Monday, April 27, 2009

From the same star: reflections on our common roots

When I visited my mother recently she played an album, Vom selben Stern (From the same star), by a German group called Ich + Ich. While it has some catchy tunes, I especially like the title song for the thought behind it: that we’re all made from the same ashes of a former star, that we all share a common heritage going back much further than whether we evolved from apes. This idea has intrigued me for years. The chemicals that we are made of couldn’t have come from the cloud of gases that formed the Sun because the heavier elements like carbon, iron, oxygen, and etc. form only within stars that are much older. I’m sure I’m not doing this justice but stars go through cycles. Once they burn up most of their hydrogen the star collapses because the pressure exerted by the fusion reactions decreases, allowing the star’s gravity to temporarily win the battle. As the star collapses the pressure in the interior increases until it is high enough to start a self-sustaining fusion reaction of the heavier elements. This process continues until the star runs out of fuel. For smaller stars like ours it eventually turns into a cinder called a dwarf star. For a large star which generates larger gravitational pressure it can actually turn into a nova. The catastrophic increase in pressure tears the star asunder, spewing out the heavy elements that formed in its interior. Billions of years ago a star died, releasing it elements which were then captured by the Sun’s gravity to form the earth and the other planets. (See this entry on stellar evolution.)

This means we’re made of remnants of a star that died billions of years ago. In addition the earth is in a narrow band from the Sun in which the temperature is just right: much closer and the water would boil away, much further away and the water would freeze. (Some call this the Goldilocks Effect.)

I find this fascinating and amazing. Whether earth, life and consciousness are the result of design or of accidental clumping of chemicals the bottom line is the same: the staggering complexity of life and the formation of consciousness is a miracle.

I think if we kept this in mind we might look at life and our fellow humans a bit differently. I’m not saying that we’re a meaningless speck floating in the cosmos. On the contrary, we’re incredibly, marvelously complex creations with the capacity for self-reflection. I’m also not saying that we should accept people regardless of their beliefs and their actions. What I am saying is that we start with the premise that all of us are miracles and share this common incredible history.

When I see Objectivists smugly dismissing religious beliefs or arguments about Intelligent Design they take the easy cases: the fundamentalists who argue from pure faith. I believe Objectivists need to acknowledge that some religious people are driven by a deep dissatisfaction for the explanation of how stardust self-assembled into life. I’m sure some religious folks are motivated by whim worship, as Rand would have put it. However, from my own experience many have concluded there is a God based on what they believe is evidence, not blind faith. At the very least I feel we need to acknowledge -- and even have awe for -- the amazingly complexity of life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Talent is Overrated Review

This topic doesn't directly relate to Objectivism but I found it interesting nonetheless. Most of believe some people “have it” and some people don’t. What the people “have” is talent. Gobs and gobs of talent that allows them to be world class level competitors. People like Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriquez. CEOs like GE’s Jack Welch. Many of us believe that these people come into this world equipped with talent that allows them to beat the competition and that we who don’t have it will never be able to reach these lofty heights of achievement.

Geoff Colvin disputes this in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. He claims that the top performers in sports, business, the arts and other areas share something in common: the use of “deliberate practice.”

  • The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are.
  • Even the general abilities … are not what we think.
  • The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.
  • Most organizations are terrible at applying the principles of great performance.

What is deliberate practice? The elements are, as Colvin explains.

It is actively designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help. Identify elements that need to be improved then work intently on them. It can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally; … and it isn’t much fun. … We insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over.

Speaking personally, I heard about the concept of deliberate practice in my research on soccer coaching in which I stumbled upon an article on the subject. I applied the concept to tennis, my sport of choice. By working diligently on my weaknesses (primarily the serve) I have been able to transform my serve from a liability into a weapon.

Colvin also addresses another misconception. We’ve heard many times that we with repetition we’ll get to the point where we don’t have to think what we’re doing. While it is true we can automatize complicated movements to the point where we no longer have to consciously guiding these movements. In fact, we can thwart smooth performance by thinking too much. However Colvin shows that:

Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested development stage in their chose field. … Ultimately the performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic.

In other words, top performers maintain a constant awareness of whether their actions are producing desired results. When these results don’t occur, they modify what they are doing to improve their results and use this input to refine the design of their deliberate practice.

In addition to being constantly aware of what they are doing, top performers perceive more. How?

  • They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.
  • They look further ahead.
  • They know more from seeing less.
  • They make finer discriminations than average performers.

And top performers “had more knowledge about their field.” They “have better organized and consolidated their knowledge, enabling them to approach problems in fundamentally different and more useful ways.”

In addition to explaining how top performers use deliberate practice to distance themselves from their competitors Colvin shows how we can use the same principles in our own lives.

They approach the job with more specific goals and strategies, since their previous experience was essentially a test of specific goals and strategies; and they’re more likely to believe in their own efficacy because their detailed analysis of their own performance is more effective than the vague, unfocused analysis of average performers. Thus their well-founded belief in their own effectiveness helps give them the crucial motivation to press on, powering a self-reinforcing cycle.

Finally, Colvin explores the role of two kinds of drive: intrinsic and extrinsic. According to his research creative people focus on the task (How can I solve this problem?) and not on themselves (What will solving this problem do for me?). This is an example of intrinsic motivation, being driven from within. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand depends on outside factors like rewards or penalties.

Does Colvin argue that extrinsic motivation plays no role? No.

Extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic motivation could work quite effectively. Like what? Recognition that confirms competence turned out to be effective. … ‘constructive, nonthreatening, and work-focused rather than person-focused,’ in Amabile’s words. That is, feedback that helped a person do what he or she felt compelled to do was effective.”

Feedback from coaches and teachers focused on the task and doing it better.

Lastly Colvin reveals that the majority of childhood prodigies don’t grow up to be top performers and that top performers are rarely child prodigies. This gives us hope for improving how we perform. “[B]y understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better.”