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Crazy II

Incidentally, my contention that Harvard is in the business of admitting crazy people isn't wholly lacking in non-anecdotal support. Check out Malcolm Gladwell's review of The Chosen:

At the same time that Harvard was constructing its byzantine admissions system, Hunter College Elementary School, in New York, required simply that applicants take an exam, and if they scored in the top fifty they got in. It's hard to imagine a more objective and transparent procedure.

But what did Hunter achieve with that best-students model? In the nineteen-eighties, a handful of educational researchers surveyed the students who attended the elementary school between 1948 and 1960. This was a group with an average I.Q. of 157—three and a half standard deviations above the mean—who had been given what, by any measure, was one of the finest classroom experiences in the world. As graduates, though, they weren't nearly as distinguished as they were expected to be. "Although most of our study participants are successful and fairly content with their lives and accomplishments," the authors conclude, "there are no superstars . . . and only one or two familiar names." The researchers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why Hunter graduates are so disappointing, and end up sounding very much like Wilbur Bender. Being a smart child isn't a terribly good predictor of success in later life, they conclude. "Non-intellective" factors—like motivation and social skills—probably matter more. Perhaps, the study suggests, "after noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world-class leadership in a field, H.C.E.S. graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives." It is a wonderful thing, of course, for a school to turn out lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. But Harvard didn't want lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. It wanted superstars, and Bender and his colleagues recognized that if this is your goal a best-students model isn't enough.

Forgetting academics, think of basketball. We all assume that LeBron James will keep working really hard at his game and improve, becoming one of the game's all time greats. But, really, why should he? He's plenty good right now, and even if he doesn't work hard and doesn't improve he'll make shitloads of money. True superstars, in any field, are going to have an irrationally high level of commitment to what they're doing. So if you're deliberately trying to make yourself the alma mater of tomorrow's superstars, you're going to wind up with a lot of pretty unbalanced individuals. Talent matters less than people think, hard work really does pay off, and the world will be dominated by people too crazy to see that they've crossed the point where more effort isn't worthwhile.

May 7, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

"We all assume that LeBron James will keep working really hard at his game and improve, becoming one of the game's all time greats. But, really, why should he? He's plenty good right now, and even if he doesn't work hard and doesn't improve he'll make shitloads of money."

Yup.

The verdict on whether LBJ will be the next Larry Bird or the next Vince Carter is still unwritten.

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 2:19:56 AM

Oh, come on. LBJ is already much better than Vince Carter has ever been. Unless he actually gets significantly worse over the next few years, he'll leave Carter in the dust. I'd say the "worst-case" for Lebron is more like Kobe or a healthy T-Mac. Best-case is better than anybody, ever. Odds are he'll wind up somewhere in between.

Posted by: Steve | May 7, 2006 2:48:00 AM

"Oh, come on. LBJ is already much better than Vince Carter has ever been."

Vince's second and third years in the league were pretty dominating, if at a slight notch below where LeBron is now. Vince dragged his team to some playoff series wins back then. If LeBron's career arc follows Vince's, he really won't be that much better than Carter.

Carter seems to me to be like the Hunter grads in Gladwell's piece, in the sense that he's not unbalanced enough to want the bright spotlight. As to LeBron's mindset, who knows yet?

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 3:28:20 AM

Did they measure whether sex with Hunter College grads was hott? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: otto | May 7, 2006 8:07:36 AM

He's plenty good right now, and even if he doesn't work hard and doesn't improve he'll make shitloads of money. True superstars, in any field, are going to have an irrationally high level of commitment to what they're doing.

Meh, the idea that the level of commitment is irrational seems to depend on an assumption that what matters is having shitloads of money. If you value producing really good work in your field over having lots of free time, then it does make sense to work really hard in order to produce the best work you can.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | May 7, 2006 9:14:02 AM

And Weiner becomes the third piece of evidence for the Harvard thesis.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 7, 2006 10:02:17 AM

"Meh, the idea that the level of commitment is irrational seems to depend on an assumption that what matters is having shitloads of money. If you value producing really good work in your field over having lots of free time, then it does make sense to work really hard in order to produce the best work you can."

Sure. And if you really value having an immense hoard of jellybeans, then cashing in your savings account to buy jellybeans would make sense within your value system. However, the rest of us might classify your behavior as a touch irrational.

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 10:11:15 AM

So the consensus is that, say, writing a truly excellent novel isn't worth the effort it takes? I'm not exactly the poster child for drive here -- I'm wearing a bathrobe and goofing around on the Internet -- but if I were given enough money to retire on right now, I still would want to do some work, because it's satsifying to accomplish something.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | May 7, 2006 10:23:25 AM

"So the consensus is that, say, writing a truly excellent novel isn't worth the effort it takes?"

As Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

(Obviously he would have made an exception for blog commentary had it existed in his time...)

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 10:30:37 AM

Samuel Johnson was a prick.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 7, 2006 11:00:09 AM

Samuel Johnson was a saint, who nevertheless on occasion valued wit over wisdom.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 7, 2006 11:28:26 AM

"Samuel Johnson was a saint"

Y'know, bob, one of my favorite Samuel Johnson quotes is the one about how Dallas fans should be worried about Michael Finley and Nick Van Smack coming to get a little vengeance on the team that let them go.

