Wednesday, February 04, 2009


How, if you live in a city like Washington, where everyone believes, usually with a great deal of sincerity and commensurate lack of modesty, they're smarter than everyone else, can anyone be smarter than anyone else?

Think about this for a minute. If I believe I'm smarter than you are, and you believe you're smarter than I am, is there anyway for us to know which one of us is really smarter? Should we take one of these weird I.Q. tests that I see from time to time on the Internet, the ones that ask,"Are you smarter than Sarah Palin?" Then you see a tag line revealing that Sarah Palin has an I.Q. of 110. Part of me says, "Hell, yeah, bring it on! Smarter than Sarah Palin? Please . . ."

The other part of me says, "Historically, I don't do well on standardized tests. I don't want to botch a reading comprehension test on rock formation, or blow the math section because I can't figure how many triangles are inside of the triangle that's inside another triangle. And I don't want to deal with the 'Elephant is to traffic cone as blender is to dental floss' questions because I never understood their point and, consequently, usually got them wrong. If Sarah Palin can figure out why dental floss is to a blender as an elephant is to a traffic cone, she deserves all the shout-outs she's so good at giving to others.

This might come as a surprise to people who know me, although it won't to people who really know me well, but I don't really care if I'm smarter than Sarah Palin, Tracy Morgan, the Executive Director of the Mensa Society, Larry Summers or Britney Spears.

Wait a minute. Maybe I do care about being smarter than Britney Spears.

I don't really care if the person next to me thinks he's smarter than I am. Nor do I care what that person earns in any given year, how many times he can buy and sell me or whether he ran a faster 10K or marathon than I did when I actually trained to run a certain distance in a certain amount of time. I don't care whether a student thinks I'm a better or worse professor than the professor she has before or after my class. Nor do I care if a colleague publishes more articles or books than me in a given year or period of time. I'm way, way past the point where I watch a fellow musician play and think to myself, "I'm better than he is," and I'm so far beyond the point of thinking than I'm better than anyone in what passes for my continuing amateur sports career -- running, the gym, biking, hockey . . . and my golf game is so bad that my greens fees are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, as for baseball? I was once pretty good at that sport, good enough that I won't play it anymore because it will remind me that (1) I'm old and (2) that I'm old and (3) that I'm old.

But it's not that I don't care about being good, whatever that means, at my chosen profession, hobbies, interests, sidelines, passions or whatever you choose to call them. I suppose I long ago accepted my station in life -- no Nobel Prize, no Pulitzer, no Cabinet appointment -- that not "finishing first" in anything or "knowing" that I'm better than someone else or being recognized as the "best" at something bothers me. Just a few weeks ago, I received an email from our Dean's office asking me, along with every other faculty member, to send along individual awards that we've received in our time here or accomplishments that we believe highlight our career, as our office is preparing a celebratory time-line of 75 years of the School of Public Affairs. I thought about this for a minute, and then realized that, about to complete my 20th year of teaching, that I have never received an individual award from the university or my school. My greatest accomplishment, I suppose, came in academic year 2005-06, when I taught the five highest evaluated courses in SPA and was ranked, for purposes of merit review, in the second quintile of all professors in the school. For the first time ever in my career at American, I did inquire how that could be, thinking I might get a mea culpa of some sorts. But no, no, no . . . after an explanation that included some sort of bizarre algebraic formulation, I learned that my "ranking" was fair and accurate. Not only that, I should be honored that my colleagues respected me so highly as a teacher to judge me as someone "above average."

The consequence -- intended or unintended -- of determining "merit" based on artificial, often wildly inaccurate assessments and categories of what "merit" means is that it puts people, in this case, professors, in competition with one another over something that, by the very definition of the profession, doesn't lend itself to competition. I don't view my colleagues as competitors. They all have their own ways of doing things, and so comparing one with the other is like comparing wines, musicians, onion rings or anything else that is subjective. What you enjoy and value, how much you're willing to pay for that experience and how it might affect any future decisions you make on where to go to school, what you study once you get there and so on are by-products of that choice. A professor's style will have everything to do with how students "rate" their experience, and that rating may not have anything to do with how good (or not) a professor actually is. Ease or difficulty, coolness or uncoolness, subject matter and exam choices all go into a student's perception of "quality teaching," as my university calls it. But the critiera that earn a professor a designation of excellence or, in my case, mediocrity (I am, according to my university's most recent evaluation of my teaching, an "average" instructor) also lead many professional academics to view their colleagues as competitors. Unlike our students, not all of us can make As or even Bs as professors. We get sorted out on a bell curve so that our raises are consistent with our performance. The assumption behind merit pay is that it forces individuals to "compete" harder to earn more money and greater professional status. But what happens when, for people like me, I don't see my colleagues as competitors in the classroom?

