Gladwell’s Wager

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” in his book Outliers suggests that if you practice enough at anything, you will master it.

New research suggests otherwise:

Meta-analyses of plenty of 88 studies by researcher Brooke Macnamara (and others) argue that practice is only a piece of the puzzle, and sometimes a small piece. Some people (we can call them geniuses, despite the present’s aversion to that world) are just good at things. They don’t need much practice to be great at it. Further, childhood still appears to be a special time when our brains can learn faster and better: people who begin to practice a task as adults (even accounting for time spent) accomplish less than children who practiced the same task for the same amount of time. Some of this has to do with deliberate training (targeted work aimed at improving, as opposed to simply jogging around in circles or playing chess while watching TV). But much of it is genetic: we are either born to be great or we aren’t.

The authors of the Slate piece “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” (David Z. HambrickFernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson) argue that this is scientific proof of people’s inherent inequality, saying that this should be the final nail in meritocracy’s coffin. Greatness does not depend on effort or exertion as much as good genes, an early start, and targeted training.

Thus, we should be testing IQs and sorting out people’s abilities early on not so we can push the ones with greatest potential to succeed, but to ensure that the ones without genetic prowess will have the support they need to reach their own potential. Their goal is social equality, arguing that the ones with genetic predispositions toward success will succeed even without intervention.

I’m on the fence on this one: I can hear a few conservatives shouting that this is unfair (true) and would limit the furthest-reaching individuals to something less than success. And some liberals would probably suggest that losing any sense of individuals as roughly equals would undermine our entire democracy. The libertarians would argue that such testing and intervention is an invasion of privacy. The greens would wonder why we’re so obsessed with humans.

Fortunately, I’ve been political party-free for three years! Every day is a blessing.

But that still leaves me in no-answers land. What’s the takeaway? How do we sort out society? Well, here are the extreme options:


No intervention or targeted practice Works hard by oneself with some targeted practice Works hard with targeted practice and receives positive social intervention
  1. Child with extraordinary potential
Possibly achieves some noticeable result but likely achieves none Achieves some potential, though not all possible success Achieves great or even all possible potential, alters society
  1. Child with no extraordinary potential
Achieves no noticeable result Achieves no noticeable result Achieves some potential, perhaps alters society


This table depicts hypothetical individuals (100% genius vs. 0% genius), so obviously it doesn’t apply directly in real life. But it does help illustrate the range of outcomes.

The real question is: which of these two categories will do more for the world? To better society? This is, funnily enough, the same question that affirmative action and its ilk attempt to answer. Namely: is it better to help those who can help themselves to achieve more than anyone else can achieve? Or should we help those achieve whom society otherwise abandons?

If you help the first category, you get flashier paintings and bigger corporations.

If you help the second category, you get a more equal society, with fewer fireworks.

Basically, if you help those in the first category the most, you have to hope that they end up giving back to society in ways that, typically, they don’t. If you help those in the second category more, you have to sacrifice some possibilities now for longer-term potential.

That’s what it really comes down to: are we willing to take steps now toward a society that could be great, one day? Or do we abandon the world at large and send our superstars to the forefront at the expense of their peers?


But aside from all this society business, I was going to talk about my term, “Gladwell’s Wager,” as a personal mantra. Thus, even if we don’t have any great potential, we ought to live as though we do, and practice as though we could, because this might in the end turn out to be true. It’s akin to the Calvinists’ concept of living as “visible saints;” in other words, even if we don’t know if we have eternal salvation, we may still live as though we do (for some unknown reason). In this case even if we’re genetic losers, we should practice Ping-Pong for all those long hours anyway; if we don’t we’ll certainly have wasted our potential, whether or not we had it at all.

Maybe this would be a good social goal as well: help everyone achieve as much as possible (or promote/encourage/support all children at random) as this might help everybody’s sense of purpose, while balancing social inequality a bit and also allowing some of those great, great people to get the support they need to climb even higher.

So against the authors I say: screw the IQ tests—give everybody everything. Should be easy, right?

Punch it, Chewie!

