This is an excerpt from Finding Mastery #095 with author David Epstein in which he shares what he’s found to be important for self-discovery.


Michael Gervais: What are your insights about the path of discovery? What have you found to be important in that journey or even habits or practices that are important for people to grow, to figure some stuff out?

David Epstein: For me I think about that both with respect to my writing life, my previous life in science, and my athletic life in sports. I was fortunate to go from being a walk-on to a university record holder and one of the great benefits of being a walk-on was that I didn’t have to worry about scoring at all.

Nobody cared what I was doing the first year or two and so I pretty much trial and errored myself because I was allowed to not be on varsity and it didn’t matter.

That really turned out to be a gift where I was able to experiment with different types of training because nobody was relying on me to travel with the team or score at meets, and to start to hone in on the kind of things that worked for me. The problem is 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 making all the time, is you know how critical is it for me to do my best in this next race versus my sort of longer-term trajectory. I’m a big fan of having some time for that trial and error although I know it’s hard to be patient when it comes to that kind of performance.

In other areas of my life I like this principle by Max Delbruck, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist called the Principle of Limited Sloppiness. I think sometimes 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.

I say this surrounded by books and papers all over my floors, as much of which will be research that goes nowhere other than I find it interesting.

I do have a bad habit of getting lost in a rabbit hole and coming up later and saying I was never going to do anything with that no matter what so why did I go down this rabbit hole?

If you don’t sometimes, I think you really limit the scope, you know you kind of enter your own version of a social media filter bubble basically voluntarily, where you’re implicitly screening out a lot of things you can be exposed to.


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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.