This week’s conversation is with David Epstein.

David is author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He is a science writer and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and before that was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he authored or co-authored a number of the magazine’s most high profile pieces.

Despite his success as a writer, David didn’t always know that was what he was meant to do.

Prior to becoming a science writer, David was an 800-meter runner and University record holder at Columbia University, where he studied geology and astronomy. He lived and worked both on a seismic research vessel in the Pacific Ocean as well as in the Arctic as a science researcher.

The trigger for David becoming an investigative reporter was the sudden collapse and death of a friend and teammate during a track competition. David was compelled to get to the bottom of what really happened that day and it led him on a much deeper journey: to understand the relationship between sport and gene.

This conversation is about curiosity. It’s about having the courage to seek the truth. It’s about the commitment to share the truth with sensitivity.

We get into the topic of self-discovery and how valuable “having space” can be when it comes to innovating and pushing boundaries.

We learn about his writing process and how to tell a compelling story.

David’s work ran contradictory to some of the findings of both Malcolm Gladwell and previous Finding Mastery guest, Dr. Anders Ericsson (episode #045 — brilliant), so this is something I was very curious to learn more about.

We also discuss how race and gender affect performance in sport.

I found this conversation to be deeply thought provoking and applicable to all, no matter your craft or interests. I hope this inspires you to continue down your path of self-discovery.

“It all comes down to exploration. Whether that’s learning about your self or continuing to find projects that are going to motivate you or just the humility that comes with realizing you’re still far away from having it figured out.”

In This Episode:

  • How he became interested in sport science… running track with Jamaicans in high school and Kenyans in college
  • The driving force behind his writing: the curiosity for the truth and the courage and commitment to share that truth with sensitivity 
  • How the supportive nature of his parents helped offset his knack for being self-critical
  • The catalyst for his investigative writing: his teammate passing away after suffering a heart attack on the track
  • What he learned from his findings for his book, Sports Gene
  • The tradeoff that occurs when focusing on achieving in short term vs. long term
  • How he views mastery
  • Insights on the journey of self-discovery: importance of having the space to innovate
  • The value of being open-minded, having projects going on outside of your main job, and manufacturing your own turf
  • Why he attempts to falsify his own ideas
  • His relationship with cynicism, optimism, and pessimism 
  • Why he thinks of his writing process in the same way as cutting film, creating compelling in and out points to propel someone to the next section of the book
  • Contradicting Malcolm Gladwell & Anders Ericsson 10k hours rule in his book yet being open to civil debate
  • The difference in physical abilities across gender, race, etc.
  • What he predicts for the future of sport
  • The issues he has with early hyper specialization in sport
  • Why leaning on analytics can lead to reductionism
  • Why great results are different than being a master


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On mastery: “I think mastery is getting to that stage where you have enough insight into yourself that you can start to dictate the sort’ve iterative trial and error, where you find the individual environment that  will help you to proceed to optimal outcomes for your completely unique Genotype and psychology and environment.”

On self-discovery:

If you need results right now in some cases what makes the best right now might not be the thing that teaches you the most about what will give you the best long term development. That’s a balance that we’re always all [facing]m all the time.”

“Goals are important but I think sometimes they can become so narrow or so strictly patterned based on what something that somebody else has already done, that they eliminate the kind of mental digressions that can lead to some of the greatest discoveries.”

On character, self-discovery: “I started asking myself, ‘Am I the type of person who wants to spend my whole life learning one or two things new to the world or am I the type of person who wants to spend much shorter chunks of time learning things new to me and finding interesting ways to translate them or combine them, and the answer became increasingly clear that I was the latter.”

A phrase he loves from Bernard Suits describing sports: “The voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.”

“I think it is our duty to attempt to falsify our own ideas.”

On his tolerance for debate: “I know there’s things I’m wrong about. I don’t know what they are. That’s the problem.”

On early hyper specialization in sport:

“I worry a lot about the trend toward early hyper-specialization – the aggregate data says the typical elite performer has a range, a breadth of experience early on where they learn how to use their body, they learn what sports they like and you know it’s almost like they’re becoming bilingual and thus becoming more able to learn another language later, but they’re doing it with perceptual skill.”

“I think despite good intentions, we might end up making really good 10-year-olds but are sometimes ruining some of the best 20-year-olds.”

On his issues with providing certain genetic information (Actn3): “We have a tendency of making things important because we can measure them, not measuring them because they are important.”

“Success is autonomy. It’s freedom to pursue your own interests and projects.”


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Investigative Reporter at

David Epstein is an investigative reporter at ProPublica and the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, published by Penguin in August 2013.