The Little Book of Talent Review

by Daniel Coyle
$18.00; 160 pages

This is indeed a little book. It contains 52 brief techniques for improving skills, based on Daniel Coyle's research into human excellence, and how we get there. What you will not find here is a lengthy treatise expounding Coyle's theory of greatness, with footnotes. That would be The Talent Code. This book is an extended commercial for Coyle's other book, which was apparently effective, because I was curious enough to buy a copy after reading The Little Book of Talent.

The tips you find in this book seem pretty simple. I think that is a feature not a bug. Most excellent coaching seems really simple after the fact. The hard part is doing the right thing at the right time that will help the student push harder than they ever thought they could. With a new batch of tricks, that should help a coach find that right thing faster, and more often. The same idea could easy be expanded to one's self, along the lines of Getting Things Done or the 4-Hour Workweek. Try to find ways to boost yourself just a little bit everyday, and aim for a cumulative effect to achieve a bigger payoff.

The tips are pretty interesting, and I find them intuitively accurate. They match up with my own experience. What I am less impressed with is Coyle's theoretical framework. The 10,000 hour rule serves nicely as a synecdoche of Coyle's theory:

Rule of Ten Thousand Hours (n): The scientific finding that all world-class experts in every field have spent a minimum of ten thousand hours intensively practicing their craft. While this number is sometimes misinterpreted as a magical threshold, in reality it functions as a rule of thumb underlining a larger truth: Greatness is not born, but grown through deep practice, no matter who you are.

Coyle has a lot of interesting research, but the one thing he can't conquer is the popular impression that some people are born more talented than others. That is because this popular belief is true. The semantic flaw in the popular belief is that we are not born with ready made skills; we have to learn them. Thus is entirely correct to say that all geniuses must perfect their skills through intensive practice. What is missing is the genius had a greater capacity for that talent than you when he started, and if you both went through an identical training regimen, the difference would rapidly become obvious.

The other important thing Coyle has going for him is very few of us are so skilled in anything that we are bumping up against our capacity limits. You can almost always get better at whatever it is you are doing with more effective techniques. The talented people will just learn faster, and learn more than the rest of us. This grates against the American national character, however, so Coyle shouldn't have any trouble finding a willing audience.

My other book reviews

What is Conscientiousness?

Brent W. Roberts at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has a nice page summarizing the concept of conscientiousness. Roberts mentions interesting challenges in this field of study, and even talks about the effect behaviors associated with conscientiousness have on the fate of nations.

What is Conscientiousness?

Conscientiousness refers to individual differences in the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be task- and goal-directed, to be planful, delay gratification, and follow norms and rules (John & Srivastava, 1999).  As can be seen by the definition, conscientiousness is not really a single, unitary entity.  Rather, it is better thought of as a conglomeration of more specific traits and trait domains. 

Our research on the lower-order structure of conscientiousness has revealed at least 5 replicable facets of conscientiousness:

1.  Orderliness:  The propensity to be organized and neat versus messy and disorganized.

2.  Self-control:  The propensity to inhibit prepotent responses.

3.  Industriousness: The propensity to work hard

4.  Responsibility: The propensity to be reliable, especially in social situations

5.  Traditionality: The propensity to follow socially proscribed norms and traditions

We have done several studies to investigate the underlying structure of conscientiousness and each of these studies has revealed specific facets that have not replicated. 

1.  Decisiveness: The willingness to make a decision and to be firm in one's commitments

2.  Punctuality: The propensity to show up on time to appointments

3.  Formality: The propensity to follow the rules of social decorum

3.  Virtue: The propensity to be honest and to tell the truth

These remaining facets should be considered preliminary and await further replication.

Why is Conscientiousness Interesting?

