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People are their Histories


There is a fallacy lodged in most people’s minds that tells them that “performance on the first trial is a good predictor of performance on the 10,000th”.

most people drastically overestimate what they can get done in 2 days and drastically underestimate what they can get done in 2 years.

My daughter is the best climber in her class. I’m not bragging. It’s just a fact. And it isn’t even close. There was a climbing party and she easily climbed twice as high as the other kids and tackled walls others wouldn’t attempt. In fact, it turns out many kids don’t want to attempt rock climbing at all at her age.

I don’t know her genetics. Maybe her biological parents are professional climbers, but the base rate at which climbers exist in China suggest that is unlikely. She has no other areas where her athleticism is the least bit remarkable other than perhaps being a bit less strong, fast, or coordinated than her peers in all non-climbing areas.

A much better explanation for her success is that I’ve pushed her for fully half of her short life to climb. I took her to the gym to do some bouldering. She didn’t do it, so I got her a

EDELRID - Fraggle II, Kid's Safety Climbing Harness, Sahara/Oasis, X-Small
harness and we did top-rope climbing. It turned out she liked that. But she’s still a little kid, so we’d go, she’d climb a wall, do a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t climbing-related and then maybe climb one other time. I still took her there because I wanted her to have a Positive Experience in the gym and associate it with having fun. If she can’t put in the years, she can never be good.

It worked. I eventually got her to take direction. Move your left foot up. Grab that with your right hand. Use your feet. Swing your body up.

Now she can just go. The tepidness is gone. The fear is gone. She can’t climb everything–no one can, but she knows basically what to do. This is unusual among five-year-olds.

It seems obvious to me that her competence as a climber is wholly attributable to my actions. If I had taught her piano instead, she’d be good at that. I didn’t.

What is obvious to me is lost on everyone else though. Other parents think she is talented. Her teachers are impressed with her risk tolerance and talk about it as if it were an inborn personality trait instead of something I built into her over time. Her own mother at times wonders if she has some sort of innate talent for climbing despite her knowing the full history of my actions.

People know that you get good at something by practicing. They will wonder why you are making so obvious a point. But they don’t seem to deeply accept it. When someone does something complicated, it seems like magic to them. When someone speaks another language, they think they could never do that. When someone plays an instrument, they marvel. When someone dunks a basketball, they scoff at the idea that they ever might have done the same. Indian spelling bee champions are magical as is anyone doing mathematics they haven’t bothered to study themselves.

In truth, all of these things are usually the result of plodding progress over time. It isn’t eureka or an apple falling on your head. It’s effort applied consistently over years on a daily basis.

One more time: Skills resulting from work applied consistently over time looks like genius to others who haven’t done the work.

Genius these days is universally taken as genetic genius. People will go through considerable contortions to believe this is responsible for things it cannot be responsible for.

When you meet someone who is good at computer stuff, it is unlikely that their competence was built into genetics. Some of it trivially is. My dog can’t so much as use a mouse. But neither can people who’ve never used computers.

Potential has to be developed to have any real effects. This is news to no one, but somehow many people don’t seem to fully understand the consequences of this idea.

I exposed my daughter to climbing early, and she became a climber. I will expose her to engineering early, and she will become an engineer. I mean; she might not if she is content to break her daddy’s heart. But I will teach her some critical facts and ideas before her classmates are exposed to them, and she will feel good about being good at those things. She will make a boy cry because she beat him. And when it comes time to choose what she wants to do with her life, she stands a good chance to pick the thing that makes her feel smart and valued.

rock climbing photoMeanwhile, long after she has found her place in the other world, plenty of people will continue to point to sexual dimorphism and say she is an outlier on the distribution and that most women prefer to work with people rather than things and that this is solely responsible for the lack of women in her field. She will be hand-waved away as a two-sigma outlier.

In truth, most people are average. Relative to others, they are weakly influenced by their genetics. In contrast, they are strongly determined by their histories.

People are their histories. If you want to raise good spear-throwers, you need only people singularly committed to throwing spears, not a breeding program. The former gets you LeBron James. The latter gets you Yao Ming. The opportunity to hone your craft against others seeking to do the same is more valuable than genetic endowments.

