Much is made of Malcolm Gladwell's "Ten thousand hours," the thoughtful insight that to achieve proficiency, the equivalent of five years of full time work is a necessary condition--if not a sufficient one. The Beatles played clubs in Hambourg for ten thousand hours before appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show; Steve Jobs futzed around with computers for ten thousand hours before moving on to enforce his prodigious ability worldwide.
What isn't mentioned is how many people put in the requisite ten thousand hours and achieve competence but not success. My buddy, Kevin, played guitar for ten thousand hours and didn't make it to a German Coffee House never mind CBS. There is something to be said, certainly, for how beautifully he plays. Here's another question: What else could he have done with his time?
"I've changed, Mom. I'm not going to smoke pot any more or play video games either. I just need some money until I can get a job." Tommy pauses as if for dramatic effect then plays the card that has always worked in the past: "I can't believe you don't trust me."
How should Tommy's Mom respond?
Should she explain that trust is a bucket that gets emptied all at once, but is filled up one drop at a time?
Should she articulate that Tommy has failed to achieve his purpose repeatedly and that unless he gets treatment no further communication will be forthcoming except of course that she will stay on the phone just this one last time to say the same things that she's said six bazillion times before and that maybe just maybe this time will be the time that her cogent pleas connect and Tommy agrees to treatment?
(Nah, that can't be the right answer. The correct choice is never a run-on sentence.)
"It's all your fault, Mom. You are the reason I don't have any friends. All of the other kids drive nice cars, but you gave me this lousy car to drive. The other kids make fun of me. If you would just leave me alone, everything would be OK."
"But, Honey, if I leave you alone, you don't even get up and go to school never mind do your homework. You just stay in your room playing that video game until one in the morning."
"See, there you go again. Always badgering me. Don't you see how this is all your fault?"
"No, I don't see how it's all my fault at all. Your father and I work hard to provide for you and your brothers."
"There you go again. Always comparing me to my brothers who are so perfect. Why can't you get good grades like your brothers? Why can't you help out around the house like your brothers? It's always the same thing. Why can't you just leave me alone?"
"We try to leave you alone but you keep getting suspended from school and arrested."
Envision vicious combatants locked in a zero-sum game in which only a small number can survive and only one can triumph. Imagine the contestants scratching, clawing, and punching one another for any and every competitive advantage. "Omni contra omni" wrote Hobbs. "All against all." No quarter asked or given. Winner take all and devil take the hindmost.
Is my topic this week mixed martial arts? Or am I writing about "The Hunger Games"? Am I describing your first marriage and subsequent litigious divorce?
Nah. Of course, I'm writing about admissions to competitive colleges.
Did you, by any chance, buy Qualcomm for two dollars a share in 1992? If you were that prescient, did you sell all your Qualcomm holdings eight years later for $75 a share? Because had you invested ten thousand dollars at the start of the run-up, you would have walked out of the casino with $375K. In eight years, each dollar you invested would have turned into $37.50.
Similarly, did you short Qualcomm (make a bet that the price of the stock would go down) in 2000? If you had, within 18 months, your money would have gone up by a factor of 1000 as the stock price plummeted like a flying sheep.* As Qualcomm lost over 90% of its value, there is almost no limit to the amount of money you could have made by wagering that its price would go down.
"No hats on the bed!" A woman screams at a visitor. "Get that hat off the bed! Now!"
"OK," says the man. "But, by the way, why? Why must I take my hat off the bed?"
"Hats on the bed are bad luck! Terrible bad luck! Years and years of bad luck! Get that hat off the bed!"
"OK," says the man. And walks out of our scenario to appear in another blog post somewhere else.
"My mother taught me that hats on the bed are bad luck just as her mother taught her. Everyone knows that hats on the bed are bad luck!" The woman shouts at the retreating figure.
Ignoring for a moment the silliness of all superstitions in general, why this particularly silly superstition--no hats on the bed--in particular? Some religious traditions--don't eat pork--are said to originate in an evolutionary adaptive imperative--trichinosis is unpleasant. Could there be a REASON why this woman is hysterical about a hat on the bed?
A buddy of mine explained the likelihood of getting a book of poems published. Consider all money spent in entertainment industry. Movies make up the vast percentage of expenditures; books are almost an afterthought. Of all the books that are published each year, most are non-fiction--calendars, cooks books, political biographies. Fiction is a tiny part of a publisher's list. NEW fiction books have to compete with perennial best sellers like _The Hobbit_ and _Tom Sawyer_. Poetry is the smallest percentage of fiction and poetry by new authors is the smallest percentage of poetry. In short, the odds against a new author getting a book of poetry published are enormous.
If all the books that have been published were lined up on one shelf and you picked one book at random, the chance that you would pick a book of new poems is effectively zero.
Bob Blitzer wasn't just a great math teacher; he was a good man: my first openly gay professor--and this was the early 70s--he was a force of nature in the classroom. He drew an inverted parabola on the board. "'Y equals negative X squared' looks like a missile," he began. "No, it doesn't. 'Y equals negative X squared' looks like a breast."
Can YOU think of a better way to engage adolescents in the subtleties of curve sketching?
Bob was a tireless advocate for struggling students. His office hours weren't Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10:00 to 11:00 am. His office hours were any time he was awake. He taught like a mad dog. As long as you were willing to learn, he was willing to teach. No problem was too simple. From what I could tell, no problem was too complex either.
1) My six year-old daughter is having a birthday. What should I do?
2) My 14 year-old daughter loves animals, wants to see a bear in the wild. What should I do?
3) My 16 year-old son is the third chair out of three trumpet players in the school orchestra. What should I do?
Which of the following responses is more likely to facilitate children who grow up to be competent and content?
1) My six year-old daughter is having a birthday.
1A) I'll call the party planner and have them set up a bounce house, a train track, pony rides, and a petting zoo. We'll have Cinderella and a dozen other princess characters in costume. They'll perform several original skits. We'll invite all the first graders from all the classes in the school, about a hundred children. The caterer will focus on finger food for the kids and, of course, a full buffet and mimosas for the adults. My daughter will spend most of the day being photographed.
I've never asked Dennis and Joanie for money. But I could if I had to. If I couldn't make a mortgage payment, I'd ask them for a couple thousand to tide me over and they'd say, "You're sure you don't need more?" That's how close we are. That's the kind of people they are.
So when Joanie was griping at me this morning about how I just "don't get it" when it comes to video games and what a zealot I am and how I'm living in the dark ages and do I want to go back to prohibition, I realized that I must not have expressed myself well in our previous conversations and in this forum. Joanie is my good friend: I know she reads my blog. If she doesn't understand my position, it's me. Clearly, I need to be more clear. (Obviously, I need to be more obvious?)