We run into the same problem in assessing our "scholarly productivity." Personally, I find the idea that we can, first, determine that scholarly productivity will be measured by what gets published in any particular calendar year and that, second, all that matters is how often you publish whatever this "scholarship" might be rather than what it actually says absolutely ludicrous. But I have been in more than one conversation or meeting where I hear my colleagues rave about how so-and-so is "just churning it out" or "publishing like a fiend" or published this many articles in this journal and that many articles in another journal, with little or no discussion about the "churned out" stuff is actually telling us about . . . well, anything. Again, for me, I don't really care how many articles or books any of my colleagues are publishing because it has no impact on my own professional life. Okay, it does -- sort of -- in the sense that I will be ranked again for "merit pay" (I'm a worse scholar than teacher -- "below average" in the most recent assessment). As far as how I view myself, though, none of what a colleague, whether here or at some other university, does affects me.

Last night, in my weekly "adult" hockey game -- the word "adult" as applied to men and sometimes women over the age of 21 who play organized hockey has about as much relationship to how we believe adults should behave (relative to children, I suppose) as "adult" as applied to film in the world of contemporary cinema. Think of it this way: Meryl Streep is movie star; Jenna Jameson is an "adult" movie star. There is a difference . . . -- I turned to a teammate on the bench and said, "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" referring to an opposing player who was pushing and punching one of our defensemen in front of our net after the whistle for reasons that, other than basic immaturity, weren't clear to me.

"Because some of us are competitive!!!" my friend said, "unlike you, who doesn't care!!!"

"This is not competition," I said to my friend, who actually is my friend, as opposed to merely a hockey-related acquaintance. "This is an exhibition. Who are we competing against? Guys between 35 and 65 who are only good relative to others? None of us is good."

"Some of us really like to win, so we care!" said my friend, who I might demote to hockey-related acquaintance if he doesn't stop telling me I suck, which I know but nonetheless don't want to acknowledge.

Ah, so there it was . . . the real meaning of what "competition" means to people who claim to enjoy competition. It's not competition at all, but rather . . .

Competitive advantage.

I think that most people who consider themselves competitive don't realize that what they're after is competitive advantage. Wanting to win, even by rigging the system, is not the same as wanting to compete. From the mother who volunteers to serve as a room parent, hockey team manager or PTA president, or the father who coaches 10 year-olds or agrees to serve as youth league "commissioner" or organizes a fund-raiser for the high school soccer team, the motives, I've discovered, are less than pure. Sure, I've met people who take on any or all of these above roles for the right reasons. But I've encountered more who "get involved" in order to work the system, to derive some advantage for themselves or their child.

"I'm a room parent, so you'll remember that little Caitlin would really like Mr. Diener next year for math. She's really competitive and wants to learn!"

"I'll quit as team manager unless you make Matthew the captain. It's important for him to have a C on his jersey because he's so competitive."

"My son doesn't like losing . . . he's very competitive, you see . . . and you're not competitive enough as a coach, so we're going to ask the league if we can switch teams."

"We think Paul can be competitive for a position that's opening up because he's published four articles in the Journal of Irrelevant Findings, giving him a really solid record."

"The reason I favor campaign finance reform is that I believe elections should be competitive."

In not one of the above scenarios, which I've experienced either first hand or from a very close distance, do any of the protagonists really want to compete on the fairest terms possible. They all want to grease the system to favor a certain set of interests, usually their own. Parents spend thousands of dollars on SAT tutors and courses not so their children can compete equally with other similarly situated students; they spend the money to put their children at an advantage. The same is true for coaching, personal training, tutorials and so on. An entire industry exists, largely born out of the last 25 years, that promises advantages for athletes and students through better coaching and teaching. But that assumption ignores another considered reality. Many students and athletes begin with advantages born to them -- genetics, birth order in the calendar year or developmental maturity -- that cannot be overcome with coaching. One thing I've noticed after years of coaching youth sports is that the best players on any given team are generally the oldest. The two best players on my baseball team are the two oldest, and they are the most athletically developed. Yes, they began with a certain degree of natural talent. But that natural talent elevated them above their teammates born in the same year, but in the later months. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point much more clearly in his book, Outliers. It might seem a stretch to the untrained or willfully ignorant eye, who either believe or want to believe that competitive outcomes are the result of a meritocratic system that is carefully constructed to separate the best from the rest. The reality is they're not. Too much limits what we believe is the open field of competition for us to conclude, however modestly or smugly, that hardwork and determination are what vault some to the top, leave others in the middle and everyone else scrambling for whatever is left.

