Home from school that afternoon, Cole took milk and a sandwich to his room and closed the door. His cell phone and iPod remained downstairs, where their temptations were out of sight. Likewise, he yanked the cord that connected his computer to the virtual world, and started up a word-processing program. He lay on his bed to eat and contemplate the ceiling.
Cole reached under his bed for a book, a review copy he found on his father’s desk downstairs. Cole studied the yellow cover, and the red script that read “Bounce.”
He had picked up the book hoping for a racy read, but it wasn’t that: the book was written by Matthew Syed, medal-winning table tennis player who looked at the competition and realized that most of it came from the neighborhood where he grew up. Looking for an explanation, Syed concluded that much great success -- whether athletic or artistic -- resulted from opportunity meeting relentless practice. The author, read Cole, saw 10,000 hours of practice as a reasonable minimum for achieving success.
“No shit,” said Cole aloud, no stranger to long practice.
Cole learned years earlier that part of the secret of cool was focus, focus on one aspect of life at a time. He saw this in the athletes that his father profiled, boxers who worked on punch for a month, or a golfer who refined her swing for a season. The best athletes worked dispassionately, putting aside ego to focus on the task at hand. Then, once the swing was perfected, the same athlete would move onto the next technique. The very best strengthened one weakness at at time.
Likewise, Cole considered the skills for leadership success in high school, listing them aloud as he lay on his bed.
“Academics, social mobility, appearance, athletic prowess, knowing everybody’s name, doing good stuff like charity, and crazy self-confidence,” he said to the ceiling.
Sure, he saw other avenues to success, by way of writing, the arts, maybe running for an office. Those weren’t his skills, though, or his interests, so he put them aside, and focused on what he could do well.
What Cole also learned by observation was that without academic success, all other social gains in high school were like a castle built on quicksand; failure, especially public failure, could bring down the edifice. He did schoolwork and homework diligently, rarely complaining -- what was the point and who had the time? -- rarely passionate about the subject matter.
When Chemistry meant finding logarithms, he did so. He practiced a dozen at a time until he could effortlessly demonstrate in class. Spanish asked for the future subjunctive, so Cole did the exercises in the back of the workbook until he knew it cold, then tore the pages out. For part of his strategy was to keep such efforts under wraps.
Cole opened the book at random and read about David Beckham, now a supermodel as much as a soccer player, who spent days of his youth practicing the kick that made him famous. This made sense to Cole; how else could you convince the world watching that your achievements were effortless unless you worked hard and long hours? The trick to high school, thought Cole, was keeping those efforts a secret.
Daisy scratched on Cole’s bedroom door, so let her in and scratched her head. She licked the last sandwich crumbs from his hand.
“Here’s what I want to know,” he told the dog. “How did those guys know which thing to do? Which sport or whatever to pursue? Which is mine?”
The dog sniffed the floor, looking for more crumbs.
Cole turned to his computer and considered the list of assignments that he had posted. Calculus, check.
Spanish, not due for a week.
English, Act II of Hamlet, done.
What loomed was a History project, an architectural scavenger hunt, where the class had to find Ionic and Doric columns, Rosettes and even limestone artichokes in local buildings. The task included locating and photographing the elements, describing them fully, and connecting them to the ancient world. It was, as Cole told Daisy, “a shitload of work.”
But it had to be done, so Cole picked up the assignment sheet and walked downstairs. He took a digital camera from his father’s desk and headed to the end of Orange Heights Avenue, closely followed by Daisy.
“That shit-crazy house has all kinds of columns,” said Cole. “Let me get a couple of these checked off my list.”