Today a man in the hall asked me for help with the elevator buttons. He couldn’t seem to locate the controls. I said, ah yes, it’s tricky because there’s just one button, since we’re in the basement. I hit the single button and the elevator descended. He thanked me, saying he was looking for a pair of buttons. I understood completely.

Saw a lot of myself in his scared eyes.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance…

I’m thinking about optimism and odds.

Never tell us the odds, because they will always be in our favor.

I’ve conditioned myself to think that 50% are good odds. But they’re not, they’re exactly neutral odds. And if 50% is pretty good, then 33% isn’t bad, ¼ is doable, 1/10 is at least plausible, and 1/100 is possible.

But it’s not, really.

This is the academic job game: having come from that world, a world where maybe 1/12 or 1/20 (probably worse) humanities (and possibly other) PhDs get a tenure-track job, and maybe ½-3/4 or so of these folks actually get tenure.


But let’s backtrack a bit…

Odds of graduating high school (Age 25 and over):

88/100. Not bad odds, at all! (9/10, would graduate again.)


Odds of earning a bachelor’s degree:

32%. Decent odds, presumably, but on the negative side (3/10, might graduate.)


Odds of getting a PhD:

2%. (1/50, probably not worth betting on.)


Odds of becoming a college professor with that PhD in hand (within two years+)?

20% (1/5. Meh.)


So: odds of being a generic America student and becoming a tenured professor are: 0.4%.

In other words, don’t bet on it. One out of 250 people will do it. And, honestly, that sounds inflated. Part of it is rounding error. The real number is close to 1 in 300. But I can’t even believe that’s the case. Like I said above, if you’re working in the humanities, your odds are worse: maybe 1/10 PhDs in humanities get tenure.

At any rate, you say, at least it’s not random. Of course, real life isn’t random: odds give us an image, but it’s an abstracted one. But what if we’ve beaten some of the odds already? This isn’t pure chance, of course.

So let’s see: perhaps you graduated first in your high school (I did). 1/400, we’ll round it. And maybe you graduated first in your class in college (thanks for asking!): 1/4000, maybe. And maybe you capped it with a PhD (humanities, thanks): so perhaps ~1/10 (of those college graduates) managed to do that according to

Odds of acing the academy (that’s what we’ll call this): Your odds of coming in first place: 1 in 16,000,000.

Now I didn’t quite get first place in graduate school (3.96 GPA), but the odds are still probably similar.


What I’m trying to say (really poorly) is this: no matter how well you do as a student, you can’t ensure a favorable outcome, if you define a favorable outcome by a tenured professorship (fortunately, I don’t anymore, and I have found a different favorable outcome).

You can work as hard as you want, but you can’t guarantee it.

Full disclosure: I applied to maybe two tenure-track jobs. And I didn’t try very hard on those. It’s because I knew these were the odds, and at some point, you can’t keep betting on one-in-a-million chances. You can be one out of ten amazing graduates, and if there’s only three jobs, it’s not likely you’ll get a job. No matter how well you did before, how much you tried, how ward you worked, how truly you believed.

At some point you can’t beat the odds anymore.

10 Books That Have Stayed with Me

These are grouped according to genre (more or less), but they are not ranked. I’ve added some explanation for why you should love them, too.


My Holy Trinity of Great American Novels:

The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald – A great story is not diminished by its accessibility, and this is probably the “easiest,” finest book you could read in a few hours. It’s another story of pride, but one not of war with nature but with humans, and with love. Fitzgerald called genius the capability of holding two ideas in one’s head at once, and his novel tests that definition: our narrator, Nick, wonders if a man can be great when he is a fool. Can he win while losing? The novel praises persistence in the face of failure; it tells perfectly what Yeats deemed “the fascination of what’s difficult.”

Moby DickHerman Melville – This is the whole world in a book: all different kinds of men thrown together in a bucket into the sea. It’s the book of human hubris: Ahab’s (or Adam’s, really) belief that he can overcome the immensurate power of leviathan (or God, really). All the while Starbuck attempts to check a monomaniac with logic, winning the reader over if not the captain. A story of revenge, pride, and inevitability, told by an everyman who, we hope reflects us better than the does the captain. All the while Melville treats us to a love affair with the sea and the unreason it represents, a space behind our understanding, offering insights into the practicality and poetry of the long-lost art and war of whaling.

