Disclaimer: I also posted this to my Medium page, but hopefully that's allowed here. I'm also still getting used to hubski's slightly different flavor of markup, so hopefully didn't mess anything up there.
Listening to NPR this morning before work, I heard this story from their resident social science reporter. It talked about a study done with school kids, which found that their performance on science and math tests could be affected by how the work of great scientists was portrayed to them. In simplest terms, if kids heard that a scientist was naturally brilliant and that's why they did what they did, kids in turn did worse on the test they were given. On the other hand, if they learned about how much work it took in order for these famous people to do what they did, they did better.
There's a lot of research out there that seems to me to suggest that thinking something is too difficult will affect how you do. I can't find it now, but I remember a study that found that black folks scored worse on an IQ test if it was called that, but if the test-givers called it something else, their scores normalized with whites'. There's also been a lot to suggest that this more nebulous quality called "grit" plays a strong role in educational achievement, perhaps even as much or more than IQ.
Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist and blogger that I follow regularly, has written about grit in the education context somewhat. He delves more into the implications than they underlying research, but he told a story in a post from early 2015 that struck a chord with me.
- [I]n high school English, I got As in all my classes, Principal’s Gold Medals, 100%s on tests, first prize in various state-wide essay contests, etc. In Math, I just barely by the skin of my teeth scraped together a pass in Calculus with a C-.
- Every time I won some kind of prize in English my parents would praise me and say I was good and should feel good. My teachers would hold me up as an example and say other kids should try to be more like me. Meanwhile, when I would bring home a report card with a C- in math, my parents would have concerned faces and tell me they were disappointed and I wasn’t living up to my potential and I needed to work harder et cetera.
- And I don’t know which part bothered me more.
- Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.
- On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”
- And without some notion of innate ability, I don’t know what to do with this experience. I don’t want to have to accept the blame for being a lazy person who just didn’t try hard enough in Math. But I really don’t want to have to accept the credit for being a virtuous and studious English student who worked harder than his peers. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course – and who still got Cs and Ds. To deny innate ability is to devalue their efforts and sacrifice, while simultaneously giving me credit I don’t deserve.
My own experience was similar in a low of ways. I breezed through English and Spanish classes. Math and science were different; I wasn’t uniformly bad, but I didn’t do as well, and I definitely didn’t feel as comfortable with the whole thing. For example, I killed basic chemistry in high school, but then came AP with a teacher who didn’t really teach us much, and just expected us to figure it out on our own. I don’t do well with this, and barely made it through. This pretty much turned me off science for good, and the rest is history.
But I know full well that, at least in overwhelming part, it was a result of this idea that you just “got” science and math or you didn’t. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about how it’s cool in our society not to be good at math or whatever, and I think this is in large part why. It’s seen as something innate, and so it’s fine not to do well because that’s just not your strength or whatever. That’s certainly how I saw it.
I’m reminded of a quote from Dune that got stuck in my head, and I was only partially-conscious of why:
- Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It's shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.
This is where grit comes in. Some things will come easily to us, some won’t. We as a society put entirely too much value on results and not what it took to get there. In other words, we have it backwards.
In consequence, we never learn how learn. How to persevere when something is difficult. I still struggle with doing so to this day, and still gravitate towards things that I’m naturally good at and don’t even consider things that I have to work towards. It wasn’t until I started learning kung fu, which no one is good at innately, that I began to be able to see things from a different perspective.
I have heard some people say in a parenting context that if your child comes home with good grades, you should never say “you’re so smart,” but “you worked so hard.” But as the above stories make clear (mine and Scott’s), there’s a chance he or she didn’t.
This is fine. We shouldn’t make things harder for ourselves just because, and we shouldn’t pretend to ignore our gifts out of some sense we should be humble. But we also need to recognize that we can’t ignore the rest. The parts of ourselves that need improvement are where most of our energy should go, and the rest just needs some maintenance. As with all things, there’s balance; if you’re super passionate about something, then run with it. But even then you can’t ignore everything else, and I think we over-value specialization (but that’s for another day). But there’s balance in this too, in that we can’t always be devoting 100% of our energy to improving. Sometimes we need to take breaks and enjoy a sunset or read a book or have some cookies.
