Discussing Talent and Luck

Nov 16 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Tenure, Tribe of Science

Some Twitt chain or other that I was following had me eventually landing on a NYT book review by Steven Pinker which takes a critical approach to Malcolm Gladwell's new book of essays "What the Dog Saw: and other adventures". I was particularly struck by this passage:

The common thread in Gladwell's writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back's rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don't predict a teacher's effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in "Outliers") that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

Not only because it is the source of some of my own queasiness when reading (and trying to discuss) Gladwell, but also because I fall into this trap when talking about science careers.


The greater science-n-academic blogospheric conversations that focus on career transition from trainee to the independent appointment seem to land on the question of talent and luck with some frequency. There is a parallel discussion, albeit smaller, between those of faculty rank (or equivalent) who have acquired major funding and those who have not yet done so.

Occasionally the discussion gets a bit testy, usually because of slippery deployment of terms. Here, I am a major contributor, given my, err, style. My crappy writing aside, I think the review of Gladwell's work by Pinker indicates that perhaps the topic itself is rather hard to communicate with clarity. Those dudes can both write their way out of a paper bag, unlike YHN, so there must be something inherently opaque about the topic itself.

Personally, I emphasize the role that circumstances (under the incomplete or lack of control of the person in question) play in career progression but only as a counter to another hypothesis. A counter to what I see as the assumed and default hypothesis of many trainees (particularly in early stages), and indeed established members of the Academy, i.e., that all that matters is scientific / academic quality. In some sort of objective, fundamental and omnipotent Truth sense of this quality.

This hypothesis leads to a number of interesting beliefs. That those who enjoy apparent success in the academic career path are personally deserving- in a highly specific and all encompassing sense. Conversely, that all of those who do not enjoy success are scientifically and academically less meritorious. That the former are in some omnipotent sense capable and the latter are not. I do not think this is true and comments by many other bloggers who have attained professorial rank tend to agree with me. Although you might smell an unpleasant whiff of false-modesty about such claims I assure you the source is not this. I am rarely accused of being modest. It is more that we have the extra experience to see the destiny of more scientists, all along the track, and the perspective to apply our own informed judgment. Some of it is realizing through interpersonal interactions that a scientist you may know only through some great papers is in fact an idiot who's only talent is being surrounded by more accomplished scientists. Through seeing quite a number of matched pairs of scientists who achieved different outcomes through no obvious differences other than accident.

The trouble is, that when you point to the role of circumstances in shaping the academic destiny of yourself or others, you are attacked by the charge that Pinker is using against Gladwell. You are frequently misunderstood to be saying that only luck determines outcome. This is, of course, false. I'm not trying to say this and I don't believe I've seen many others trying to suggest this either. In academics, even the best possible training pedigree and a series of fantastic opportunities extended will not carry some bonehead who can't be bothered to actually run experiments or otherwise work at the career. You have to be smart enough, you have to be interested and you have to work at it. The trouble for the discussion comes in when we (lazily) assume that we are already talking about the population of postdocs, say, who are smart and hard workers. Once you have gated on minimal standards of talent and effort only then does the role of circumstance get so magnified.

My reading of Gladwell's book Outliers is much the same. He goes to some pains to emphasize that he is talking about the pool of well-qualified individuals which undergoes extreme selection of circumstance to produce the far, far, far-flung outliers of performance. Despite this, I think that many come away from Outliers with the impression that Gladwell was arguing that talent was nothing in the face of luck (circumstance).

The darker side of this for academic job mentoring is that I fear when I refer to "luck" or circumstance, this reinforces some self-defeating, learned-helplessness type of thinking. That someone might conclude that there is no point in trying if it is only luck that brings about further career success.

Through pondering this topic off and on for a little while today, I conclude that when I talk about the role of circumstances or luck in a scientists' career, I am trying to deflate self-criticism based on outcome. To help trainees to see that even despite their obvious talent, hard work and accomplishment sometimes the stars do not align. This failure of outcome doesn't make you a worthless or stupid scientist. Same deal for newly independent investigators dealing with their first triage.

In both cases, the "luck" comment is supposed to actually motivate behavior. It is supposed to help someone try to nudge their own circumstances into a more favorable setting. In the case of grant writing, of course, I like to encourage purchase of as many lottery tickets as possible submission of many applications with a fairly broad range of approaches. For trainees, the advice is to nudge as many of the little levers into alignment as is possible.