This isn’t to say it is impossible that there is something about black DNA that gives the average black man a tiny bit better than the average Chinese man at shooting baskets. What I do know is that any such difference is nigh invisible when compared to the privilege of playing against the players LeBron James grew up playing against. He’d be nothing without his history.

I’d suggest we attribute excellence in any endeavor to what the people have actually done en route rather than small, speculative differences in biological potential.

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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40 thoughts on “People are their Histories

  1. Ain’t this the truth. A year ago I couldn’t do an standard arm bar. I didn’t have the flexibility to move my legs correctly, had little control as I found it hard to balance over my opponent, and was always falling over. 18 months later I’m demonstrating to newer guys who complain they can’t do the same move. Been there done that baby. Stretch, practice, loose weight, build endurance. Practice, learn the move step by step, follow up with the little details.

    I’m not going to say there’s no differences between men and women, because frankly, we all know there is. Most of the women I’ve run into in class could not handle me putting weight on them, (only the more experienced ones) or didn’t have the upper body strength to keep me off them/resist me leaning into them. All the guys, even the weakest guy, can throw the women around the mat. But, the women have the better flexibility usually and, having smaller frames, don’t have to create that much space to get out of positions I would find much harder to escape-I’m thicker, heavier and I have to make more room to make the same move. I can probably take more punishment in a fight, but they likely can escape better. Never underestimate a 120 pound 5 foot woman’s ability to choke you out from a triangle.


    • Damon,
      Women actually have more pain tolerance than men, so if you’re going for pain-punishment, a woman’s more likely to not pass out. (Childbirth is tough, and women need to stay conscious).


    • Every time I see a women’s MMA fight go the ground I think, “Now it’s going to get fun.” Some of my favorites (Felic Herrig, Rose Namajunas) are just spectacular, especially in scrambles or escape situations where their flexibility gives them opportunities to do things the guys simply can’t. Guys often have to be content to try hip escapes or sweeps. Girls contort themselves and make things a lot more interesting. I don’t know that I have ever seen a male fighter try to hook the arms of a mounted opponent with his legs to pull them backwards out of the mount. I’ve seen girls try it dozens of times. Flexibility.


      • Namajunas looked amazing against Waterson in April.

        Another factor I like is the lower bodyweights. Like the lighter men, it’s a lot harder to hold somebody down and reach a stalemate than it is a 220 pounds. The small flexible folks are constantly rolling and moving.


      • Indeed. I don’t watch the sport on tv, but I’ve personally seen women who’ve turtled down so much I cannot get a hook in. And the women in question is getting much better tolerating my frame on her chest.


  2. Good piece, nothing to really add. Except your metaphor in the third to last paragraph with LeBron James and Yao Ming is….risky. (and probably one I wouldn’t have done).


  3. This isn’t to say it is impossible that there is something about black DNA that gives the average black man a tiny bit better than the average Chinese man at shooting baskets. What I do know is that any such difference is nigh invisible when compared to the privilege of playing against the players LeBron James grew up playing against. He’d be nothing without his history.

    I agree with the overall point that for most people in most of the things that we do every day the amount of work that we put in is going to determine the level of our output. That said, I think that you may be discounting genetics a bit. Part of the problem is that our conversations tend to take the shape of this nature v. nurture dichotomy that I’m not sure really exists as an objective concept. More likely there is something broadly defined as human development that is composed of a a series of very complicated feedback loops that play out through genes and environment and intentional action and a whole lot of random luck.

    In other words, Lebron James genetics is part of his history. James was 6’1 at age 13 and 6’3 as a high school freshman. On a podcast, I head Jay Williams talk about how Lebron came to work out with the Bulls prior to the 2003 draft and, at 18, was holding his own against NBA vets. Someone who didn’t have that genetic predisposition would have never been in the position to play against those opponents in the first place.

    To perform at the highest level of any activity, you likely need both the genetic tools and the work to transform that raw potential into realized ability. But yeah, for the most of things that you and I do on a given day, our willingness and ability to try and fail and try again is likely going to be the deciding factor to how successful we are.


