The reason why I ever noticed that depressing woman on the train was because of something she said that stuck with me:
I’m telling you about the past—the past has nothing to do with today.
This is the dogma of the New Capitalism, and, coincidentally, the theme of a book by Richard Sennett I’ve mentioned before. With many industries looking towards consulting these days, many of us place our stock in potential rather than years of practice. This women’s belief is the end of craftsmanship.
I’m led to believe that before the dotcom boom of the early nineties—a time I know almost nothing about first-hand—employers hired and evaluated employees based on the history of their performance. With time and experience workers generally got better at their craft. Nowadays, however, there has been a shift from the past to the future. We hear lots of talk about so-called potential and adaptability. The idea is that the world is a rapidly changing place and those who cannot keep up are left behind. To me, this is an interesting departure from something that is at the very worst measurable to something that is at the very best ill-defined.
Society, even very conservative sects, believe that innovation and change are the same things as progress. Outwardly, such a tenet forces a meritocracy, and isn’t that the framers of the fledgling United States had in mind; aren’t we fully realizing Jefferson’s hope to establish a “natural aristocracy” founded not on the arbitrary forces of birth but by ability and good work? No, I don’t believe we are. [Nor do I necessarily think that we should. But to explain why might require another entry or two.]
We must question how we judge ability. We treat potential as if it were a fixed trait, born into us, and therefore just as arbitrary and unfair as family name. Growing up, I learned that the first grade teachers at my school had pooled together to bet which among us would be valedictorian. And I remember teachers and other adults saying of me that “he’s just not challenged enough.” To wit, nothing yet had tested me, forcing me to actualize my potential. Even as late as last week, my friend told me that I have more potential than he does. Somehow people are willing to overlook the past six months, during which I lived off my father and sister at home, fully unemployed and with little motivation to change. The reason why: potential.
But how does this conception of ability stand up in reality; should anyone get the job simply because he has potential? Let’s look at a specific case. Your goal is simply to identify the best piano player:
- Student 1 first sat down at a piano when she was 12 years old. Having never so much as plunked a single note on the beast before, she was able instantly to reproduce any theme, classical or contemporary, she heard perfectly. By 15, she was touring the country as guest soloist with more than a dozen symphony orchestras. She never had to practice once.
- Student 2 by contrast started playing when she was 4. She practiced constantly. By the time she finished high school and began college, she logged between four and six hours of practice daily. Student 2 studied music professionally and had several instructors who helped her to refine her talent and musical interpretation over the years. Eventually, she broke into the competitive circuit, and though not initially, was able to distinguish herself. Now she also tours and guest solos and boasts the same popularity and acclaim as Student 1.
- Student 3 is Student 1’s twin brother. By all accounts, he has the same capacity for virtuosity as his sister. In some cases, he can even play some of the most difficult passages on the piano with more ease and musical expression than his sister. Yet Student 3 does not practice his talent. Instead he chose to become a landscape designer. Today he manages fourteen professional golf courses and almost never listens to music, let alone plays the piano.
The question: who is the best piano player of the three described? The answer isn’t so straight-forward.
Potential alone, perhaps, isn’t good enough. Student 2 was able to equal Student 1 in success because she worked hard. Student 3 was not as successful a piano player as the other two because he didn’t work hard at it. And chances are no one will ask Student 3 to guest solo with an orchestra any time soon—despite his potential—because he lacks a good track record.
It is very hard, if not impossible, to measure potential because of this sticky business known as persistence. Sustained effort can and often does overcome the random distribution of powers and abilities. The son of a very rich man can die poor. The orphan children can grow up to be very rich. Be wary of tests which purport to predict ability. Tools like the IQ, which were designed merely as a diagnostic to assess the present—not the future—, have been misappropriated. The SAT, whose history begins as an officer exam for the US Army during World War II and has changed little since, is notoriously bad at guessing how students will fare in college. So bad is it, that they’ve changed the name from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to SAT. It’s no longer an acronym. The letters don’t mean anything, which reflects, I think, on just how much the test itself means.
Viewing ability as an innate, fixed trait can be extremely harmful. Girls outperform boys in math and science until about age 13. Perhaps in my next post I’ll explain some reasons why, and maybe respond to those infamous comments by former President Summers about women in science soon. For now, you can re-read what I’ve learned about praise.
And please, do not misread me. I am not advocating the end of testing. Far from it. But we should remember exactly what tests do under perfect situations: the most any test can do is to give an approximation of circumstances at the present. I’ll write a little more on testing for understanding soon, too.