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June 15, 2012, 12:11 AM ET
David Foster Wallace on Scouting Personality

by Drew Cannon

So I’m reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – while on the ride from the hotel to the NBPA Top 100 Camp – this morning, and there’s a section that discusses mastery of tennis.

“‘He’s talking about developing the concept of tennis mastery,’ Chu tells the other three… ‘His point is that progress towards genuine Show-caliber mastery is slow, frustrating. Humbling. A question of less talent than temperament…that because you proceed toward mastery through a series of plateaus, so there’s like radical improvement up to a certain plateau, with the only way to get off one of the plateaus and climb up to the next one up ahead is with a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there…’

‘What John’s saying is the types who don’t hang in there and slog on the patient road toward mastery are basically three. Types. You’ve got what he calls your Despairing type, who’s fine as long as he’s in the quick-improvement stage before a plateau, but then he hits a plateau and sees himself seem to stall, not getting better as fast or even seeming to get a little worse, and this type gives in to frustration and despair, because he hasn’t got the humbleness and patience to hang in there and slog, and he can’t stand the time he has to put in on plateaux, and what happens?… He bails, right…

‘Then you’ve got your Obsessive type, J.W. says, so eager to plateau-hop he doesn’t even know the word patient, much less humble or slog, when he gets stalled at a plateau he tries to like will and force himself off it, by sheer force of work and drill and will and practice, drilling and obsessively honing and working more and more, as in frantically, and he overdoes it and gets hurt, and pretty soon he’s all chronically messed up with injuries, and he hobbles around on the court still obsessively overworking, until finally he’s hardly even able to walk or swing, and his ranking plummets…’

‘Then what John considers maybe the worst type, because it can cunningly masquerade as patience and humble frustration. You’ve got the Complacent type, who improves radically until he hits a plateau, and is content with the radical improvement he’s made to get to the plateau, and doesn’t mind staying at the plateau because it’s comfortable and familiar, and he doesn’t worry about getting off it, and pretty soon you find he’s designed a whole game around compensating for the weaknesses and chinks in the armor the given plateau represents in his game, still – his whole game is based on this plateau now. And little by little, guys he used to beat start beating him, locating the chinks of the plateau, and his rank starts to slide, but he’ll say he doesn’t care, he says he’s in it for the love of the game, and he always smiles but there gets to be something sort of tight and hangdog about his smile, and he always smiles and is real nice to everybody and real good to have around but he keeps staying where he is while other guys hop plateaux, and he gets beat more and more, but he’s content.’”

And that’s the fastest I ever improved as a basketball scout.

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