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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Monday, May 08, 2006

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In their bestselling book published last summer, highly-decorated "rogue" economist Steven Levitt and former New York Times reporter Stephen Dubner combined respective forces to go after the "hidden" conclusions to be drawn from pressing every day problems like, "How are sumo wrestlers like teachers who cheat to raise standardized test scores?" (A: sumo wrestlers also cheat when given an incentive - whoa!) and "How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents?" (A: they make their living by deceiving stupid people).

Alternately their conclusions were vaguely racist (crime rates plummeted because legalized abortion eliminated thousands of likely criminals; black kids often have trouble succeeding because of their whacked-out ghetto names) and mildly illuminating (in online dating, it took black men tens of thousands more in income to equal a white man's response rates with white women), but never as headslappingly obvious as in an article that appeared in several major papers Sunday, wherein the wunderkinds conclude, in the midst of asking why such a large percentage of upcoming World Cup soccer participants are born in January, February and March and analyzing the work of psychology professor Anders Ericsson, that - get ready to peel your brain off the ceiling, now - that practice plays a large role in success:

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers - whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming - are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliche as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love - because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

Long ago, Thomas Aquinas taught us:

Those who are more adapted to the active life can prepare themselves for contemplation in the practice of the active life, while those who are more adapted to the contemplative life can take upon themselves the works of the active life so as to become yet more apt for contemplation.

Similarly, Giorgi Vasari, writing in his Lives of Artists several hundred years later, in the sixteenth century:

Cimabue would often escape from school and stand all day watching them, until his father and the painters themselves judging that he was apt for painting, he was placed under their instruction. Nature, however, aided by constant practice, enabled him greatly to surpass both in design and colouring the masters who had taught him.
(emphasis SMQ's)

Yet we need not be First Century or Medieval scholars nor lauded journaconomists to reach the blatantly obvious, decidedly unfreaky conclusion that people who practice are on the whole better than people who don't...

From a schlocky CNN/CareerBuilder.com feature from April 24 on Things Your Mother Taught You That Still Hold True:

On work ethic: If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. What separates the winners from the runners-up is the effort and precision a person puts into meeting and often exceeding expectations, doing a job well and without error.

On experience: Practice makes perfect. Whether it was playing the piano or doing a pirouette, Mom always knew that repetition and frequency led to a consistent and ideal performance. The more often you do something, the more opportunities you have to learn from your mistakes and perfect your performance.

From The Max Planck Institute for Human Development, on the role of intelligence in careers (2000):

Provided their intelligence is sufficient for acquiring certain competences, people with less favorable mental conditions can master their field of expertise and show high performance, using their brain as efficiently as the highly intelligent. Thus, it is practice and motivation that make perfect.

From random advice on playing the guitar:

Certainly, having a natural ability to learn some of the more common concepts of the guitar and music, such as chords, scales, rhythm playing, soloing, etc. will place you higher up on the learning curve than if these things were not intuitive. This concept is perhaps applicable to a few different topics such as science, athletics, art, etc. People tend to naturally gravitate towards things that initially come easy to them, and parents often try to nurture these "talents" in their children with lessons, resources, and supplies.

However, this is only the start. To gain any type of mastery of a specific genre, one must spend some portion of time learning, practicing, and honing their craft. As it relates to music, there are those lucky few who could qualify as "musical geniuses", but as Pat Metheny aptly puts it, "you can be almost 100% certain that this person is neither you nor I..."

Even from flippin' Viagara:

Sure, you've heard the words. It's the golden rule that has been repeated throughout the years. Practice makes perfect. It’s worked for you before. Why shouldn't the same rule apply to improving your sex life?
One study showed that most men with ED who gave VIAGRA a second chance found success. These patients knew the right way to take VIAGRA and also made sure they were taking the right dose. So be patient. Keep trying. Remember, VIAGRA can be taken as often as once a day.

(Leave it to SMQ to harmonize the taos of a timeless, revered philosopher saint and boner pills)

All of which shows the need of Leavitt and Dubner to present Ericsson et al's findings - well over a decade in the making, for the record - as "rogue," "hidden," "unorthodox," "inventive" or, especially, "insight...that turns conventional wisdom on its head" (all used to describe the "Freakonomics" model in the first few pages of their bestseller) to be reaching, self-serving and kind of, eh, boring.

Worst of all, moments after stating a thesis that could actually challenge the ingrained notion of hereditary talent, they completely hedge their bets and virtually invalidate any shred of "unorthodox" thought from the piece:

This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn't spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.
(emphasis SMQ's)

Then what is it to say that tens of millions of people have never said before? We who live by the title of "unorthodox" completely adhere to virtually unchallenged conventional wisdom established centuries ago by people who shit in the ground that talent is important but can be enhanced greatly by disciplined practice.

Dubner and Levitt's goal - to advance "a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not inpenetrable, is not unknowable and - if the right questions are asked - is even more intriguing than we think" - is an admirable, even essential one, but also a futile one if the ground it's going to cover is so trodden by the likes of sports fans, who obsessively weigh the benefits of the most talented against overachievers on a daily basis. It goes without much further argument that virtually none of the greatest athletes - or greatest anything else - have been noted for not reaching at least a base level work ethic, and that every field has individuals who achieved more than more talented colleagues and competitors by outworking them. So what makes this insight worthy of "the most interesting mind in America," exactly?

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4:51 PM

Very good post...I tend to agree with your point. What Dubner and Levitt do well is package conventional thinking or hum drum conclusions well.
Excellent post, as always. I prefer Malcolm Gladwell to these guys, but they generally do a good job, as well.

Now, when we gettin' our Texas preview? If you wait much longer, it won't be absurdly premature. And then what?

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