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Haruki Murakami: Talent Is Nothing Without Focus and Endurance

Creativity isn't just an art, it's a sport. Lessons on training your talent from the memoir of renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

In sports, one never imagines that you can get by on talent alone. Take Roger Federer or Michael Jordan, for instance. Although each man’s one-of-a-kind natural talent is undeniable, we are also keenly aware of the grueling hours of practice that were necessary to mold that talent into true greatness. So why should it be any different with creativity?

he stories we tell ourselves about creative achievement nearly always focus on the holy grail of inspiration, and leave out the rather important bits about perspiration. Which is why I want to highlight renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as the next installment in our “Creative’s Bookshelf” series.

Murakami came to writing later in life. After running a successful jazz bar in Tokyo for about ten years, he suddenly had the notion to write a novel. After his first two novels — both written in the wee hours of the morning after he closed the bar — were well-received, he decided to shut down his business and try his hand at writing full-time. To balance the sedentary nature of this new lifestyle, he also started running.

It’s not surprising then that, for Murakami, the act of running and the act of creating are inextricably linked. As he writes about the evolution of his running career — from his first marathon to his first ultramarathon (62 miles) to his first triathlon — he constantly circles back to how his athletic experiences have impacted his writing practice, and vice versa. For Murakami, the creative process is a sport.

Here’s what he has to say about talent, focus, and endurance:

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. Now matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal and make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it. Of course, certain poets and rock singers whose genius went out in a blaze of glory—people like Schubert and Mozart, whose dramatic early deaths turned them into legends—have a certain appeal, but for the vast majority of us this isn’t the model we follow.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed of the writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee results will come.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would definitely have been different.

For those seeking motivation, What I Talk About serves as a bracing reminder that there’s no substitute for hard work. Indeed, practice makes perfect.

Read the previous installment in the Creative’s Bookshelf series.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (28)
  • Christopher Gronlund

    I’m a technical writer, and I supplement my income by writing on the side. I read What I Talk about When I Talk about Running and loved it! The sections you highlight are great; I also loved that Murakami talked about creating a life that “…placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing.”

    I’ve had friends ask me where I find the time to write. I lived Murakami’s advice long before I read his books. I’ve passed by promotions that would have tipped my work/life balance heavily toward work. I’ve made other sacrifices to live a life that allows me to focus on writing. And through writing, I’ve found an endurance that transfers to almost every other thing I do that requires patience and a sense of being quiet and just doing it.

    What I Talk about when I Talk about Writing is a great book. I read it right after reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. While I can only run a handful of miles, I think about both books when I run…and write.

  • Parin Patel

    One of my favorite quotes is:

    “I’m not out there sweating for 3 hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat.” – Michael Jordan

    Talent can only take you so far. You have to practice, and hone your talent through focused work and dedication.

    And more importantly, the great likes MJ did this proactively (and relentlessly). Do you think MJ was worried or thinking about anything else while he’s running through drills in the gym? I doubt it.

    It’s amazing what Focused Energy + Endurance/Persistance can do for you. It takes you and your energy levels to new heights!

    Great article. I’ve added “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” to my reading list! Thanks! 🙂

  • Dave


    you can fix this by deleting

  • jkglei

    I totally agree, Chris. In fact, out of the entirety of the rest of the book, that section on prioritization was the one other bit that I wanted to include but ultimately cut for length. To say YES to one thing, we always have to say NO to some others. Sometimes we forget we can only juggle so many things these days…

  • Scott Belsky

    For me, the most powerful (and humbling) realizations conjured up by the comparison between creating and running are (1) the notion of inherent limits and that, without practice and self-improvement, we cannot do our greatest work in one single push, and (2) the pain and outright danger from trying to do so.

  • Michael Zipursky

    Great post, I’d suggest that anyone that finds this area of interest and the idea that the concept of talent doesn’t really exist, should read the book “Bounce.”

  • Margo Kelly

    Excellent! Thank you.

  • jkglei

    Agreed. I liked Fred Wilson’s Father’s Day post on why the “single push” method doesn’t work well. Which is: You lose out on the power of “subconscious processing” ::

  • melloYello69

    Too bad the article’s author ended with a tired cliché.

  • Andy Stuart

    Interesting point of view

  • Andy Stuart

    Especially when it is incorrect!!!  If you practice to do something
    badly all you will achieve by practicing is that you will become
    consistently bad at that skill. If you want to be perfect you need to
    practice being perfect.  I guess that is not as snappy tho.

  • Douwe

    This sentence “The stories we tell ourselves about creative achievement nearly always focus on the holy grail of inspiration, and leave out the rather important bits about perspiration.” is total nonsense! I know of very few people that believe being good at creation comes easy and the perspiration is what creatives almost always reply to questions about how they got so good!

  • Marc Van Der Linden

    I like the sentence “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.” I’m besides blogger also a runner and I recognize the idea. I run for decades now  and it has never be the same. I still adore it. Every time I run, focus and endurance are the ingredients. I once thought:  I live my life in the same way I run. It is a nice mantra. And this post reminded about this again.

    Thanks for sharing!  

  • jkglei

    Of course, that is a generalization. Given that the moniker of this website comes from the Edison quotation, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration,” we obviously believe that perspiration is key. However, I think there are a lot of profiles of artists and creative professionals that don’t emphasize this, instead putting more focus on the “a-ha!” moment or how they find inspiration. Starting the discussion about the hard work required to push any great idea to fruition is what the 99% is all about.

  • research proposal

    very interesting psot! thanks a lot!

  • Christian Ray

    I would say that endurance is the sister of consistency. Daily bursts work miracles over a longer period of time. Good article plus I love Murakami. 

  • Martin

    Ehr. Don’t want to be that person, but a Möbius strip has only one side…

  • kara rane

    Murakami is a genius.
    For many artists the term “talented” can be frustrating because it seems to eliminate all the other elements written of here,, focus, endurance, patience, persistence, and of course an overall vision that extends beyond any other person or society’s criticism.
    thank You for the inspiration to keep running & keep creating*!

  • Pedja G.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you… for this
    article. Murakami is my favourite writer, my guru and my inspiration in writing
    and running!


  • perostrell

    If I just could have that stamina, especially when nothing hapens. you keep on running bu the result does not show untill  3 months later. You sit down to wrte and you hit the blank just childhod memories.

  • Ellis Vener

    I’m not sure who i learned it from, but in my experience I’ve found this to be true: “Practice is where you do the work, so when it comes time to perform, performance becomes play.”

  • ViKi

    I just want to know about the whistle bird in your novel, The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. I am certain I have one living in my backyard each spring. What is the name of this bird. It whistles a single whistle at a time.

  • Bandini Jones

    the wind is a rock, darkness is a powder . . . the soul is a hairy angel egg; love is a glass eye rolling in the dirt . . .

  • Sofie

    come visit my website

  • Margot berwin

    I’m a novelist and my second novel, Scent of Darkness, came out three weeks ago published by Pantheon, Doubleday. I love the work of Haruki Murakami-and he’s had a great influence on my writing. This book is fantastic, I have read it more than once. It’s quite inspirational and like all of his books, well worth the time.

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