As the credits to the movie “Parasite” rolled, I wondered, “How did the writer, Bong Joon-Ho, compose such a grand masterpiece?”
I conducted some quick research and learned that the movie was at least several years in the making. In 2013, while working on a similar-themed movie titled “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-Ho was encouraged by a theater friend to write a play version that also centered on class conflict.
Bong then proceeded to write a 15-page treatment that became the basis for Parasite. His production assistant then turned that treatment into three drafts of a screenplay. The final act of the movie (no spoilers here) revealed itself to Bong, as he stood at a crosswalk in Vancouver some time later.
Parasite was a natural and gradual build-up of Bong’s interest in the theme of class inequality, beginning with a small 15-pager, further developed by a collaborator, and capped with a good ending a long time later.
In other words, Parasite was not a 120-page screenplay that came to Bong Joon-Ho like a bolt of lightning. Rather, it accumulated like a tumbleweed of notes, thoughts and mini-efforts, ultimately manifesting in a project that could then be further honed.
That is the evolutionary sequence of most objets d’art.
A fertile context receives an organic seed that, with a few basic and logical steps, blossoms eventually into a spectacular flower that seems impossibly related to its ordinary roots.
Our difficulty in comprehending the banality of accomplishment likely stems from a cognitive shortcoming.
As humans, we simply cannot grasp the magnitude of exponential compounding.
If you could fold a piece of standard copy paper in half, how thick would it be? If you could theoretically fold it again on itself, how much thicker (and taller) would the resulting paper be? Clearly, the paper would still be miniscule in height. But how many times would you have to fold the piece of paper until it’s thick enough to span the distance from the Earth to the moon?
Hang on to you hats, here is the answer: only 42 times (hat tip to Douglas Adams). Don’t believe it? Check out this video.
It is my belief that our brains simply can’t crunch that math. We are missing a bit in our processing unit that makes this math intuitive. It just doesn’t jive with us that a paper folded on itself 42 times would be as thick as the distance between Earth and the moon. Yet that is mathematically correct.
Our inability to grasp exponential growth is also perhaps why we don’t intuitively grasp the idea of compound interest (something none other than Albert Einstein dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”).
This explains why we are similarly stumped by the power of compounding when evaluating skill. Imagine an amateur magician practicing sleight-of-hand card tricks. At first, the magician is clumsy, revealing their obvious techniques. But after decades of practice, the magician has mastered their craft. What was once a lame parlor trick suddenly looks like, well, magic!
This is true for skills across the board. When Roger Federer effortlessly lands a tennis ball within a 4-inch window past his opponent, when Alysa Liu lands a quadruple lutz as graciously as a swan gliding on a lake, we are awestruck by the magnitude of their skill. When Bong Joon-Ho types the last period of his screenplay, we wonder how he ever imagined such a fantastical universe of characters and plot twists.
But it is actually explained as a long sequence of skills that naturally compounded on themselves.
We think of greatness as binary — you are either great or you are not. But greatness is gradual — you work your way from unskilled to masterful over a serious of a million strokes. At some point, your skills tip over from “meh” to “woah.”
When we are in the presence of greatness, it feels like magic.
Flip between nearly identical cartoon drawings, and I can piece together an idea of motion. Cycle through millions of illustrated images at 30 frames per second, and I am watching Toy Story.
For mere mortals who wish to achieve greatness, it is critical that we remind ourselves to just keep rowing in the same direction.
When digging an underground tunnel out of jail, it probably matters more that you keep digging in one direction than that you even dig in the right direction! Staying the course, you will eventually break out of the perimeter that ensnares you.
The necessity of perseverance in compounding skill also explains why it’s so helpful to discover and pursue your innate passions. How can we sustain our interest in building a skill unless we care almost irrationally about it?
If 9 out of 10 wannabes drop out of ever wanting to become a great diver/balloon artist/ screenwriter, the key is to be that 10th person who says with a dumb grin, “This is fun, isn’t it?”
The only way to sustain yourself through the boring parts of getting good at any skill is to have an unreasonable drive to continue to get good at it. When skill-building, switching costs are extremely high.
The writing of this blog post is a product of the same path. My post here is a culmination of so many years of thinking about what makes greatness, and I’m still trying to figure it out. What makes people great — is it skill, luck or something else?
So far as I can tell, greatness is mostly little more than the by-product of that most unremarkable of forces: compounding effort.