It’s a shame when I really think about it. While the story about Einstein getting bad math grades as a kid is false, he did apparently have to get some math help from Max Planck when he was trying to figure out relativity. And then there are plenty of others who were socially excluded (Marie Curie and Michael Faraday were the examples used in NPR’s story).
Then you’ll have people like Srinivasa Ramanujan or Walter Pitts, who seem to break this. But how true is that, really? We don’t know how hard they actually worked, even if their ability allowed them to climb to a higher result at the end of the day. Plus, what about things they were likely not good at? We never learn about those, and we tend to gloss over the struggles. Ramanujan was not taken seriously at first by the British elite because he was some nobody from a backwoods part of a colony. But eventually someone listened, started corresponding with him, and the rest is history.
But their stories in turn raise new questions — were their successes due to innate ability only, or could someone with less ability but who worked harder have done just as much? I don’t want to understate the importance of intelligence, especially in academics, but by the same token we can’t forget the other side of the coin. Someone with an IQ of 175 who does nothing isn’t going to contribute more than someone with an IQ of 105 who works tirelessly to accomplish whatever he or she wants to do.
Something else I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea of social capital. One of the big problems with e.g. socialism is that there are jobs that basically no one wants to do (trash collector being the classic example, but there are plenty of others). How much of this could be made up by a greater degree of social prestige attached to them? I don’t think this is a silver bullet for socialism or anything, but is an aspect of things we don’t pay enough attention to.
I have this really vivid memory from high school. I was a senior, and was driving to school one morning, daydreaming and listening to some CD or another. The route I took led to a two-lane road that my high school was on, albeit several miles away from where I was. It was a double-yellow, but still had houses directly on it.
And I got stuck behind a garbage truck. The truck would move forward a little, then the guys working it would hop off and grab the cans. Repeat. We were on a curved section so it wasn’t safe to pass on the left, and so we crept forward house by house. All of us. Me, some random middle-class kid going to school. But there were plenty of expensive cards in line too.
But then it struck me just how hilarious the whole situation was. You had people who are typically at the very bottom of the social totem pole, yet here they were holding up all of us supposedly more “important” people. We had to wait for them.
It’s easy to just be mad in that kind of situation, and this is the point. Why should I be? Do I get mad if someone has to wait for me to do what I’m supposed to be doing?
And here’s where this all ties back to the question of achievement versus work. As Scott points out, why should we value the results of coasting more than the results of someone struggling?
But we do. We judge results, and completely ignore what it took to get there. We see a successful novel, and think that we could never do that. But we don’t see the four or five times it was re-written, and the years of planning. I read the other day that George R.R. Martin starting conceptualizing A Song of Ice and Fire in 1993, but it took three years for A Game of Thrones to be published. And this was from an experienced and already accomplished author.
Sure, we pay lip service sometimes to the idea of “hard work,” mostly when it’s convenient to explain away why we don’t want to help people. Even then, though, we don’t consider innate abilities for fear of looking condescending.
Instead, we should all lighten up a little. The fear of condescension only matters if people are really being condescending. If we genuinely realized and recognized the contributions of the “least” of us, we could also more easily appreciate what they do. And maybe then we wouldn’t be so eager to hide behind economic platitudes when faced with questions as to why poverty is as it is. Maybe that’s all those guys running the garbage truck that held me up on my way to school were doing could do. So what?
It’s strange that we avoid this question out of a desire for equality. But that’s backwards. The equality is there, we just don’t see it. So we go looking elsewhere, and in doing so end up stepping on that very same equality instead. We tell people “you can do better,” but how many of them hear “what you’re doing now is worthless”? Meanwhile, how many of us could be doing something else if we’d been told that we could?