Or, as Pinker put it in his review, perhaps I am just raising a Straw We all the time?

26 responses so far

  • niewiap says:

    “Luck Favors the Prepared Mind”
    -- Louis Pasteur
    So true...

  • Pinker and all these other creepazoid fuckwads who have been whiny-ass titty-babying about Gladwell lately are just pissed off because he sells more books than they do, and is richer and more famous. Pinker in particular is a notorious douchebag and a second-rate scholar who got where he is mostly by having fancy hair.

  • Rogue Medic says:

    I have not read Gladwell's newest book, but I have read his other books. While he does use a lot of observational material that does not rise to the level of research. Gladwell does point this out in the books. Blink was one that particularly upset a lot of people, but Gladwell made it clear that the benefit of the intuition came only to those who actually were experts. In other words, people who had worked hard to get where they were.
    The sad part about the criticism is that the critics seem to fall into one, or more, of three categories. Those who have not read Gladwell's books, in which case they are guilty exactly what they mistakenly criticize in Blink. Those who have read Gladwell's books, but not been intelligent enough to understand what was written. Those willing to misrepresent what is written for unethical reasons - basically what Comrade PhysioProf wrote.
    A better book on the role of luck in career advancement is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

  • One is forced to wonder what felicitous combination of circumstances sent Gladwell to the best-seller list while other talented authors labor in obscurity.

  • becca says:

    DJ&MH- I don't know, does he have fancy hair?
    CPP- You're just bitter about Pinker cause your fancy hair never got you on Colbert.
    Anyway- here's my approach:
    1) If bad things happen to you that you're in a position to fix, it wasn't luck.
    2) If bad things happen to you that you are not in a position to fix, it was luck
    3) If good things happen to you, whether you were responsible for them or not, assume it's something you've worked to achieve but not something you've earned. Emphasize the former when you are motivating yourself, and the later needs to come out from time to time when you talk with others to not be seen as a total egomanical jackhat.
    4) If bad things happen to other people, chalk it up to luck unless:
    A) they have something they can improve upon
    B) they ask you what it is
    5) If good things happen to other people, chalk it up to their hard work (at least to their faces)
    The cognitive dissonance is a small price to pay.

  • anonymous says:

    @becca
    It sounds like you know about life. How old are you in doing science? As obvious as it seems, I don't want to assume that you are an established investigator both talented and lucky.

  • Eric Lund says:

    I read Pinker's review of Gladwell's book a few days ago when the Quantum Pontiff linked to it. Dave highlighted a howler that Pinker picked up: Gladwell's reference to "igon values" as a mondegreen for "eigenvalues". As you know, Bob, eigenvalues are a basic concept that can be found in linear algebra, differential equations with parameters, and any branch of science that uses one or both of them (including but not limited to physical chemistry, quantum physics, plasma physics, classical mechanics, and classical electromagnetism). That's the sort of bonehead error that makes me wonder what else Gladwell got wrong.
    As for the larger point, hell yes there is a lot of luck involved in academic careers, but you need oodles of skill and hard work to take advantage of any good luck that comes your way. Those of us who were in the physics business in the mid 1990s remember the faculty position at a top-ranked SLAC that drew ~800 applicants--sure, many of those were people throwing job applications at the wall hoping that one would stick, but how do you distinguish the 3-6 applicants (less than 1%) who made the short list from the next 3-6 who didn't, and how do they know that one of the latter group wouldn't have been better than the guy they ended up hiring? As it happens, I know somebody who claims to have been on that short list; yes, he's good, and very much into education (important for a SLAC faculty position), but I don't know that I would have picked him over a similarly talented and credentialed rival for that short list.

  • nora says:

    I don't even think Pinker's hair is all that fancy. Certainly no fancier than Malcolm Gladwell's. Pinker's a total wanker, though, if I'm reading his work correctly.
    Kenny G, now that dude has fancy hair.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Dave highlighted a howler that Pinker picked up: Gladwell's reference to "igon values" as a mondegreen for "eigenvalues".
    It is asinine to use a mis-transcription of a verbal interview as triumphant evidence of a writer's ignorance. It is a given that he is not a scientific specialist in any subarea or even a scientist. He is a writer.
    Now did Gladwell use the concept of eigenvalues himself and screw up the application? That would be a valid criticism. Although I'm not sure any single error in deploying a scientific or mathematical concept means you need to question everything the guy ever wrote.

