The “rage to master” is one of the most important ideas in the study of talent and giftedness. The term was coined by Ellen Winner, I believe, in her 1996 book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. To paraphrase her definition, it describes the intrinsic motivation of gifted and talented children to master an area of interest; it’s absolutely obsessive in nature, driving the child to focus intensely on that subject matter and voraciously consume new information and skills. If that sounds a bit dramatic, well… it is. A child with the rage to master can happily spend – and often would spend, if allowed – whole days at a time focusing on their chosen domain. These are the type to work into the early morning hours on a regular basis every time they’ve discovered a new facet of that domain, to hell with the consequences.
(I can put a face to all of that, since I happen to be one of those to “suffer” from a rage to master, myself – but unlike my much more focused peers, my domain constantly changes. I may devote a week to learning everything there is to know about the Zodiac killer of San Francisco, then drop it and spend a couple of months mastering natal astrology. I can attest to the intensity described above – each obsession is inevitably full of long nights, hours and hours of devotion to that area, and the consuming of all my thoughts throughout the day. Very good for developing a wide knowledge base, very bad for school and my sleep cycle.)
When you combine the rage to master with something called “deliberate practice,” you may get a child prodigy. “Deliberate practice” is a recent term coined by Professor K Ericsson, one of the leading experts on expertise. Deliberate practice is meaningful practice. It means focusing on improving areas of weakness, using different techniques to learn deeper, and concentrating intently on the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, among other things. An example of deliberate practice in schoolwork would be not to study an entire unit for a test, but assessing the student’s weakest areas in that unit and focusing on studying those ones more intensely; similarly, in music, it can mean focusing on a single area of weakness in a piece instead of playing a whole song through several times for practice.
But why is this so important, really?
I think the rage to master can help solve the problem of anti-intellectualism today. The rage to master, sometimes with the added benefit of deliberate practice, can solve two mysteries that might have added to it: it explains how child prodigies can break the “10-year rule” (forty hours a week for ten years to master any field), and it explains why some people just seem to know everything.
1. How child prodigies break the rules.
When the 10-year rule was first published, psychologists were confused; if it took a decade of full-time labor to master a domain, why could child prodigies less than ten years old still perform at an expert level? The answer is the rage to master, along with deliberate practice. Child prodigies have it; their older counterparts don’t. Whereas an expert may start later in life and practice – not always deliberately – for the alloted amount of time until they gain expertise years later, child prodigies start earlier and do the same amount of practice more quickly. For a potential prodigy with the rage to master, their chosen domain enters every facet of their lives. They have the intrinsic will to completely immerse themselves in that area and almost all of that time is spent on deliberate practice. Child prodigies are not born with their amazing gift; they do the same amount of work any other potential expert would, but they do it faster.
The rage to master explains why the rest of us aren’t prodigies, too. It’s easy to be jealous of a child prodigy if they happen to excel in your adult domain, but consider: if you knew that to reach that same level so early, you had to devote every waking moment of your life for the next few years to intense, exhaustive practice in that domain, would you? Who has the kind of iron will you need to do that but a child with the rage to master?
2. “You’re so smart!”
I think one of the reasons anti-intellectualism is so dominant in western culture is that some people just seem to know everything so effortlessly. For the most part, that’s a lie. Like the case of the child prodigy, there is just as much work involved; the only difference is that it’s not necessarily done faster… it’s just not always seen. No one has the superhuman ability to just know things. “Know-it-alls” do work hard to know what they know. And the reason that we all don’t “know everything” is, similarly, that most just aren’t motivated enough to put in the work – they simply lack the rage to master. Anyone can seemingly “know everything” if they can devote hours a day to learning new things, but many aren’t willing to put in the time and effort.
(Some people do just learn easier than others, but that’s often a result of deliberate practice, whether they realize it or not. There are unconscious techniques that such people use to absorb information that most don’t, and they’ve “practiced” these techniques to their most efficient. Alternatively, it can be a minor anomaly in brain development, like a milder form of savant syndrome.)
The rage to master needs to be more widely understood, I think, to help counter today’s widespread anti-intellectualism. It’s just not socially acceptable to be gifted, or a prodigy. Call me idealistic, but if the rage to master was better understood, I think it might help to change that. There is work involved in becoming highly talented or intelligent, whether it can be done in ten years or two. Those with the rage to master focus on learning and improving in their chosen field to an extent that most people just don’t have the will to. There’s nothing particularly superhuman or ‘unfair’, per se. There is a lot of work and devotion involved that most people don’t usually see, and maybe if that were better understood, we wouldn’t have as much of a problem with anti-intellectualism as we do now.