Conscientiousness is interesting for many reasons. As a trait domain conscientiousness shows an interesting association with age--it goes up.  Not only does it go up, but it does so well into middle and old age (Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006).  This pattern is conspicuous for several reasons.  First, most developmental theories assume personality traits stop changing some time in childhood or adolescence.  The most charitable theories propose that traits continue to develop through young adulthood.  The fact that conscientiousness continues to develop well past young adulthood contradicts established scientific assumptions.  It is also something of a mystery.  Why would people continue to increase on conscientiousness in middle and old age?  What purpose do these changes serve?

Conscientiousness is also interesting because as a trait domain it represents one of the key psychological fulcrums between the individual and society.  Many societies spend inordinate time and energy attempting to make their citizens more conscientious. People are punished and rewarded in order to facilitate greater conscientiousness. Also, people who are more conscientious tend to grease the skids of social intercourse and social functioning--they make society work better for others by simply being conscientious. There is no more compelling personality trait domain for studying the interface between the individual and society.

h/t Dennis Mangan

Willpower

The Art of Manliness has an article today on how willpower is depleted, part 2 of a 3 part series. I find this post very interesting, because it discusses training your willpower to be stronger, just like you would a muscle. Given the importance of the ability to delay gratification and work hard, this is a subject I've been very interested in of late.

Related items:

Decision Fatigue

Grit

Taking me to task

The Family Social Scientist takes me to task in the comments on my post on Decision Fatigue:

while this is an interesting quirk of the data and warrants further exploration, its hardly conclusive . To say that the marshmallow test is "known to predict future success in life" is a little misleading and perhaps a misinterpretation of the results.

Touché. I really cannot complain that the FSS is calling me out in the same way that I do to others all the time. It is indeed perilous to try to glean science out of popular articles. I am a rank amateur in the field, and I know how that seems to an expert because I have not always had the grace to deal lightly with those who have trespassed into my own technical specialty.

Yet, nevertheless, I will persist on this topic, despite the many landmines, because it is absolutely fascinating to me. The FSS brings up some really good points in his comment that need to be considered:

grades are hardly a proper measurement of academic progress and intelligence

Quite true. This was arguably less true in the past, but grades, both high school and undergraduate, have a pretty loose connection with both academic progress and intelligence. This is actually one of the things that first attracted me to psychometrics, because it gave me the mental tools to understand why grades aren't a measure of intelligence. 

By way of example, consider this work by Steve Hsu and Jim Schombert on college GPA and SAT scores. Hsu and Schombert explain some of the complexities their work demonstrated in an interview:

“Freshman GPA is not a satisfactory metric of academic success,” Hsu explains. “There is simply too much variation in the difficulty of courses taken by freshmen.” More able freshmen typically take more difficult courses, whereas less able freshmen take introductory courses “not very different from high school classes,” he says. Under these circumstances, academic success—an “A” in an introductory course versus a “B” in an advanced course—becomes too relative to accurately measure. Course variation decreases in later years, as students settle into their respective majors, working hard in required classes.


The new approach bore fruit: SAT and ACT scores, their analysis showed, predict upper-level much better than lower-level college grades, “a significant and entirely new result,” Schombert says. 

Hsu and Schombert are now working on including personality inventories in this assessment to see whether they can improve their model. As a guess, conscientiousness will probably be a big hitter. But, there is a difficulty here. How do you measure conscientiousness? The short answer is: we don't know how. The longer answer is we try various techniques to quantify a quality, such as personality inventories or the marshmallow test. Personality inventories are easy, but they are also easy to game. If you know what the questions are getting at, you can manufacture any result you want. The marshmallow test, and the ice bath test, are a little better in this respect because they push up against a hard limit that we hope is correlated with the thing we are interested in. Thus, even if you knew that holding your hand in the water was going to be used to judge your mental toughness, this would be a good thing because your ability to endure unpleasantness for a positive social judgement is exactly what the test is after.

This is also related to why grades aren't the best predictor either: the system is easy to game. In college admissions, this is part of the reason grades have become de-emphasized. Good grades in high school aren't by themselves a good predictor of doing well in college, but if you factor in participation in sports and other extracurriculars, you can get a rough estimate of a student's ability to stick something through and their ability to manage competing priorities. This can be gamed too, as Amy Chua demonstrates, but if you can successfully game this system, it means you are probably smart and likely to be wealthy, which is something colleges want anyway. 