  • lylebot says:

    Gladwell responds to Pinker's specific accusation about football draft picks here. If Pinker didn't bother to do serious leg work before criticizing that, what else did he not bother to do?

  • becca says:

    Anon- it is widely acknowledged that I never have any idea what I'm talking about. I'm just good at spotting other people in the same position.

  • bob says:

    I read Pinker's review and loved it. It was witty and hilarious. I've only read on of Gladwell's books (Tipping Point) and I found it fascinating and and crisply written, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a well-worded criticism of his other work. Gladwell has an "Igon Value Problem"? Brilliant.
    BikeMonkey, at least it indicates sloppy editing. If you write "igon value" in your notes during the interview, no problem, but if you don't bother to look up a word you've never heard before writing it in your book and neither does your editor, that's a totally legitimate problem to point out in a book review.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I had no idea this stuff was so emotionally laden. What's up CPP? Also, reading the comments at Gladwell's blog, see lylebot link, ...?? Get over yourselves mathematicians!!!

  • BikeMonkey says:

    bob, if I danced all around high-fiving myself about how everyone was a dumbshit and didn't know anything at all under the sun because they fucked up the meaning of "schizophrenic" and "negative reinforcement"...well, I'd get essentially nothing done but I'd be happy knowing how many dumbfucks there were in the world....

  • Pascale says:

    Here is an example from outside of academic biomedical research:
    My brother was a musical prodigy. Critics in elementary and high school went on & on about his abilities, and mentioned elite conservatories for his future endeavors.
    The problem was that he wouldn't have minded a performance career with recording contracts and such. He knew way too many music teachers who had to cobble together a living from mediocre local symphonies, teaching, and working in music stores. Talent only gets you so far; hard work helps, but there was a lot of that "right place-right time" element he did not want to trust his career to. He did not want to teach music, and he had straight As.
    So he went to medical school (like his big sister) and is now in academic medicine. He continues to take some music lessons, and he gets to perform periodically. And he has a Steinway in his living room.
    I have heard too many PIs say that good science will always win in peer reviews. I have now seen these PIs suffer from the present funding crunch that makes fate and subjectivity a major component of who gets the money.
    Talent & intelligence? Some critical level is absolutely necessary.
    Hard work? No one gets anywhere without it in any field.
    Fate? Like it or not, you have to send the right grant (paper, application, etc) to the right reviewer at the right time.
    I love #5 (from becca). And I'm really glad to hear from CPP in #2 (I love a guy who can out-curse me; they are few and far between).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I have heard too many PIs say that good science will always win in peer reviews. I have now seen these PIs suffer from the present funding crunch that makes fate and subjectivity a major component of who gets the money.
    Yes and because they are so invested in believing the former they start yammering and whining about how the system is broken, how unfair Program is for helping New Investigators and all manner of other excuses to avoid the fundamental fact. Their prior success was as much good circumstances as it was their own merit. And they cannot handle this. So they start doing all kinds of unscientific and petty acting out like that letter to science I recently mentioned.

  • Eric Lund says:

    It is asinine to use a mis-transcription of a verbal interview as triumphant evidence of a writer's ignorance.
    Not for this kind of mistranscription. As Bob said, it clearly indicates that neither Gladwell nor his editor bothered to look up the word. It's not just a simple typo (if he had spelled it "eignvalue" that might be an innocent error, though his editor should still get flack for it) or a botched attempt to explain a detailed concept in layman's terms (which is what your examples in #14 amount to). Nor is it a blog post, which you don't expect to be edited (and where somebody in the comments would point out the error). It shows that Gladwell has not read anything on a subject he is pontificating about in a book published by a major publishing company. Somebody should have caught that error long before it saw the printed page--several somebodies, if my understanding is correct that the book is a compilation of essays that originally appeared in the New Yorker.
    As for lylebot's link, several of the commenters point out that there are issues with Gladwell's methodology on the quarterback draft problem--just not necessarily the ones that Pinker pointed out. Survivor bias is the most notable: mediocre QBs drafted in the third round tend to wash out quickly (unlike first-round picks), leaving only the best to see any NFL playing time. Also, the top third of the draft order tends to be filled with the league's worst teams, so their first round draft QBs often see immediate playing time on teams where one or more of the running game, receivers, and offensive line are mediocre--that will reduce the QB's productivity.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Sorry but you are still being an ass, Lund. You seem to be over invested in igonvalue and what a modestly educated person "should" know. Typical shoulder-chip stuff about how nobody respects no physimacal sciences that we hear from Uncertain Chad all the time. Just stupid to use this as a battle cry, particularly if you have better charges to deploy.
    The QB thing is different entirely. It is an argument over what measures are best reflective of the cognitive construct of "an excellent quarterback". It is very difficult for anyone to be "wrong", just so long as they are clear about their rationale and selected measures. The fact that someone favors a different measure as the indicator of the cognitive construct of "best" does not mean they are an idiot. the fact that you cannot see this and insist that your favored measure is unassailable Truth, OTOH, does tend to make you an idiot. The generic "you" of course..