    • This pretty much sums up my view of it. I was that kid that had a natural talent for math. I would have a mathematical concept presented to me, either in a book or in class, and I would just immediately get it, easy-peasy. That held true until maybe my 2nd or 3rd year of college. I don’t know what else to call that but native talent. Could I have become a mathematician? Probably a 2nd or 3rd tier one; I was talented but not a prodigy.

      Anyway, this question of nature vs. nurture seems pretty much settled to me; it’s both. The more interesting question to me is why people want to insist on it being one or the other and how that lines up with politics depending on the particular trait being inspected.


      • Road,
        And I know someone with a natural ailment in math (actually quite a few. uses 2’s complement to do addition level of “doesn’t do math well”). He’s tops in his field (and it’s a mathematical field), he just fakes the math when he needs to explain himself to other people.

        Some people have a native talent for developing themselves, and bridging “I can’t do that” into “well, I can make these few things work together…”


    • To perform at the highest level of any activity, you likely need both the genetic tools and the work to transform that raw potential into realized ability.

      Consider the Tour de France. Every single one of those riders is a genetic freak. They are every one way out in the far right tail of the human distributions for all of oxygen transport, muscle recovery, pain tolerance, ability to absorb calories, and more. Even at that level there are only a handful who are freakish enough to seriously compete for the individual title. It’s one of the reasons doping is so often a problem in the sport — someone who comes up just a bit short in oxygen transport or muscle recovery genetics looking to offset that.


        • As a group, Tour riders are among the most studied extreme athletes in the world. I recall a piece about the genetics aspect that said we know enough about human distributions to estimate that there are probably a few thousand people in the world with the genetics to be serious Tour competitors. Almost all lack the opportunities or the interest to do so.

          Some of the things that turn out to be important are surprising. Riders’ performance is limited by how much they can eat and how many calories their gut extracts from that food. An extra couple hundred calories per day is a significant advantage.


    • I agree. Many people share LeBron’s history. Or, at least, early history. But he responded to that history differently, in part based on genetics, and their histories diverged.

      I have two sons with similar enough contexts for their upbringing. And yet from birth certain differences were obvious. As well as certain similarities.

      We are not solely our histories. We are a blend of our histories, our genetics, the interplay of the two, and a whole bunch of other stuff.


  4. Yeah, my students act amazed at how good I am at identifying plants (and to an extent, insects) in the field. I always want to tell them – but find it a little depressing to – “I’ve been working on this since as long as you’ve been alive” (in some cases now: longer). I first started learning plant identification, other than the few things I knew as a kid (a few of the trees, and wild strawberry, and poison ivy – knowing poison ivy is important for everyone, not just botanists) back around 1990 or so.

    I can only hold out hope that when I’ve been playing the piano that long, I’ll be as good. So far, signs do not point to that….


  5. So the smart thing for Google to do, if they want to approach parity in tech, is not to try hiring their way there today, but rather invest in education and opportunity for kids to enjoy coding/etc. So in 15-20 years the number of women graduating from college in the engineering fields will be closer to parity.

    But that is a long term investment.


    • I think the kind of intervention that would actually yield results would be prohibitively expensive, and considered intrusive and controlling by the education institutions, regardless of whether they agreed with the goals, which they probably would.

      We all need to work on this, not just Google. “Women don’t do math” is a culture-wide bias.


    • I went to work at Bell Laboratories near the end of the glory days. The Labs’ philosophy at the time was to hire the smartest technical people they could find and then teach them the business. At one point, the Labs hired about 25% of all new physics PhDs each year. Not to do physics, but because to finish a physics PhD required that you be either a very good applied mathematician (theorists) or a very good working electrical/computer engineer (experimentalists), plus have a talent for insight into problems. We know what it produced: microwaves, the transistor, lasers, UNIX, and patent-a-day output on the development side. The break-up of the Bell System in 1984 did away with the kind of guaranteed cash flow needed to support that model, though.

      I find it interesting that 90% of the smartphones sold today run an operating system kernel that is essentially a recreation of the UNIX kernel.


      • also, in my experience, completing a Ph.D. (at least in the lab/field sciences) indicates a v. high tolerance for doing the same boring thing over and over and over again, and having a series of minor day-to-day failures without totally melting down, and being able to put off all other goals in favor of one big long-term goal. And to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure. I actually counsel my students now (1) that tenaciousness is more important than smarts in graduate work.

