Slate Star Codex on ability, effort, and achievement

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Scott Alexander writes about ability, effort, and achievement at his blog Slate Star Codex. Like many of his excellent posts, this one has received hundreds of thoughtful comments. (Sequel: Part 2 is up.)

Scott has special insight into this question as consequence of a musically talented brother (who quickly surpassed Scott to become a piano prodigy and professional musician) and of having struggled with math despite being very bright. Experiences like these make clear the division between talent and effort, but they’re not always easy to share with others.

Slate Star Codex: … There are frequent political debates in which conservatives (or straw conservatives) argue that financial success is the result of hard work, so poor people are just too lazy to get out of poverty. Then a liberal (or straw liberal) protests that hard work has nothing to do with it, success is determined by accidents of birth like who your parents are and what your skin color is et cetera, so the poor are blameless in their own predicament.

I’m oversimplifying things, but again the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate – and the side endorsed by many of the poor themselves – is supposed to be that success is due to accidents of birth, and the less compassionate side is that success depends on hard work and perseverance and grit and willpower.

The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern.

Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”.

And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.

I can come up with a few explanations for the sudden switch, but none of them are very principled and none of them, to me, seem to break the fundamental symmetry of the situation. …

… I tried to practice piano as hard as he did. I really tried. But every moment was a struggle. I could keep it up for a while, and then we’d go on vacation, and there’d be no piano easily available, and I would be breathing a sigh of relief at having a ready-made excuse, and he’d be heading off to look for a piano somewhere to practice on. Meanwhile, I am writing this post in short breaks between running around hospital corridors responding to psychiatric emergencies, and there’s probably someone very impressed with that, someone saying “But you had such a great excuse to get out of your writing practice!”

I dunno. But I don’t think of myself as working hard at any of the things I am good at, in the sense of “exerting vast willpower to force myself kicking and screaming to do them”. It’s possible I do work hard, and that an outside observer would accuse me of eliding how hard I work, but it’s not a conscious elision and I don’t feel that way from the inside. …

Pursuing this topic to the end leads to the difficult question of whether predispositions to hard work, conscientiousness, ambition, etc. are themselves heritable. Of course, the answer is yes, at least partly. Free Will? :-)

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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