You just know those two had to be thinking pretty explicitly about this particular moment when they decided to sign with the Spurs...

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 12:16:15 PM

And Weiner becomes the third piece of evidence for the Harvard thesis.

What were the first two?

Posted by: flippantangel | May 7, 2006 12:43:59 PM

Yglesias was one, and I'm probably the other.

I did post in the previous thread that Harvard used to try to screen out the emotionally "weak" type of crazy person.

Posted by: Bostoniangirl | May 7, 2006 1:34:15 PM

It is only irrational if you assume that the point of playing basketball is to maximize salary per capita effort, or something like that.

By why should that be the case? That is a very, very strict view of rationaliy. It isn't even instrumental rationality.

Posted by: Patrick | May 7, 2006 1:43:40 PM

"It is only irrational if you assume that the point of playing basketball is to maximize salary"

There's a reason they don't call them amateurs...

Posted by: Petey | May 7, 2006 1:53:01 PM

Carter seems to me to be like the Hunter grads in Gladwell's piece, in the sense that he's not unbalanced enough to want the bright spotlight.

Yeah, I think this is right. He got a glimpse of what the really bright spotlight is like, and said to himself "I don't want any part of that. I'm perfectly happy with a max contract, nice life, and sharing the spotlight with teammates like a Jason Kidd." Remember when he went to his college graduation right in the middle of the playoffs? Perfect example of what we're talking about.

Posted by: Al | May 7, 2006 2:13:14 PM

As usual, Gladwell was being sloppy with his sources (or, more charitably put, he is"counterintuively" arguing the opposite of what Karabel argued).

Karabel's point was that the Harvard regime in the '50s--Bender's regime--actively tried to limit the number of "crazy" students. Which is to say, driven, high-IQ, perhaps-unsocialized public-school kids. Bender thought these young brains would be neuresthenic, so they needed to be counterbalanced with lots of prep school kids of lesser genius (but better breeding and "character").

To its credit, Harvard admitted more of these unstable students than Princeton or Yale. Still, Karabel's point is the opposite of the one Gladwell made.

Harvard's admission system today is a lot closer to the Hunter one--then you have to factor in alumni admits, jocks, and affirmative-action candidates.

Posted by: Cthomas | May 7, 2006 4:08:33 PM

i don't know from hunter, but it seems to me the legacy factor may be driving lots of this. you can be brilliant, driven, and wildly capable, and end up in a position doing the work that someone with good connections who's just barely capable gets the credit for. when hunter was admitting all those smarties, were the kids of rich / well-connected people going there?

Posted by: matty | May 7, 2006 5:38:28 PM

Hey, you know who else values leisure time more than an irrational commitment to accomplishment, once he's attained the highest level of his chosen field? Heh heh.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | May 7, 2006 6:34:37 PM

Lebron is already better than Vince Carter ever was, can you truly not see this? He has a more complete game. Also more room to improve. And he has already experienced more pressure/hype than Vince ever did and reacted very calmly and well to it. If you have truly great talent at something then I think that makes it more enjoyable to work at it. What could Lebron be doing that's more fun than exploring his tremendous athletic gifts?

As for Harvard -- that place always struck me as attracting more conformist / establishment types than many other top level schools (e.g. the geek meccas like Cal Tech, MIT, Chicago). A lot of very stressed people, because they think they will be a failure unless they rule the world, but not very many eccentrically creative types. Since WWII, haven't most of Harvard's stars been government/I-banking/law types, not artists or inventors?

Posted by: MQ | May 7, 2006 10:01:43 PM

Yes, MQ, see my above post. Karabel's point, in "The Chosen," was that Harvard has always tried to weed out many of the MIT/Caltech types. If Harvard chose its class based on grades, test scores, and intellectual power, they'd have a lot more crazies. Instead, Harvard admissions rejects many crazies and admits athletes, student government types, old boys from St. Paul's, and alumni kids, in order to have a saner class that will produce more investment bankers and leaders, and fewer eccentric geniuses. Eccentric geniuses don't make $100 million donations, usually.

No doubt Matt hung out with the crazy kids, but they are leavened by a substantial affirmative action policies for non-crazies (as are all the Ivy League schools).

Posted by: Cthomas | May 8, 2006 12:41:12 PM

>If you were to examine the birth certificates of every soccer player in next month's World Cup tournament, you would most likely find a noteworthy quirk: elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months.

This is oddly worded. It appears that they didn't actually bother to check the birthdays of adult soccer players to see if the early month birthday effect continues into adulthood.

Posted by: joe o | May 8, 2006 1:37:32 PM

I agree with Cthomas. Gladwell's argument is confused. The comparision of admission to kindergarden with admission to college is a bad one. The kindergarden admission is a pure IQ test. The college admission is based on aptitude plus hard work.

Posted by: joe o | May 8, 2006 1:54:26 PM

Otto--

As a graduate of Hunter High, teh sex is smokin'.

Posted by: LizardBreath | May 8, 2006 5:17:28 PM

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