Decision Fatigue

An Art of Manliness article on the power of morning and evening routines linked to an article that discusses an important concept: decision fatigue. Since I have argued that willpower is a finite resource, I am not surprised. The NY Times article cites the work of Roy F. Baumeister, but another classic is the Stanford marshmallow experiment

The adult version of this test goes like this:

A nearby department store was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so researchers from the lab went off to fill their car trunks with simple products — not exactly wedding-quality gifts, but sufficiently appealing to interest college students. When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices. Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-shirt? A control group, meanwhile — let’s call them the nondeciders — spent an equally long period contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to give their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.

Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater. The deciders gave up much faster; they lasted 28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect. It was confirmed in other experiments testing students after they went through exercises like choosing courses from the college catalog.

This is a rough and ready test of conscientiousness, but it is worth remembering that conscientiousness is a very big bucket. There are lots of sub-traits that fall in this category. Here is a list of sub-traits from one test:

 

  • Self-Efficacy
  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement-Striving
  • Self-Discipline
  • Cautiousness 

The sub-traits have formal similarities, but they can actually have a complete lack of correlation. My sub-trait scores on C have almost exactly zero correlation.

For all that, the marshmallow test is known to predict future success in life. The individual traits of C are harder to predict than the overall bucket, but the whole mess of them are generally helpful in life. 

An interesting result from the work of Baumeister: eating restores willpower. 

The researchers set out to test something called the Mardi Gras theory — the notion that you could build up willpower by first indulging yourself in pleasure, the way Mardi Gras feasters do just before the rigors of Lent. In place of a Fat Tuesday breakfast, the chefs in the lab at Florida State whipped up lusciously thick milkshakes for a group of subjects who were resting in between two laboratory tasks requiring willpower. Sure enough, the delicious shakes seemed to strengthen willpower by helping people perform better than expected on the next task. So far, so good. But the experiment also included a control group of people who were fed a tasteless concoction of low-fat dairy glop. It provided them with no pleasure, yet it produced similar improvements in self-control. The Mardi Gras theory looked wrong. Besides tragically removing an excuse for romping down the streets of New Orleans, the result was embarrassing for the researchers. Matthew Gailliot, the graduate student who ran the study, stood looking down at his shoes as he told Baumeister about the fiasco.

Baumeister tried to be optimistic. Maybe the study wasn’t a failure. Something had happened, after all. Even the tasteless glop had done the job, but how? If it wasn’t the pleasure, could it be the calories? At first the idea seemed a bit daft. For decades, psychologists had been studying performance on mental tasks without worrying much about the results being affected by dairy-product consumption. They liked to envision the human mind as a computer, focusing on the way it processed information. In their eagerness to chart the human equivalent of the computer’s chips and circuits, most psychologists neglected one mundane but essential part of the machine: the power supply. The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.

Again, not too surprising for me. I've known for a long time that I lose my temper when I get hungry. People who have more C can suffer fools gladly longer than I can when hungry. Since mental energy is material, this is to be expected. There is a fun Newtonian twist to this. One of Baumeister's students didn't believe that glucose could really affect willpower. He proved that overall energy usage didn't really change in the brain, no matter how much willpower the subject had. What he didn't expect, however, was that there was an equal and opposite reaction in which areas of the brain receive energy when your willpower is depleted, and the balance is restored by eating.

The results of the experiment were announced in January, during Heatherton’s speech accepting the leadership of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the world’s largest group of social psychologists. In his presidential address at the annual meeting in San Antonio, Heatherton reported that administering glucose completely reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion — a finding, he said, that thoroughly surprised him. Heatherton’s results did much more than provide additional confirmation that glucose is a vital part of willpower; they helped solve the puzzle over how glucose could work without global changes in the brain’s total energy use. Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.

