The writers at the New Yorker keep coming up with new angles on a recurring theme: talent is Out, effort is In.
I had already written previously about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, in which he details how effort and opportunity are more important than talent in creating super-successful people. Now, in another article, "How David Beats Goliath," (The New Yorker, May 11, 2009) he asks a seemingly simple question for a dedicated basketball fan such as himself: "Why don't more teams play the full-court press?" It doesn't take a genius to realize that a weaker team can dramatically slow down a superior team by playing the full-court press: guarding their opponents they moment they get the ball, and doing everything in their power to stop them from advancing to mid-court in the required 10 seconds. And yet, you rarely see that strategy pursued, at any level of play.
Gladwell followed up on those who did use the full-court press -- a team of 12-year-old girls in the National Junior Basketball league, and the teams of college coach Rick Pitino -- and found that they triumphed . . . at a price. The full-court press is an exhausting strategy, one that requires players to run and run and run. Few teams, it turns out, are willing to work that hard. It also makes for rather ugly basketball, a rushing and flailing of arms and legs instead of the graceful passes and shots players like to make and fans like to watch. The full-court press is stigmatized -- those who use it are met with both anger and contempt, and some officials make biased calls to discourage its use.
All this would be interesting enough on its own. But Gladwell loves isomorphisms -- he wants to see if this same phenomena maps to other sorts of struggles. And before you know it, he draws parallels with the military history, and academic studies of how underdogs prevail in battle. Lawrence of Arabia played the military equivalent of the full-court press, using the everywhere-at-once attacks of his Bedouin troops in the places his foes were weakest. They prevailed because the hustled, and refused to play by the rules that favored their opponents. Those same tactics -- small, fast, non-traditional, and out-of-bounds -- have now redefined modern warfare in an age of terrorism and insurgency. David can win against Goliath, but only by using methods Goliath finds repellant.
The triumph of effort found another voice this week in another New Yorker article ("Don't! The secret of self-control," May 18, 2009) that looked at the unexpected results of psychological research in the sixties. Some researches had created "the marshmallow test," a simple exercise to see how long four-year-olds could resist eating a treat in order to earn a greater reward later. Kids' abilities to defer gratification varied significantly, but they could also be taught cognitive tricks to make it easier. The researchers didn't realize the significance of their findings until they followed up on their subjects decades later . . . and found that the marshmallow test was profoundly predictive of success in later life. Those who passed the marshmallow test scored higher on the SAT. Those who couldn't resist the marshmallow were more likely to have behavioral problems, had trouble paying attention and maintaining friendships.
For years educators and parents have been focusing on IQ as the most important cognitive measure, when it turns out willpower was more significant. And willpower, they've found, is not some mysterious quality of character, but rather a specific skill for controlling one's attention, focusing on certain thoughts and tuning out others. Persistence of attention and effort are what ensure lifelong success.
What does this mean for our culture? I hope it signals a rejuvenation of the American meritocracy, restoring our faith that people can control their destinies, if they are willing to pay the price. The "land of opportunity" is really "the land of the opportunity to work." Effort is not omnipotent, but it's the closest thing to it.
What do we do with the "Bell Curve" book, which seemed to indicate that IQ determines your destiny?
I wonder if IQ and willpower are not more closely related than most people think. It seems to me that when I defer gratification, I do so because I respect the abstract (future) more than the concrete (present). It seems to me that I am good at math for the same reason. I'm not saying they are exactly identical, but I don't think they're completely separate either.
As far as being a meritocracy--nowhere near. Someone (a conservative someone, for what it's worth) told me a few years back that social scientists can predict whether a child will drop out of high school with remarkable accuracy on the day the child is born. External circumstances still matter far more than merit. And that's just in the U.S. Make it world-wide, and it's even more obvious.
I'm not saying that willpower and effort and all that good stuff don't matter. On the contrary, they are the only things you can control, so you should milk them for all they're worth. But don't kid yourself that we are living cushy because we earned it, and poor people just aren't as virtuous as we are. I know you never said that, but it does seem the obvious conclusion if you actually believe that hard work is the best predictor of success. And just to be clear, I don't think such a position is morally reprehensible, I just think it's logically indefensible.