Sunday, October 06, 2013


Getting Good

I’ve been reading the new Malcolm Gladwell book, David and Goliath, in between other commitments.  It’s typical of Gladwell -- highly readable, great anecdotes, somewhat hit-and-miss on a theoretical level.  But chapter three, on “Caroline Sacks,” really hit home.

Sacks is a pseudonym for a student at Brown who grew up loving science.  She went to Brown thinking she’d follow her dream of becoming a scientist, but quickly found herself outgunned intellectually by enough of her peers that she got discouraged.  She switched fields into something that didn’t scare her away.  Gladwell notes that Sacks was more than smart enough to have been the big fish in a smaller pond, but that choosing the big pond of Brown put her at a relative disadvantage.  She got intimidated and retreated, just as very talented students do at “top” colleges around the country.  Gladwell goes on to cite studies showing that students like Sacks would easily have been among the top tier at, say, the University of Maryland, and almost certainly would have gone on to succeed in science.  Choosing the big pond actually hurt her, and deprived the rest of us of a talented scientist.

Gladwell uses the piece to make a somewhat strained point about affirmative action, but I read it differently.  It’s a welcome rebuttal to the annoying literature about “undermatching” that presumes that  less selective colleges are essentially traps.  In fact, they provide the space in which people can get good at the things they love.

I saw both sides of the Sacks dilemma in my time at Williams.  Even then, it was a pretty selective place, and it drew a bunch of very wealthy, smart students from all over, along with a few of the rest of us.  I quickly had the frustrating experience of having my head handed to me in several classes, and of trying to compete with students who were better prepared or just more talented than I was.  I eventually hit my stride and found a niche, but that first year -- and especially that first semester -- wasn’t pretty.

But Williams was also a small place, and it had gaps.  On a whim, I decided to join the campus radio station.  Just to make myself distinctive, I decided to present myself as an expert on jazz.  I had no business doing that, of course, but I knew just enough names to be able to put together an audition tape.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that nobody else there knew anything, either.  Just being able to put together enough of a jazz playlist for an audition tape put me in the top echelon of dj’s there, so I quickly got my slot.  

Since nobody knew anything, I was free to suck at first, and to figure things out as I went.  I took full advantage of that freedom.  I had found a space in which I could be given the time to get good at something.  I never became any kind of expert, but after a couple of years, I became capable of putting on a perfectly passable show.

If the radio station had been anywhere near as competitive as the academic side was, I never would have made it past the tryout.  I was only able to develop because I didn’t have to be good at first.  I could experiment.

The relentless culture of academic meritocracy among the most selective schools may serve well the top one or two percent of students, but it seems mostly designed to inculcate self-doubt in the rest.  It’s remarkably inhibiting.  And that presents a social cost beyond the discomfort of the students who don’t stand out.  It squanders talent.

Being the big fish in the small pond doesn’t necessarily portend lost potential.  The small pond may actually provide the venue in which that potential will have time to come to fruition.  To the extent that’s true, then rejecting the “undermatching” hypothesis isn’t just a matter of justice, although it certainly is that.  It’s also a matter of recognizing that someone may not be the absolute best in the country at something, but may still be more than capable of making a worthwhile contribution.  And that insisting on perfection from day one -- the old “weed ‘em out” approach -- probably wastes more talent than it saves.

I don’t deny that the big pond makes sense for the gargantuan talent.  But for the three-dimensional person who is smart but not world-beating, “undermatching” may actually be just the thing.  It’s time to recognize the value that the non-Harvards of the world offer.  And my thanks to Gladwell for helping me put words to an intuition that I’ve held for longer than I care to admit.

Do you notice how nobody writes a lamentful story of somebody switching majors if the field they're leaving isn't STEM? We never hear about how the world lost its chance at a great writer or economist or business leader or artist, because some college student wasn't succeeding in that major and switched to something else. But if somebody switches out of STEM, we hear about the world's tragic loss.

I have no idea if Caroline Sacks should have stayed in STEM. Without knowing her as an individual I cannot comment on what path would be best for her. Perhaps this is indeed a loss for her. But as far as the wider world, there's little evidence that a kid switching from STEM is really the end of all things.
Meh. These arguments can very quickly become racist, as I'm sure Gladwell became when he linked that anecdote to affirmative action.

What we really want to do is make sure that people have growth mindsets so that when they're the smallest fish in a big pond they look at that as an opportunity to grow rather than a reason to give up.