If you wish, you can apply the standard evolutionary biology mental shortcut at this point.

One of the virtues of the Aristotelian account of the virtues is that as you become more experienced in living a virtuous life, good choices become habits that no longer require thought. This frees up your mental energy for bigger and better things.

Grit

John D Cook linked to an article on "grit" by Venkatesh Rao. This article really got me thinking. Ever since I discovered the utility of psychometrics for personality, I have spent a great deal of time pondering the relationship between the gifts we are given, and what we do for ourselves.

Venkat's primary point in his post is our modern economy doesn't align well with the academic disciplines the elite are educated in. He says people call him a generalist because he has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and he ended up in marketing. However, from his perspective, there was a straight line between those two points. Thus his physics metaphor of external and internal coordinate systems.

The trouble is, we still tend to think in that external coordinate system, and may spend years trying to make that aerospace education turn into an aerospace job when our true skills and interests may lie elsewhere. Katz's now infamous article, Don't Become a Scientist, addressed precisely this mismatch between the disciplinary expectations produced in grad school, and the actual behavior of the job market.

Venkat then turns to what he calls grit, and I would call conscientiousness. He correctly notes this is probably the best predictor of success, over IQ, over family connections, over just about anything. People who bust ass almost always do well.

One point where I would disagree with Venkat is this:

Grit is the enduring intrinsic quality that, for a brief period in recent history, was coincident with the pattern of behavior known as progressive disciplinary specialization.

I don't think this should be in the past tense. Progressive disciplinary specialization is becoming more and more associated with C and less and less with g. What we may be getting is less and less value for our money and effort, because disciplinary specialization [in science at least] often means working under your 50- or 60-something PI in relative anonymity as cheap, but skilled labor.

This is a really good working definition of conscientiousness:

Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power.

Venkat goes on to discuss how what can look like brutal hard work can actually be easy, depending on your skills and interests. Quite true. I think the big takeaway here is that building on your strengths can be more effective than trying to remedy your weaknesses. This is a subject of intense personal interest to me, because once I discovered that I have low conscientiousness, many of my frustrations became comprehensible.

Conscientiousness is a finite resource. As a Thomist, this doesn't surprise me. The part of our mind that touches infinity is our intellect, the rational, reasoning, undying part of us. The rest of us is mediated through a thoroughly material, fallible, limited body. Willpower, like strength, can be depleted because it is material.

Once I knew this, I could understand why my reach continually exceeded my grasp. I like Renkat's point about flow and the results that can come from just keeping doggedly at something. But for me, doggedly keeping at something is very, very difficult. I just don't have a lot of capacity [potentia] for self-discipline. The revelation for me was realizing this is a stable personality trait. There are things I can do, for sure, but it is a limitation I will probably struggle against for my entire life. Since my conscientiousness is so low, I actually do need to exert continual will just to keep showing up.

Engineers sometimes talk about "finding the cliff". This means looking for the failure point so you know where your assumptions are still valid, and where they are not. I found the cliff in my own conscientiousness in college. I was a junior in a physics program, and I knew that I had the mental horsepower to do as well as anyone in the program. I seriously expected to be at or near the top in all my courses. My assumption of mental horsepower is probably accurate. What I was missing was an accurate assessment of my capacity for hard work. This was the point in college where I had to stop goofing off and seriously apply myself if I wanted top honors. I tried to do that. I pushed myself beyond my limits. [who can't give 110%?]

The price I paid was I became sicker than I have ever been in my life. It was years before I really recovered. I fear that I treated my friends poorly during this time. I'm surprised they still talk to me. I was miserable. The worst part of it all was that in order to save myself, I had to give up. I'm being hard on myself. I did just fine in college, but I had to seriously adjust my expectations [the soft bigotry of low expectations] about what I was capable of. This runs against the grain of everything my education had instilled in me, so I thought I was a failure.

