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.