It’s a common expression: “She’s got it.” What does she have? Spotting “it,” or those who have “it,” is easy. Putting your finger on what the “it” factor is, or whether “it” even exists, is like catching mercury. Anyone who wants to venture an answer to this question is going to have to go out on a limb, and since no one seems to want to do it, why don’t I try? Here I go.
This is all speculative, but speculation can be a very good thing sometimes. Let’s start with a few examples of people who, we’ll probably agree, have “it” or had “it.” Speculating is very much like climbing out on a limb: you start close to the trunk, where you have something solid beneath you, then you move out. I think I’m on solid ground in saying the following people have or had “it.” In sports, Tiger Woods comes to mind, so does Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, and any number of others. In the acting profession, Mickey Rourke definitely has “it,” Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, and so on. Among musical performers, Bob Dylan has had “it” for over half a century, as did the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, and various others. Think of any example you like, in any field you like. What do they have? There are other words for “it”: “star quality” is one, “magic” is another, “genius” is another. But the synonyms don’t really help. They’re all about equally elusive.
Let’s go a little further out on that limb. I’m going to say that all these people did indeed have something in common, and they weren’t born with “it.” Unless some group of scientists wants to borrow the brains of all these people long enough to put them under a microscope—and you can’t get funding for that kind of research—it’s baseless to say that anyone is born with “it.” I wouldn’t even know how to spot “it” under a microscope, what it looks like, or how to measure it. So the next time you hear someone say, “She was born with ‘it,’” don’t believe it. That only amounts to saying they have no idea how someone does whatever it is they do. What they have in common is not—to our knowledge anyway—an unusual brain but something else. We need to look not at what they “have” but at what they do. What, then, is that?
I highly recommend reading biographies of people like this, people who are more or less the best at what they do, or short of reading books about them just watching them. I’ve always found it inspiring to watch individuals like the ones I’ve mentioned, whether I’m a fan of what they’re doing or not. Back in the mid-90s I got hooked on the O. J. Simpson trial. CNN showed it all live, and like so many people at the time I was glued to it—not because I especially cared about the outcome but just because I loved watching all those high-priced lawyers do their thing (the defense lawyers were so much more impressive than the prosecutors, and, as I recall, they won). Anyway, when you watch people like this do whatever it is they do, what do you see? What I see, or what I think I see, is someone who works extremely hard. I see a single-mindedness, an attention to detail, a perfectionism, a look of absolute focus, grim determination, sheer obstinacy. There’s no slackness of will here, no one’s making excuses or getting a note from their mother. I don’t believe they’re always the smartest, at least not if we mean the kind of intelligence that’s measured by an IQ test. Their kind of intelligence is different; it’s totally focused on their craft, usually to the exclusion of other things.
There’s more to it. They’re also creative or inventive in their line of work. They know how to follow the rules and how to break them in the right way. They follow their instincts, or have a sense of how to do things, a sense that’s more felt than understood. It takes many years to hone those instincts and following them requires practice, boldness, a willingness to venture somewhere. We find such people mystifying, fascinating, and part of the mystery is that they’re willing to do it at all, where the rest of us are not, or not in so bold a way. Remember when a young Muhammad Ali started spouting poetry, or his version of it. He was going to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” he said. Who says that? No one else had that kind of audacity, even in the boxing world. What about Mr. Jackson? Many pop stars try to dazzle and shock their audience in some way or other, but when he put it out there, he put it way out there, miles beyond where anyone else was willing to go. It wasn’t shock for shock’s sake either. It was what he was communicating through his music, what he had to say musically, that was shocking. Then there was his work ethic, the sheer expenditure of physical and mental energy that went into a performance, the time that went into practicing his art. Then there’s Mr. Rourke. This man steals every scene he’s in. How does he do it? An outsider to the acting profession has no idea about the how question; he’s just a genius, we say, or it looks utterly mystifying. A fellow actor is more likely to say something a bit less mystical: he works hard, he practices, he’s experienced, he works at getting inside his characters, and probably harder than more ordinary actors. How about Mr. Woods? What’s his secret? Does he have some magical power, or does it have something to do with the long hours of practice and the resolute perfectionism that he has shown from a young age and throughout his career? I would say the latter.
I’m approaching the end of this limb and I now have an answer, however speculative it is. “It” may not be so mysterious after all. I’m going to say “it” is an ability to do something—it could be anything—which a lot of other people also do, but one who has “it” exercises this ability, refines it, modifies it, learns how others did it, on a whole other level. I don’t doubt that it comes more readily to some than to others—maybe because of something involving the brain, but maybe not. Your brain doesn’t make it so, but your work ethic and your passion might. What makes “it” possible is mostly an iron will, a single-minded purposiveness, an intolerance of mediocrity, and a truckload of passion. If you’re a gardener (I mean a serious one), it’s not enough to love the flowers or the vegetables; you need to hate the weeds. Great athletes hate to lose like great writers hate grammatical mistakes. If you feel this way, in your bones, and with an intensity that someone might find scary, you too may have “it.”