Thus it was an incredible relief when I discovered that I had indeed fought the good fight, and finished the race. First place just wasn't for me. I did well with what I had been given.

Thus, while I like the insight with which Renkat advises us to take the path of least resistance, I cannot take him literally, for me the path of least resistance involves a couch, videogames, and that computer guy shape. I have a family to provide for, so I have to keep grinding it out. There are some weaknesses that can simply be avoided, using the mountain metaphor. These are simply relative weaknesses, what are called contraries. To be decisive is the opposite [contrary] of carefully considering the options. Both are strengths in their place. Being too lazy to show up to work is a privation of the good of being a hard worker. This simply needs to be resisted with the tools we have at our disposal.

Further reading:

http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/08/19/the-calculus-of-grit/

http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1993-40718-001

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200510/the-winning-edge

http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2011/08/29/gritty-coordinate-systems/

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/what-is-success-true-grit/

http://www.tempobook.com/2011/08/17/daemons-and-the-mindful-learning-curve/

An unlikely nexus

This month's Public Square column in First Things magazine by R. R. Reno has interesting parallels with Steve Sailer's Selecting for Conformity post. Each man expresses himself in a characteristic idiom, Reno the language of social justice and Sailer evolutionary biology, but it seems that they are coming at the same things from different sides.

Sailer:

The extraordinary complication of the modern college admissions game, for example, are best navigated by happy two parent families where mom and dad work together seamlessly to polish Junior's resume. Consider Amy Chua: she seems like a handful, yet she and her husband get along well-enough to stay married, which allows them to bring their huge joint resources of money, energy, education, and connections to bear on getting their amenable oldest daughter into Harvard. 

This trend has disparate impact on the children of broken families, but what are a combination of single moms, deadbeat dads, men with demanding new girlfriends, and widows going to do about it? Form the Losers and Screw-Ups Rights League?

This may have something to do with the vague social trend that many people have noted: that the young people at the top of society today seem pretty happy, well-adjusted, cooperative, and much more conformist than in the recent turbulent past. I suspect that people of ornery and/or impulsive dispositions inherited from their screw-up parents are less likely to make it to the upper reaches of society than in the past. In older times, parents with screw-up inclinations were more likely to be deterred by explicit social pressures against bastardy and divorces.

Reno:

No. Progressives talk about “social responsibility.” It is an apt term, but it surely means husbanding social capital just as much as—indeed, more than—providing financial resources. In our society a preferential option for the poor must rebuild the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers, and that means social conservatism. The bohemian fantasy works against this clear imperative, because it promises us that we can attend to the poor without paying any attention to our own manner of living. Appeals to aid the less fortunate, however urgent, make few demands on our day-to-day lives. We are called to awareness, perhaps, or activism, but not to anything that would cut against the liberations of recent decades and limit our own desires.

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.

In this and other ways, we can help restore the constraining forms of moral and social discipline that don’t bend to fit the desires of the powerful—forms that offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty. That’s the truest preferential option—and truest form of respect—for the poor.

Sailer's example focuses on the Ivy-league elite, but his point is more broadly applicable. The combination of partly inheritable smarts and focus combined with favorable family circumstances [that are not unrelated to smarts and focus] makes it easy to be a winner in America. The lack of any of those three things will push you, or your children, further down the social scale. Lack more than one and you are in trouble.

A great deal of effort has been made to educate the poor and downtrodden youth, but much of this effort has been wasted trying to send people to college who cannot benefit from it. At the same time, the social feedback system that discouraged indolence and rewarded hard work and deferred gratification has been slowly eliminated, mostly for the benefit of the privileged few who don't really need the help.

Genius!

Terry Teachout rags on the 10,000 hour rule in the Wall Street Journal.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart's older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn't. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn't.

I didn't even know Mozart had a sister! This is especially fascinating because Mozart and Nannerl shared both environment and genetics. What was different about them is the thing that is not reducible to a measurement: their individuality. If we were doing statistics we would call that "error", which of course it isn't in this context.