        And a lot of those things – esp. the “boring thing over and over and over again” are a big part of almost any career.

        (1) though honestly, these days? I don’t tend to counsel people to do a Ph.D. unless they are really DYING to have one or are on a track to run a lab, because once you go past a Master’s you become “overqualified” for most of the jobs – at least in biology right now – that currently exist. That makes me sad but it is what it is.


        • also, in my experience, completing a Ph.D. (at least in the lab/field sciences) indicates a v. high tolerance for doing the same boring thing over and over and over again, and having a series of minor day-to-day failures without totally melting down, and being able to put off all other goals in favor of one big long-term goal. And to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure.

          I’d say that also applies to working low-level customer service jobs. Maybe with some adjustments, though: I’d replace “to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure” with “to keep going on in the face of constantly being treated as a servant.” (I’m not denigrating your point. I’m just trying to add on to it, along with a suggestion that a history of those jobs can augur success at other jobs.)


        • And perhaps the NBA should do a similar outreach program to Asians and Hispanics. A little OJT should balance things out nicely….

          Seriously, the Google kerfuffle revolves around the more difficult concept that extreme proficiency comes out of extreme passion and there are extremely well proven differences in interests, personalities and passions between men and women and these can show up in different expected distributions in different fields.


        • There are millions of jobs where “good enough” is good enough. OJT is perfect for those jobs.

          You know these jobs. Sit here. Push these buttons. When you see this particular error, run this particular script. If the script doesn’t work, call deep support.

          If you’re hoping for the best 1% of the best 1%, OJT won’t give you these people.


          • Except that isn’t the goal. The goal is to get more women in the field, so you have a larger pool of top 1% to hire from. If colleges are not graduating enough women, perhaps it is because there are a lot of women who would be good at tech for whom college is too high a bar (due to cost, social pressures, etc. – not so much academic ability). So create an alternative path for those women.


      • I thought it was more like 98% or so of smart phones are *nix. Essentially every smart phone is either Android or iOS. Windows phones exist, theoretically, but I’ve only ever seen one…


  6. You have every reason to be proud of yourself. Your daughter will continue to reap the benefits of more self-confidence for years.

    The kind of mistaken attribution you are running into is so commonplace among humans that you will never fix the world. If you can fix just a couple of people, starting with yourself, that will be a major accomplishment.


  7. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of sysadmin stuff come naturally to me (including, of course, Googling). So when I encounter something like, for example, Rock Climbing, it is exceptionally frustrating for me to be doing stuff where even the really easy stuff feels impossible.

    I try to do the thing where I fail every week… just fail better every week. Fail a little higher up the wall. Fail later. Fail better.

    But, man. It’s hard.


  8. I think you are failing to consider how much other genetic factors may impact one’s success. Lebron’s willingness to put in the work, over and over again, his ability to remain focused, to fight through the failures, to really want to destroy his opponent, would be other factors. I suspect there are humans as physically gifted as MJ, Tiger Woods, or Lebron, or even more gifted, but who lack the desire, willingness or ability to focus on a singular task, to really develop that physical ability to its true potential.

    I think its great what you’ve done with your daughter. But I’m also fairly certain that there are a huge number of children (pretty sure 3 of them are mine), who could be given the same opportunity, who would fail to have the same measure of success at climbing as your daughter. Some who would fail completely.


    • Some people subscribe to the “Skill or Will” type of thinking, arguing that some athletes (its always athletes we seem to have these talks about…) were just born great and others are there because of grit and guile and whatnot. David Thorpe, whose worked with many elite college and pro basketball players, insists that will itself is a “talent” and rarely is something that can be improved… at least not once folks reach young adulthood.

      It also ignores that all the “skill” in the world is useless without will. Vince Carter is a guy oft-cited for lacking “will”. And it’s probably true that his basketball prowess might have trumped, say, Kobe’s and the latter’s superiority is a result of greater will. But you don’t become a borderline HoFer without immense will. VC is likely in the top like 5% among all humans when it comes to that which we call will. If he lacked will he’s never have left the playground. The “problem” is that most of his competitors were in the top 1%.