So, yes, Tom Daschle can collect millions and millions of dollars in consulting and board of directors fees for his "expertise" and "insight" on health care-related matters. And you can believe that if you believe that a group of health-care specialists is going to gain anything from listening to a former senator give a speech, for anywhere between $10,000 to $35,000, suggesting that the current approach to health care can and should be improved. Tom Daschle doesn't get hired because he knows something that you don't; he gets hired because he knows someone that you don't. Forget the tax question and phony outrage that goes along with the phony shock that a former senator and well-connected lobbyist isn't playing by the rules that bind those of us a few notches down on the socio-economic ladder. Forget the revolving door between government and the Washington lobbying industry that permits the Tom Daschles of the world to sell their influence to the highest bidders. Handing a local official an envelope of cash to steer a construction project to a certain company and union is a bribe. Handing Tom Daschle a check to communicate his expertise is also a bribe, but one taken through a third party. But because our political system has chosen to define one transaction as bribery and the other as protected constitutional speech, we believe -- well, not me, but many, many others -- that a genuine principled distinction exists between the two. All that distinguishes the two transactions are the people with the power to define them differently -- to create, if you will, different levels of competitive advantage. A firm with the resources to hire Tom Daschle begins and ends with advantages that less privileged citizens or smaller firms will never have. And that's exactly the way that our competitive class wants it.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the end, the only competition we have is ourselves. Once I came to that realization, that what matters most to me is whether I feel that I have given by best effort to achieve an objective that I want to accomplish, I stopped caring about where I finished in the meritocratic order -- precisely because there is no such thing. So I'll never win an award for my teaching or literary or musical contributions. But I have drawer full of letters and cards from students that date back as long as I've been doing this that I wouldn't trade for a wall full of awards and certificates. In three months the band that I formed two years ago will release a CD -- a real, professionally recorded CD -- that will be available on iTunes. One of my books has vaulted into the lower 400,000s on Amazon's best seller list. The kids on my hockey team are having a great season even though we've only won one game. A majority of family, as of this moment, is not threatening to run away from home or demanding that I sleep outside. But the truth is that, no matter how much better anyone else is than me a person, teacher, musician, writer, coach, parent or husband, the most demanding competitor I know is me. Once the day comes that I've satisifed my own sense of what I can or should accomplish, I'll ride off into the sunset or take up kickboxing. Since I don't anticipate that day arriving anytime in the near future, I'll just keep competing against myself and see where the ride takes me.

1 comment:

teddyb109 said...

Gregg, there are 2 kinds of people in this world: people who say there are two kinds of people in this world, and people who don't, but seriously. There are 2 kinds of people in this world, people who are smarter than you, and those who aren't. This is my attempt at being funnier than you. How did I do?

A few random thoughts:

In my fantasy world, we would return to an older conception of competition, which my handy dictionary tells me: "ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from Latin competere, in its late sense ‘strive or contend for (something),’ from com- ‘together’ + petere ‘aim at, seek.’ This notion of doing something together, within a set of contraints, say a 1/2 marathon is what gets me out to the races. It's a day for me to be with other runners and do the best I can--to do better than I could have done if I were tooling around my neighborhood alone. Even though I may never win a race (I'm hoping persistence will eventually prevail.) Winning is over-rated--and by focusing on the outcome you compromise your experience of the game. The notion of doing the thing for it's own sake, I think is underated. It's really not about winning, but perhaps that's the stand I have to take since I'm something of a johnny run lately.

The other idea I was thinking about while reading your piece was Gartner's notion of multiple intelligences--which, thanks to my ignorance, I'll promptly bastardize. With that caveat, I think that 1) genius is about as common as dirt and 2) it's largely contextual and 3) I think that notions of ability change over time--which is to say, I'm glad I was born into a time when I can wear corrective eyewear and don't have to hunt for my food.

I think what kills me is that so much of people's smarts are squandered, or spent on survival--which might make sense on some primitive level, but somehow, it seems we as a society could do better. Somehow I think this ennobling of competition--whether it be in sports, or economic statistics, sets us apart when I think it could bring us together.

There are 2 kids of people in this world, people who agree with me, and people who don't. Thanks for the post.