A thing I worry about with the current fashion of the 10,000 hour rule is ambitious helicopter parents trying to force their children to be this or thus. It can be done. Many famous child prodigies, such as Mozart, are the result of just such a program of accelerated instruction. What is less clear is the terrible price to be paid by the victims of such forced marches. 

Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the greatest minds who ever lived in the United States, but the damage done to him by his illustrious father, Benjamin Peirce, meant that he died a pauper, unremarked and unlamented. Benjamin Peirce was chair of the Harvard mathematics department, and he placed his second son through a grueling regimen in which he read all the famous philosophers and then had to deconstruct their arguments for his father, and he composed a history of chemistry by the time he was 11. C. S. Peirce was incredibly gifted, but he seemingly lacked common sense, leading him to vandalize the chemistry lecture hall at Harvard. His precocity and foolishness earned him the enmity of the future President of Harvard, who ensured that Peirce would never work in a university.

Peirce was forced to earn a living doing work for the USGS and by writing book reviews. Just one of the things he created was the Peirce quincuncial projection. A mouthful to be sure, but a beautiful projection of the globe to look like a square:

This is just one many things he created in exile. Peirce's work is still being evaluated, but his reputation keeps increasing as time goes on, But he had a horrible life! He learned everything except how to be a good man, which is really the primary purpose of education. Peirce had to learn this for himself at an advanced age, but how much easier would it have been to have learned it when he should have.

Now, Back to our regularly scheduled program

Sivers' post on learning musical composition at an accelerate rate is fascinating to me. Sivers is clearly an extraordinary human being. Looking around his site, I found a bit on shortening the time between thinking and doing, challenging himself, and doing what scares you.

Sivers has created a great deal of success for himself, and is probably a very inspiring speaker. Hell, I feel inspired right now. Yet I cannot help but wonder where there is a place in Sivers world for human frailty, and human brokenness. What made me wonder is this:

Ever since our five lessons, high expectations became my norm, and still are to this day. Whether music, business, or personal - whether I actually achieve my expectations or not - the point is that I owe every great thing that's happened in my life to Kimo's raised expectations. That's all it took. A random meeting and five music lessons to convince me I can do anything more effectively than anyone expects.

(And so can anyone else.)

I wish the same experience for everyone. I have no innate abilities. This article wasn't meant to be about me as much as the life-changing power of a great teacher and raised expectations.

I have bad news for you Derek. You do have innate abilities, they are just much, much better than everyone else's. I don't really dispute the value of hard work, especially focused hard work guided by a mentor like he is talking about here. I also don't dispute that people can usually do more than they think they can. 

I just think this stuff is dangerous for the less gifted people of the world. How well is this all really going to work out for the slow and the unmotivated? The problem is that we do have innate capacities, that are partially constrained by heredity. The capacity for hard work is something that is not equally distributed. Some people just cannot do it, and if they try they will burn out or break down when their capacity is exceeded. Where is the philosophy of personal success and satisfaction for the below average?

It is probably too much to expect Sivers to be all things to all men, but our age is leaving the less-able further and further behind by pretending that everyone can be anything if only they tried harder.

And now for something completely different

In the comments on my Generic Degrees post, Tom gives an example of how law school increased his conscientiousness. I can be dismissive of the value of hard work [blame Malcolm Gladwell], but hard work is at least as important in modern life as intellectual ability. If not more so. 

Derek Sivers gives us another example of the value of hard work.

When the studio owner heard I was going to Berklee, he said, “I graduated from Berklee, and taught there for a few years, too. I'll bet I can teach you two years' of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there's no speed limit. Come by my studio at 9:00 tomorrow for your first lesson, if you're interested. No charge.”

h/t John D Cook

Related post Beating the System

Conscientiousness is a finite resource

Why change is hard:

So picture this: Students come into a lab. It smells amazing—someone has just baked chocolate-chip cookies. On a table in front of them, there are two bowls. One has the fresh-baked cookies. The other has a bunch of radishes. Some of the students are asked to eat some cookies but no radishes. Others are told to eat radishes but no cookies, and while they sit there, nibbling on rabbit food, the researchers leave the room – which is intended to tempt them and is frankly kind of sadistic. But in the study none of the radish-eaters slipped – they showed admirable self-control. And meanwhile, it probably goes without saying that the people gorging on cookies didn’t experience much temptation.