      • Doing the “skill or will” analysis on top athletes is problematic because the stakes are so high and the selection so tight that the best of the best are almost certainly an optimal mix of both. No amount of will would ever make me as good at basketball as LeBron James, partially because he’s 9 inches taller than I am and partially because he’s better than most of the people who ever played NBA and I seriously doubt that they’re all just a little lazier than he is. Likewise, it’s pretty likely that no amount of talent will ever make anybody as good as LeBron James if it’s only coupled with half-assed practice and determination.

        “How do I get to be an NBA player / principal ballet dancer in a world-class company / top Broadway star?” is a hard question to answer if you’re short or have weird feet or an annoying voice, but those careers are pretty selective. You can become satisfactorally good at most skills and hobbies as an average person who is willing to put in the time.

        Most people who are smart enough to graduate high school and maybe pass some community college classes can become an OK programmer, and most bright people can hone the analytical skills to become pretty good programmers. Will they be the next Ken Thompson? Probably not. Thompson is probably a perfect storm of genetics, environment and obsession. But that’s a far cry from at 10 year old saying, “I’ll never be good at computers because I don’t get math.”

        I always go back to something my first college math professor said: “I don’t get why people always say learning is fun. Learning can be fun, but sometimes it’s just hard and miserable. Sometimes you juts have to practice taking integrals until you get the hang of it. *Knowing* is fun.”


        • But that’s a far cry from at 10 year old saying, “I’ll never be good at computers because I don’t get math.”

          Like I’ve said before, I didn’t ‘get’ math until my first college algebra course. I knew I wanted to ‘get’ it, and the fact that I didn’t frustrated and annoyed me to no end, which is probably why I kept going back for more.


      • Kazzy,
        I know someone who climbs 7500 feet in four hours on the treadmill. In one day.
        He’s training to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest in 4 days (from sea level).

        There’s will, and it has an awful lot to do with how quick you can ramp up your training.


  9. I don’t remember which celebrity was telling the story, but this reminds me of a story some celebrity told in an interview. He was hanging out at an autograph signing table with a great athlete of some sort and a father came up with his son for an autograph and said something like, “Please tell my son about how hard you practiced and how important it was for you to practice to become so great.” The guy responded tepidly, “Yeah, practice is pretty important.”

    After the father and son left, the narrator said, “You were pretty lukewarm about the kid practicing. What was up with that?” He answered, “Practice is important, but you have to understand that when I was his age, nobody had to tell me to practice. I was just practicing all the time.”


  10. If we all worked very hard at something, we’d all become much better at it. We might become astonishingly better at it. If I had worked as hard at basketball as Lebron James, I’d have become an amazing basketball player, kicking a lot of ass at pickup games. But I wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship to a major college program or gotten a whiff of the NBA. There is such a thing as talent. Lebron working half as hard as he does would still be a far better basketball player than I could ever have been, but if he had done nothing but sit around eating Cheetos while watching MJ play he wouldn’t be anything.
    There are people who are just “good at math.” They’ll pick it up faster and see deeper into it with ordinary effort. They’re the ones who, if they work hard enough, become math Ph.D.s and solve Fermat’s theorem. Few of us can aspire to that no matter how hard we work; but too many people give up on their pre-college math because they’re “not good at math.” It’s true that they aren’t as good as those who are “good at math,” but they’re plenty good enough, if they work at it reasonably diligently, to master what is taught through high school and, possibly, a bit beyond. We pay too much attention to talent, which is a real thing, and not enough to effort.


  11. In music at least there is the 10,000 hour practice rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world class musician. That works out to around 5 years of full time work. I have also that the same thing appears to apply in a lot of athletics. If you look at it for example by the time an athlete turns pro he has at least 10 and likley more years invested in practice, both in particular when sports starts in the 7th grade, and runs 6 years in thru highschool, and then 4 years in college (or in baseball time in the minor leagues). So a pro player in major sports likley beats the 10,000 hours of practice and play (or total experience rule0


  12. Pingback: How Do You Get Good at Things? | Ordinary Times

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