monalisawp

The Role of Chance in Outcomes

Are the successes in my life a result of ability (the quality I produce) or chance?

NPR kicked off a story about the Mona Lisa. It’s a popular painting – the most popular painting. Each year thousands swarm the Louvre in Paris to get a glimpse of her enigmatic smile. The Mona Lisa is famous.

But is she famous because she’s a spectacular work of art? Or is she famous because she’s the result of chance encounters (i.e. because she was acquired by the King of France, displayed at the Louvre, a product of a masterful inventor who was acknowledged as such by Italian authorities)?

This question – chance vs ability – has historically been untestable. We live in one reality and in this reality the Mona Lisa is famous.

Until Princeton professor Matthew Salganik decided to come up with a rather genious experiment. He would create multiple identical worlds online filled with the same works of art, get thousands of people to pick which work of art they liked best, and if the same works of art rose to the top in each world, then we could reasonably conclude it was the actual art work that determined its greatness.

The experiment

From NPR:

To test how much of success should be attributed to chance and how much to quality, Salganik created a website that randomly funneled the 30,000 teenagers he recruited online into nine identical worlds.

Each of these worlds exposed the teens to 48 songs from emerging artists — bands that hadn’t yet been signed so were totally unknown to the teens. The deal was that after listening to the songs, the teens could download the ones they liked best for free.

Now in one world — the control world — they couldn’t see which songs their peers were downloading so there was no social influence. But in the other eight, the teens could see which songs had been downloaded before, so they knew what other people thought was good.

“So we had the exact same 48 songs competing against each other, we had the exact same initial conditions, everything starts with zero downloads, and we have indistinguishable groups of participants, because they were randomly placed into the world,” Salganik says.

Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?

And what did he find?

Different songs become popular in different histories — and not in small ways, either.

….there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?

What does this mean?

I think studies like this give us moments to pause, look at the world around us, and consider the implications and how these implications affect our approach to the people around us.

Take my life as example. In terms of the biggest element of chance – who my parents are – I scored the jackpot. Middle class, a reasonably healthy pool of genes, educated, and willing to throw considerable resources at the development of their children. I try not to confuse the fact that I was born on third base with those who had to run, on their own, from the start of a pitch.

Or consider my current position as Director of Technology. One reason I landed this wonderful gig was that members of Hamilton CSD viewed a presentation by me at an informational session. The curious thing about that day was that I wasn’t supposed to present. My boss at the time had pneumonia and I filled the spot. Pneumonia as a matter of a chance.

If you think that much of a persons success (or lack of success) is up to chance, perhaps it allows you to empathize with an individual better. Or as Salganik points out, you treat them better.

testing

Morning Conversation with my Children

In our household I have the morning shift. This means I get the kids up, ready for school, and dropped off at extended care. For my children, mornings are full of curiosity.

In the short car ride we have to school I’ve put in place a rule. They are not allowed to talk with each other (or touch, hit, poke, etc.), but they can talk with me. This turns conversations into relay points – which I don’t mind – and turns the car ride into funny, often insightful, question and answers channeled in a controlled manner (as opposed to the chaos of smacking each other around).

This year we’ve covered topics like God, ghosts, Putin, gravity, galaxies, puberty, congress, Magna Carta, and chlorophyll. In short, the car rides are too short. I love my kids and I love the questions they ask.

Today the conversation made me sad. First, some context. I have a first grader (learning English), a second grader (good with English, rough with Math), and a third grader (third grade reading guarantee – thank you state of Ohio).

My second grader said, “Diego, have fun in first grade. When you get to second, you get tons of homework and have to start worrying about tests.”

My third grade said, “Kelly, you don’t have to worry about a test yet. You get to worry about it next year.”

Then, turning to me, my third grader asked, “Papi, do I need to keep worrying about tests in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade?

“Yes, sweetheart.”

“Aww. I hate school.”

I want to be clear, my kids don’t shirk from work. School is hard for them (they’re all adopted from Colombia), but they work very, very hard every night (they also have school teachers as parents, so there’s no escaping the academic structure). We’re sweating the legislative mandates and doing what we can. Our core value is not necessarily academic success, but work ethic.

Still, it’s sometimes hard to draw the connection between work ethic, non-stop testing, and genuine curiosity and love of learning. To me, it feels like our systems are out of balance. I suspect it feels the same way to our children.

 

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Do what you love

I grew up Dutch Reformed which, besides being its own particular flavor of Christianity, is also a culture. Lots of strong families, strong work ethics, and strong community support. The food runs bland, the faith runs studious, and on Sundays you made sure not to mow the yard for fear that the neighbors might think you weren’t taking a true Sabbath.

My attitudes towards work were imminently shaped by my home culture.  Protestant work ethic certainly was fundamental (work hard). While not formally spelled out (at least at a young age), the idea of “domains” (home, church, and work) was very evident. Each domain deserved your time, energy, and sometimes money.

When it comes to what type of work (or the question of “what am I suppose to do in this life?”), I remember two specific messages from two different pastors.

The first pastor said “God doesn’t care. You going to be a ditch digger, be a ditch digger. Going to be a doctor, be a doctor. What matters is that you’re giving Him glory in whatever you do.”

The second pastor said essentially the same thing. He also put some historical context on the question of profession. “This is modern problem. For most of history, you did what your parents did, which was farming.”

This message contrasted with the message often heard during my college years and, I confess, often given to my students when I was in the classroom (at least to a certain degree).

That message was that in choosing your work profession, make sure to do what you love.

There are problems with the message. And Miya Tokumitsu does an excellent job of explaining those problems in her article “In the Name of Love Elites embrace the “do what you love” mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers.”

An example of a good takeaway quote:

DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

As I work on a series of posts and a presentation on how technology is radically altering the labor market, I found this article to resonate because many of the jobs left in this current economy are service jobs. Boring, repetitious, non creative, jobs (fast food, dependent care, big box stores).

And sometimes it’s good to remember that work is just work. Not a higher calling or a reflection of who you are as an individual.