Then, the two groups are asked to do a second, seemingly unrelated task—basically a kind of logic puzzle where they have to trace out a complicated geometric pattern without raising their pencil. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzle can’t be solved. The scientists are curious how long they’ll persist at a difficult task. So the cookie-eaters try again and again, for an average of 19 minutes, before they give up. But the radish-eaters—they only last an average of 8 minutes. What gives?

If you add in to this that people naturally vary in conscientiousness, an act of self-control that is easy for one person can be nearly impossible for another.

h/t John D Cook

Beating the System

Having had a bit to say on the subject of education, I was intrigued today by an article by a professor from the University of Houston [where I will be Monday] about a university student who completed five undergraduate degrees in six years in 1998.

Instead of finishing in four years with one degree, he finished five college degrees in only six years. He amassed 340 credit hours with a grade-point average of 3.70. His degrees are in political science, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and communications. Coyle has taken as many as 64 credits in one semester, which qualifies as absurd. He's also been accepted into seven fine law schools. Naturally, his university is less than delighted. The provost feels that Coyle has mocked the academic process.

I would be more impressed if there was a serious degree in the bunch. Each of those subjects qualifies as a voodoo science. It is definitely unfair of me to assert that, but nonetheless true. Each of those subjects, considered unto itself, I would consider interesting. I just have serious doubts about any of them taught in an American university. Each of these disciplines as taught has a great deal of overlap, and do not require the mastery of a complex, cumulative body of knowledge. Coyle could not have amassed 340 credit hours in the same amount of time if he had chosen mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I know this to be true, because I studied physics and mathematics at the same time. It was extremely common for physics students to double or triple major. Common adjunct majors included astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.  However, this was only truly possible because the requirements overlapped to such a large degree that only a few courses [as few as five] were required for the double major. Even the dreaded engineering physics major only required 129 credit hours.

I also know this to be true because I had a friend who completed a triple major in Criminal Justice, Political Science, and Psychology at NAU. She graduated with over 200 credit hours, which was only possible by gaming the system. NAU also does not feel that you should amass ridiculous amounts of credits, even if you are able, so there is a strict cap of 25 credit hours per semester, with over 21 requiring the dean's approval. My friend would take classes at the local community college and then transfer them, to evade the credit hour cap. I remember her as busy, but quite sane. Someone who tried to take the equivalent number of classes in a hard science would have to be inhumanly smart, insane, or both. Probably both.

There is one thing such an accomplishment shows, a very high level of conscientiousness. My friend was always organized and on the ball. I never could understand how she got so much done. Actually, I do now. She is exceptionally conscientious. In retrospect, much is clearer now. My friend also went to law school,  there seems to be more than an accidental relationship here. I should point out that my contempt is reserved for the present system, rather than either Coyle or my friend. You need to be an exceptional person to be smart enough to figure out this is possible, and be sufficiently organized to actually do it. Coyle says he isn't smart, but I don't believe him.

I do agree with the provost of the University of Nevada, Coyle did make a mockery of the system. I just feel the system deserves to be mocked.  The subjects Coyle quintuple-majored in are just not hard enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening. This kind of behavior is rare both because no one thinks of doing it, and also that the vast majority of college students don't have sufficient conscientiousness to pull it off. For a lot of smart young people, college is a very pleasant way to spend four [or five] years. Choosing a major that is not too hard can be a good way to ensure that you are still employable [given sufficient smarts], but not cramp your social life. Doing 340 credit hours in two years definitely cramps your social life.