  • Grant says:

    Several thoughts.
    "Luck" (circumstance, really) certainty has it's role in many careers, not just in science. Sure you have to be ready to grab the opportunities, but the opportunities themselves aren't always because you "deserve" them, but often as much because you just happen to be the best/better of the people that happened to be around or had "appropriate" politic strings. (My own country, for example, tends to suffer from people "creating jobs" for their buddies.)
    Many personal factors are involved in selection processes of all kinds, peer review and grant applications included. There's no denying it.
    I personally think one element that would help is if students were better exposed to a wider range of career options so that they might choose a more appropriate "fit" to the their wants/needs in the first place. (Pascale's comment seems to be in this vein.) I've written about one aspect of this on my blog a few days ago: http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/11/09/universities-and-lack-of-showcasing-use-of-science-degrees/
    There's a recent Science Careers article that reviews a book surveying success factors in science careers (I've got it linked on my latest post, let me get back on that). This article points out the same issue DrugMonkey raises, that a belief that only quality matters is false; they in fact say it's a characteristic of people entering academia. I think this article is well worth reading in the context of what's being said here.
    I also wrote an older post considering that a "buddy system" of sorts is needed to help students and younger staff; it wouldn't go amiss here either. I wrote in response to an article about depression, but meant the system to be general for all problems. Positive, active, support assisting people in what they want to achieve would help, rather than just leaving things to "whatever they come up with". I know some will say the latter is selection, tough; I'd say it's waste of talent. Good businesses try get the best out of their staff.

  • So he went to medical school (like his big sister) and is now in academic medicine. He continues to take some music lessons, and he gets to perform periodically. And he has a Steinway in his living room.

    Holy fucknoly! I think I know your brother! MD/PhD, right?

  • becca says:

    I wonder if it's a common phenotype. I know an MD/PhD who is also a chamber music pianist.

  • Eric Lund says:

    You seem to be over invested in igonvalue and what a modestly educated person "should" know.
    There is a difference between what a modestly educated person should know and what somebody who is pontificating in print about a subject should know. Gladwell falls into the latter category. Bob already pointed out the difference. It's one thing to make that kind of error in your notes and correct it later. It's another thing to let a mistake like that get into print, especially in the Web era when it's so easy to look these things up. Gladwell demonstrates that he was too lazy to check his facts. IME people who write for publication who are lazy about this sort of thing once are likely to be lazy about this sort of thing repeatedly (several op-ed pundits come to mind, and yes, I've seen it in scientific papers too). He doesn't claim any expertise in any of these fields, so how can I trust the accuracy of his reporting on topics where I am not an expert?

  • becca says:

    "IME people who write for publication who are lazy about this sort of thing once are likely to be lazy about this sort of thing repeatedly (several op-ed pundits come to mind, and yes, I've seen it in scientific papers too)."
    And IME, people who are lazy about recall bias are likely to be lazy about this sort of thing repeatedly. As are the folks that ignore the data and/or insist on some kind of exceptionalism to the notion that personality is context dependent:
    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/10/the_personality_paradox.php
    On the other hand, maybe you *are* quite conscientious about recall bias in your research, and you pay attention to the scientific literature on the science related to the professional discipline you are in.
    (I don't have a horse in the Gladwell race, but the notion that there are significant scientific studies that support the notion that personality is context-dependent is so appealing to me that I experience an overwhelming urge to shoot down thinking that relies on personality-constancy assumptions)

  • @14 BM
    "...if I danced all around high-fiving myself about how everyone was a dumbshit..."
    Humm... seems like that is what you are in fact doing. Lund made a good point. The point is to check your references and facts before writing them down for mass consumption.

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  • [...] as one can seemingly succeed through alignment of circumstances with a normal level of talent and effort, one can wash out through no fault of one's own too. But [...]

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