Also, depending on what part of STEM she was in, she may have been much better off in another field. We don't actually need more biologists, for example. Better to find that out in college than while unemployed or under-earning after graduation.
I don't know much about Gladwell's new book, but this post is nails it. It brings up such a great point that's missed by our every more competitive world: it's hard to learn a skill when you're constantly under pressure to be the best. Unless you essentially start out at the top, it might be difficult if not impossible to ever get close to that. This has some obvious implications for jobs, careers, schooling, etc.

One of the wonderful things about higher ed is the ability to just try out stuff and learn in a relatively safe way. Things might not work out or blow up in your face, but that's not really the point. The point is to get exposure and grow in the first place.
You can learn economics out of text books, great writing, leadership, arts through life experience but you can't learn how to do lab work anywhere else but in a lab - the the cost of materials and teaching is prohibitive for an individual to do alone.

If a kid changes major out of a (lab) science than that it - it's over. If a kid changes major from economics, English or arts than they can still run a business, write and paint.

I am somewhat skeptical that changing schools would have really helped that (hypothetical?) student.

In my engineering dept at non-top-tier R1 (insert state here) Univ, there are still plenty of challenging (and required) courses that could scare away students who doubt their talents and potential. While the peer group is not the same as at Top Tier Univ, the course material remains challenging and the textbooks are often the same. Partial differential equations, quantum mechanics, and organic chemistry don't lose complexity simply because an entering average SAT score is lower.

I certainly have known of many students who were very interested in STEM but weren't good at the academic side of it. I applaud them for trying, and for sticking to their dream. It is also necessary to address why one isn't understanding material, though.
And one other important factor—which you hint at in your post—is wealth.

As the father of a very intelligent and very hard-working high school senior, I can think of a bunch of public institutions that might suit her particular strengths and interests. But we're not looking at any state schools, small, medium or large. They simply cost too much.

Fortunately, my daughter has achieved enough academically and otherwise that she has as good a chance at getting into a "top tier" school as almost anyone. And this is really important for us, because we've been out of work for quite a while, our cash is about gone and we have plenty of debt as it is, thank you. We probably couldn't qualify for the kind of life-crushing loans that are calculated as our "expected family contribution."

So she needs to get into one of those "top tier" private colleges/universities as they are the only schools with enough need-based and/or merit aid to make college possible for her. And I think that is an unfortunate, avoidable situation for all concerned.
That student could have been me! Arrived at Brown (many years ago) and was terrified by the introductory Biology course despite an 800 on the Biology SAT.

What I did not know was that this was the weed-out course for pre-Med. The other students were spending 80% of their study time on this one course.

Did great in my humanities and social science courses; went on to pursue a non-science career; have benefited greatly from my scientific turn of mind; water over the dam. Might have been a different story at a different college.
I like your notion of freedom to suck. IME students learn more by figuring out how not to suck than by being excellent right out of the gate. But there is such pressure on them to be getting excellent grades from so early on that there's no room in the system for initial sucking. I spend a lot of time trying to work out a scheme within my classes that doesn't penalize early sucking, but I can't change the whole system.
IME students learn more by figuring out how not to suck than by being excellent right out of the gate.

Years ago I needed to hire a technical worker, fresh from university, and the HR department showed me a 6' drawer of resumes and said "pick six for interviews". Virtually every application was qualified. Most were excellent (it was a prestigious company).

So I chose candidates who had failed at least one course. I figured failing and coming back to succeed showed that they had determination.
Random thoughts:

Did Gladwell discuss the option of a single-gender college for this young woman? I haven't read much about the topic recently, but I know several professors who say that a climate without young men (loudly pretending to be experts) gave them the room to grow and discover what they could do.

Kids with really high self esteem seem more vulnerable to the dose of reality you described. Probably happens hourly at a selective school, but it happens everywhere. I'm sure that is why some students just quit at their first non-A while I regularly see Marines take on a challenge and succeed (and don't assume I mean just men).

Agreed 100% on how talent can get squandered or developed. A great deal depends on matching, but you have to include personality as well as academics. And maturity. I recall an absolute star who did a second start at our CC several years after dropping out after one semester at a university. Something clicked in the interim and her math skills and engineering insight appeared like magic.
I seriously love this post. Part of getting a really satisfying career involves finding the work that suits your temperament, not just the area you show skill in early. Freedom to suck in the early rounds is essential to that exploration. I have begun to worry that elite American society has gotten so competitive that late bloomers will be completely shut out. F Scott Fitzgerald will finally have been right: there will be no second acts in American lives. And that would be a real shame.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?