math class in India where an astounding 78 percent of the students are accepted to India’s Harvard, the Indian Institutes of Technology. Or any of another dozen other hotbeds where this precise atmosphere is repeated so often that it stops feeling like a coincidence, and starts to feel more like a fingerprint, or a mathematical equation: Crumminess + Crowdedness = Beautiful Talent.

This strikes most of us as surprising, because to the modern American/European mind, crumminess and crowdedness are considered deeply undesirable. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings — and enough space where each age group can gather in splendid isolation.

The question is, is talent developed better in roomy, well-appointed facilities? Or is there something else going on in these remote hotbeds? To put it simply, are there any advantages to being crummy and crowded?

We get an interesting data point from Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, a bona fide hotbed of downhill skiing talent (it’s produced 40-plus Olympians in its 30 years). Burke’s facility is far from rundown (though the classrooms and dorms tend toward the spartan), but it has two features that set it apart: an undersized ski hill, and an ancient, creaking beast of a ski lift that, by all appearances, should have been replaced long ago. It’s an old-fashioned poma lift, and it works like this: you stand on the snow, grab onto a bar/seat contraption, and get dragged uphill.

Most visitors who come to Burke see the old poma lift and presume that it’ll be replaced soon by something faster and more efficient. But the teachers and coaches of Burke would never think of it. To their minds, the poma lift might be their most valuable resource.

From the poma lift, young skiers get a catbird seat to watch the older, better skiers make turns. That physical closeness transforms the small ski hill into a rich kingdom of watching and learning, not to mention motivation. Kids on that poma lift receive the privilege of seeing up close who they might become, if they work hard.

We’re all acquainted with the phenomenon of the scruffy underdog from the remote country who rises up and defeats big, rich Goliath — we see it all the time in sports, music, and business.  And we naturally interpret their success as evidence of the superior hunger of poor countries. They want it more. They’re tougher. They’re quintessential underdogs.

But I think Burke and the other hotbeds gives us a new way to think about underdogs. Crumminess and crowdedness, used properly, can be advantages. The skiers from Burke only look like underdogs — in fact, they’re the overdogs, because they’ve designed the perfect space to create deeper, better practice and ignite more motivation.

So what do the rest of us do? Should we demolish our good facilities and replace them with crowded, tin-roofed structures? Well, not quite. I think it’s more useful to look closely at the useful elements from the hotbeds and try to copy them. A few ideas:

  • 1. Find ways to mix age groups. Isolation diminishes motivation. Nothing creates effort and intensity like staring at older talent, someone who you want to become. Putting groups together — even in passing, as on the poma lift — injects a burst of motivational electricity.
  • 2. Aim to make facilities spartan and simple. Research shows that luxurious surroundings diminish effort — and why not? It’s a signal to our unconscious minds that we’ve got it made — why should we keep taking risks and working hard?
  • 3. When given the choice, invest in people over facilities. Teachers are the real engine of the day-by-day learning process that drives any hotbed. The addition of one master teacher creates more talent than a million dollars’ worth of bricks and mortar.

P.S. — Okay, what do you think?  What would you do if you received a check for $50,000 tomorrow to help develop talent in your team/school? Please rank the following possibilities from most-effective to least-effective:

  • 1. Pay for new facilities/equipment
  • 2. Hire the single best teacher/coach you can find
  • 3. Bring in a top-notch series of camps/seminars for students and teachers
  • 4. Pay existing teachers/coaches more
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