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?