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnMark Twain – Can you make a perfect story out of rambling, periodically nonsensical episodes only loosely related, with an ending tacked on, all “told by an idiot” with its political commentary arriving several decades after the fact? Twain proved you could. It’s probably the most American book: the dialect, the deadpan, the deadbeat fathers and dreaming sons. It’s a slice of regionalism as well as an eternal morality tale about good and evil in a nation that continually confuses them. The book’s own ending (Tom Sawyer, part II) nearly undoes the force of the text, but it sticks with you anyway. A throwaway character in the middle of the novel, Colonel Sherburn, and his praiseworthy/revolting harangue toward society and its mobs, is the perfect random, complex figure to illustrate the book—and to detail Twain, America’s best writer.


Three Very Different, but Great, Fantasies:

The Divine ComedyDante Alighieri – The opening work of the triptych, Inferno, is the clear favorite, showing us a delicious view of the science of pain and punishment in Hades. But the upward movement of the whole trilogy is exhilarating: there is as much to fascinate in Purgatorio as in Hell. Paradiso is less interesting, due to our bias toward the seamier side, but it’s contemplative and beautiful in its own right. Throughout a brilliant story about the meaning of human action and belief, Dante weaves complicated ideas of justice and goodness. He produces a stark image of humanity, but a personal one. His ideas of justice and order stay with me. I just wish I had Virgil to show me the steps.

A Wrinkle in TimeMadeleine L’Engle – The perfect fantasy novel because it avoids every fantasy cliché and instead borrows the best of science fiction and the former genre. The result is a tight, clear, powerful image of a universe where making choices matters. I still feel a bit of terror creep over me when I reach the final chapters: it examines the darkness without living there. Its resolution doesn’t feel cheap. L’Engle packs so much power in an unassuming, young adult package—much like the protagonist, Meg, herself. Tangible darkness is overcome in the best way possible.

Something Wicked This Way ComesRay Bradbury – This shouldn’t be an unusual pick, but it is. It’s a terrific book, with a lot of its own Dante and Shakespeare in here (beyond just the title). Another great fantasy, but it’s a novel written essentially in lyric—something moving, beautiful, and haunting, that proves Bradbury’s mastery beyond simple genre fiction. This is his wonderful coming-of-age story, not just about two boys, but about a grown boy, a father who has aged too fast. Carnival and the gothic mix to produce a meditation on time that gives me goose bumps still.


Four Great Poets’ Legacies (I’m cheating and combining their actual books):

The Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot – Eliot has taught me almost everything I know about the science of poetry. Yet he still managed to infuse his works with heart. “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” changed my entire perspective on what poetry was, and almost-singlehandedly changed the course of my life. “The Waste Land,” too, though I don’t care to read it anymore, has been my own Virgil, guiding me through the modernist mind—and it’s shown me a way out of that world, as well. Of the Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding” are incredible, the latter makes me cry. It is a perfect meditation in the midst of war—what do we do and say and think and feel when we cannot do any of those things?

The Collected Poems of Robert Frost – Frost’s is a poetry of the people: he didn’t bend from his roots. Unlike the trees in “Birches,” whose bending tells us the truths of ourselves. I could put Frost’s poems on this list for this poem alone, a place where folk story and divine wisdom meet—it’s true what he decides, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” “The Death of the Hired Man,” is the most moving dramatic poem I’ve read: the images of death and life are so stark, and the resultant wonder about what home is, what it means, moves me still. “The Oven Bird” sums up tidily the meaning of modernity, deciding what exactly we are to make of “a diminished thing.” “Mending Wall” and “The Road Not Taken,” among many others, are recommended though well-known. “After Apple-Picking” sees us right where we always are: with our ladders pointed “toward heavens till.”