I am largely in agreement with Charles Murray. Far too many people are going to college. This whole episode is really just a symptom. Lienard, the UH professor, relates a story from his youth where he was denied credit for exceptional drafting ability because he is dyslexic and consequently was doing poorly in high school. Lienhard did three years of classwork in one semester, but only received one semester's of credit. The school system current, both secondary and tertiary, cannot accept that people have wildly differing levels of ability in many different spheres. Some people are much smarter than others. Some people are much more organized than others. Some people can visualize in three dimensions much better than others.

This is not a bad thing. Paradoxically, I also assert that it is not a bad thing that some people are less smart, less organized, and less able to visualize in three dimensions. This is simply a fact, that must be acknowledged.

Plus, someday the last shall be first.

h/t John D. Cook

Intelligence and Conscientiousness

Another interesting editorial from Bruce Charlton, Reliable but dumb or smart but slapdash? Comparing and contrasting g and C as measurable, inheritable traits. Both intelligence and conscientiousness are associated with more success in life, generally considered, and are independent of one another in the statistical sense.

Charlton has an interesting statement in his editorial that conflicts with my experience.

The usual conceptualization sees IQ as a gift and C as a virtue; i.e. intelligence as an ability available to be used when necessary and personality traits such as Conscientiousness as a moral disposition to make better or worse behavioural choices. The mainstream idea would be that people are not responsible for the level of their intelligence but are responsible for their behaviour. So apparently it makes sense to praise Conscientiousness as virtuous but not similarly to praise IQ.

I can certainly imagine this point of view, but I have most often found that smart people are often quite proud of their intelligence, and bristle at the idea that it may be inherited. I have very often heard smart and dumb used as terms of moral abuse, when it would be more appropriate to see intelligence as like height, something that can be stunted, but how tall you end up is largely beyond your control.

That being said, I also wonder whether the concept of virtue used here is a little thin.

...while personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice?

Modern systems of ethics seem crippled by their insistence on choice, in a way that is stripped of all context, as if one could choose one way or another with equal ease. Personal experience suggests that some options are much harder than others to choose, very frequently the option I myself think is more right is often the hardest one to actually do. It often seems to me that modern ethics resolves this difficulty by redefining right and wrong in terms of freely chosen or not freely chosen, leaving us worse people with easier consciences.

This distinction between free and forced choice does indeed exist in Aristotelian philosophy, but it is conditioned by psychology rather than being absolute. For the virtue ethics of the Aristotelian tradition, progress in becoming a better person can be discerned by the increasing ease with which you can do the right thing, until it becomes second nature to do so. I would probably separate personality and character as well. Personality, especially as measured by the OCEAN model, has a lot to do with style of social interactions, whereas character is more of the ability or tendency to do the right thing at the right time. I imagine the confusion arises because many secondary virtues are designed to make social interactions smoother. However, that is not really what virtues are about.

I liked this short summary from Everyday Thomist:

Alasdair MacIntyre, a famous philosophical advocate of virtue ethics, says that virtue ethics can be summed up in three questions:

     Who am I?
     Who do I want to become?
     How do I get there?

Virtue ethics is unique because it sees ethics as concerned not so much about discrete actions (should I do X or not), but how every action fits into a total life narrative. Virtue ethics acknowledges that people change over time—they become better or worse people depending on what they do.

This kind of ethics regards change as psychologically difficult, and seems to be entirely compatible with the ideas that we born with dispositions and propensities to behave in certain ways and that these dispositions and propensities are stable over time. To extend the biological metaphor, virtue is very much like losing weight. Lots and lots of studies have come out recently claiming that diets and exercise are mostly worthless for losing weight. Furthermore, experience shows that some people never struggle with weight at all, some lose the battle entirely, but a few do seem to be able to lose weight and keep it off. Body shape seems to run in families as well.

Thus we could say that fatness is largely inheritable, and that relative fatness is stable over time (but tends to increase absolutely with increasing age). Changing fatness is very difficult, but possible. Personality traits seem to be much the same.