Success is intimidating. When we compete against someone who’s supposed to be better than us, we start to get nervous, and then we start to worry, and then we start to make stupid mistakes. That, at least, is the lesson of a new working paper by Jennifer Brown, a professor at the Kellogg school.
Brown demonstrated this psychological flaw by analyzing data from every player in every PGA tournament from 1999 to 2006. The reason she chose golf is that Tiger Woods is an undisputed superstar, the most intimidating competitor in modern sports. (In 2007, Golf Digest noted that Woods finished with 19.62 points in the World Golf Ranking, more than twice as many as his closest rival. This meant that “he had enough points to be both No. 1 and No. 2.”) Brown also notes that “golf is an excellent setting in which to examine tournament theory and superstars in rank-order events, since effort relates relatively directly to scores and performance measures are not confounded by team dynamics.” In other words, every golfer golfs alone.
Despite the individualistic nature of the sport, the presence of Woods in the tournament had a powerful effect. Interestingly, Brown found that playing against Woods resulted in significantly decreased performance. When the superstar entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even more pronounced when Woods was playing well. Based on this data, Brown calculated that the superstar effect boosted Woods’ PGA earnings by nearly five million dollars.
One of the things I have seen in great athletes I have known is, for want of a better term, a lack of self-awareness. They just do, They don’t think about it too much.
For example, they did not worry as much about striking out as I did. I had a talented bat, which allowed me to get a bat on almost anything. But I was not disciplined enough. If I had two strikes I would go after anything, anywhere because I did not want to strike out. I’d rather ground out by hitting a bad pitch than allow a called third strike. I was more worried about the humiliation of that one event than the larger strategic aspects.
I hated losing and would replay all the parts where if only I had done something different, then the result would have been a win. This was not something I really saw with the really great players. They just moved on, seemingly riding the vagaries of the sport with a wonderful adeptness I envied.
So it is nice to see that at the highest levels, when they really are competing with physical peers, the numbers indicate that they feel the same way. They think too much.
Now, another part of this is that once in a group of peers, such as the PGA, most people eventually find a relative plateau of effort and worry. That is, the pressure of the tour selects for golfers that can at least deal with the pressure of the Tour itself. And many golfers, week to week, do not have to really directly compete with Woods. They are in the middle, competing with the other golfers that they are used to seeing in the middle also. Familiarity means not too many worries, So they are not too worried and are not thinking too much to hurt their chances.
They find their own level and can be successful there.
It is when they have an extraordinary week, where they now move up into the elite group where overthinking can cause a problem. And, in some ways, being able to move away from the overthinking might allow them to stay in that elite group.
This sort of worry happens in many facets of life. The worry about our position, whether we are really good enough. It happens almost anytime we enter a truly novel situation.
I saw this first hand when I entered CalTech. The entire Freshman year was entirely pass/fail. Every class. Not only did this allow people to experiment and try a lot of different classes but it also provided a modicum of time to find your level without having to directly compete with others for GPA.
It removed a lot of pressure and worry. Most students had never had to think about studying in High School. They just did it. Like great athletes.
Now they were competing with other peers in ways that were completely novel and worrisome. By removing the pressure of grades, CalTech sought to ameliorate these worries. Not all the way but it was one less thing. We were less likely to choke and more likely to calm down as the novelty wore off.
So, in that first year I found a balance. I saw that there were guys that never seemed to do any homework, yet got better scores than me (Yes, they still had grades on tests, essays and such. It just did not matter for the GPA). I found that no matter how hard I studied, I just was not going to pass them. And that was fine. I saw where I fell by doing the work I was capable of.
I recognized that I was not going to be one of the elites at CalTech. And I could be okay with that. Giving us that first year to find our place in the crowd was one of the most significant things CalTech did.
And then, being a smart guy, I figured out ways to take classes that played to my strengths, used the knowledge I gained to raise my GPA every year, so that I was able to graduate with honors.
But having that break the first year permitted me to gather myself in ways that being dumped directly into competition with other might have broken me. Like a golfer who finds that there is a particular course that plays to their strengths.
It is a lesson I have held my whole life. So many organizations are designed to break people, taking only those who survive and making them the leaders, champions, etc. But that is so wasteful because there are so many others who, if given a break, a chance to find their own level, could perform quite well.
One of my advisors once said he purposefully created an environment of competition between those who work in his lab ‘The cream will rise to the top.’ Well, the cream will always rise but the process makes it curdled, And you waste so much that could have been so useful. Too many people dropped out of graduate programs, ones who could have been very good scientists, simply because the system worked by breaking its members.
It was designed to cast out those who ‘choked’. CalTech’s approach was to support everyone until they could figure out where they needed to be. Just like the middling golfers. They might not win very often but they provide some really exciting golf. Because they really are very, very good when compared to the rest of us.
We need better processes in scientific education so that more than only the elite make it through. Just as not every lawyer needs to plead in front of a jury, not every graduate student needs to get a job in academia. There are so many places where a well-trained scientist is needed.
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