Way back in the early 1990s I went with friends to a speech by Deepak Chopra. The guy was at his peak at the time, having written several books dealing with spirituality and achievement and riches. During his presentation he often referred to the hypnosis of social conditioning. His methods and advice didn’t gibe with the standard thought process of the time. He was kind of into stuff from “The Secret” before it was cool.
Two things lately draw upon the same of idea of bucking the hypnosis of cultural or social conditioning. One is Moneyball, which gained prominence already with the Michael Lewis book of the same name, but will now get more attention because Brad Pitt is starring in the movie. I’ll go see it not just because it’s about baseball and is a true story, but because the true story is compelling and is something I can relate to, not because I was such an outstanding baseball player myself.
Billy Beane, the main subject of the book, was a five-tool player when he was drafted. He could run, hit for average, hit for power, throw and was good with the glove. His results, though, didn’t match his skills. He didn’t create anything. Scouting traditionally favored skills over results. A player who created a lot of runs didn’t get much attention if he didn’t run well or hit for power.
Beane became general manager of the Oakland Athletics. He didn’t have much of a payroll, but put up winners by using a system that valued results more than potential. Part of it was because he was able to recognize his own failings as a player, despite his own potential.
The A’s won for quite a few years, though it’s tougher for them now. Other teams, ones with real money, started employing some of the same techniques and have fared well.
The point is Beane went against the hypnosis of social conditioning and succeeded for a while. The A’s are not what they were, but this year they’re ahead of the Seattle Mariners in their division. Because of the payroll situation Oakland has a tough time holding on to its best players.
The other news item dealing with cultural or social conditioning comes from a long story in the New York Times in which one school system is trying to help kids biild skills that are a truer measure of long-term success than high test scores.
Dominic Randolph, headmaster at Riverdale Country School, a private school in New York City, is trying to create a system that bases its results on more than IQ. He calls it “character.”
“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
This gets to the point I can relate to. I always tested well. I have a decent IQ. What has tested me, to be brutally forthcoming, is to succeed when things get challenging. Having some smarts gives me an edge when I am willing to do the work, and to persevere. But too often, I believe, I gave up when I met resistance. I lacked grit. I’m working on overcoming that, but since it doesn’t come natural to me I am required to constantly remind myself to stay a few minutes longer, to make just one more call, to make one more editing pass, to ask one more question or to seek one more source.
So I can relate to Billy Beane in the sense exemplified at Riverdale. Randolph calls it character. I am building more of it.