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens – A poet’s poet who remains obscure publicly though appropriately lauded among readers of poetry. His poetry is difficult if you wish to parse it perfectly, or believe poetry should make perfect sense. His play in sound and wit and light and color is seductive, though, so approach with care. Who knew and insurance executive could be both playful and philosophical, a pure lover of sound and word and mystery and humor, as he chased “the palm at the end of the mind.” Some essentials: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” (familiarity and estrangement in life and death) “Gubbinal” and “The Snow Man,” (the meaning of perspective), “Sunday Morning,” (how now are we to live?) “Of Modern Poetry,” (“The poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice), “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” (the impossibility of seeing things as they truly “are”), and “The Idea of Order at Key West” (the beauty possible in making the world in one’s own image). Stevens was the one who “sang beyond the genius of the sea.”

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats – The greatest Irish writer is spellbinding, modernist, ancient, strange, true and familiar all at once. He offers both criticism and begrudging respect for his people, as well as coupling self-monumentalizing to self-mocking. He was a master of the lyric who never lost his artist’s eye, even with works depicting an ugly, ugly era. The French-adapted “When You are Old” makes me cry: it’s a beautiful, strange, not-quite-right love sonnet. More essentials: “Easter, 1916” (perhaps the best political poem ever written), “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Lapis Lazuli” (what art is, even if we don’t know what it is) “Among School Children,” “The Stolen Child” (gorgeous yesteryear), “Under Ben Bulben” (Yeats’s tombstone), “The Wild Swans at Coole” (art as art; life as change), “Sailing to Byzantium” (the overwhelming desire for beauty).


+ 1 Great Short Story“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – Flannery O’Connor is here so stark, so brutal, and yet she overlays her work with a biting sense of humor that remains charming! A short masterpiece, painted brightly to contrast with its darkness.


+ 1 Great DramaHamletWilliam Shakespeare – I don’t care all that much for drama as a genre, but this is an ur-myth, an essential view of humanity (and its considerably better than Oedipus). Psychology in literature might as well begin here, and in the figure of Hamlet we all wait, and wait, for something to happen, all the while stewing in our rage.


Note to my literary friends: you can critique this list based on its generic nature, or because most of it fits neatly into a traditional canon. And it’s true—if others didn’t love these works first, I wouldn’t have found them to love, probably.

But their familiarity does not diminish their greatness. If you need texts from which to rebuild psychology, society, or art—these will help you get started, at least.

On Getting New Glasses

New glasses make you think.

Fuzzy eyesight equals fuzzy thinking. When I look into the distance and everything sort of mushes out and fades to pastels, it’s awfully hard to concentrate.

Sharp vision is like a stream of data pouring through your eyes.

When I chose my new frames at the vision shop the woman working there felt like lecturing me. She said the lenses I would be getting were too big for glasses like these. I should really get something bigger, thicker, solid. Big lenses make big frames.

I said, thank you, that’s all right, I like these ones.

She persisted. I said, to myself, I have a doctorate. Glasses and I have an understanding. Don’t try to tell me how to choose them.

Outwardly I said, it’s all right, if I don’t like them I’ll get different ones.

She was distressed on my behalf.

Perhaps I my uncorrected vision was too blurry to properly pick glasses. It has been eight years, after all.

Maybe she was just trying to tell me that these glasses are ugly and she thought the argumenta bout weight or thickness might help. My old glasses were thick enough, weighty enough. Perhaps she just wanted to tell someone something.

At times like these I like to hide in the blur. Even with my new glasses—glasses that have already shown me details I hadn’t seen before—I have the option to blur the world anytime I choose. When I take them off I can sprawl in the world of haze. I can casually remove my glasses during a discussion, in a meeting, teasing the frames in a way that says I’m thinking awfully deep right now.

Actually it’s just me hiding. They can’t see me, either. Part of me believes this: I see the evidence that I can blur the world at will. Everything’s mutable.

There’s a downside to the blurry world: it’s lonely. You can’t recognize anyone, especially when moving. So you either say hi to everyone or to no one. Either way you have no friends.

But it’s a relief to know that no matter how clear my sight, my thoughts, my words, they are all just a movement away from blurring to nothing.

At least from what I can see.