Monday, May 22, 2006

Thinking About Hard Work is Hard Work

Recently the authors of Freakonomics covered a topic on their blog that really resonated with me. They examined the following question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him or her good? For instance, how did the athletes in the NBA or NFL get there and similarly how does a musician find his or her way to the New York Symphony?

Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that individuals are born with a certain level of talent for a given area and they then engage in tasks that may or may not develop this talent. This area is of particular interest to me given my time at Florida State. While there I was involved with a research/discussion team that included Anders Ericsson who is quoted extensively in the Freakonomics blog entry. Ericsson challenges conventional wisdom and claims that experts are made and not born. He argues that with 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice one can become an expert in just about any field. The key point is that Ericsson has empirical research to back up these claims. For instance, his early work, involved memory: training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. "With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20," Ericsson recalls. "He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers." Keep in mind the average person is thought to be able to recall and repeat from 5-9 digits.

Ericsson’s results seem to lend credible support to such parental clichés as “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “practice makes perfect.” However, perhaps most importantly, his work illuminates hard work as a necessary component to success. Ericsson would argue that most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better. I’ve been beginning to wonder if this factor had long been forgotten by the younger generations. Apparently, I’m not the only one to ponder this notion.

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri in a recent article discusses the near collapse of American youth tennis and its inability to produce champions on the world stage. Bollettieri contrasts this dilemma with the rise of young Russian players.

Of these Russian players Bollettieri states:

"They are more driven. They don't have the opportunities that our girls have here, like cheerleading, basketball, soccer, skiing, all sorts of things. Our kids have multiple options, and they also have to go to school. It would be interesting to see a study of the top 30 or 40 Russians, and just see how much education they have. They also come from backgrounds without a lot of money. If you give them a really hard, physical program - and they are hungry - and you can get 15 together who are pretty good and let them beat each other up, pretty soon you get some good ones. After awhile you'll get some darned good ones. Competition spurs improvement."

Similarly, Patrick Welsh, a high school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia compares the performance of foreign born and American students within his classes in a USA Today piece.

Welsh states:

"Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries — such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana — often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C's and D's."

He continues:

"What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids. The sad fact is that in the USA, hard work on the part of students is no longer seen as a key factor in academic success."

Welsh also cites the research of Harold Stevenson and a multinational team at the University of Michigan which compared the attitudes of Asian and American students. They found that:

“When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered "studying hard" was twice that of American students”.

I can offer further anecdotal support for this based on my travels through university libraries. The students who are spending their time studying and learning from these American academic resources are predominately of Asian and Indian descent.

All of this reminds me of a quote from Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. He gives the following advice to his daughters and I echo these sentiments to my students each semester. Friedman states:
“When I was growing up, my parents would say to me, ‘Tom finish your dinner – people in China and India are starving.’ My advice to you is: Girls finish your homework – people in China and India are starving for your jobs”.


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