People are their Histories

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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39 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    Ain’t this the truth. A year ago I couldn’t do an standard arm bar. I didn’t have the flexibility to move my legs correctly, had little control as I found it hard to balance over my opponent, and was always falling over. 18 months later I’m demonstrating to newer guys who complain they can’t do the same move. Been there done that baby. Stretch, practice, loose weight, build endurance. Practice, learn the move step by step, follow up with the little details.

    I’m not going to say there’s no differences between men and women, because frankly, we all know there is. Most of the women I’ve run into in class could not handle me putting weight on them, (only the more experienced ones) or didn’t have the upper body strength to keep me off them/resist me leaning into them. All the guys, even the weakest guy, can throw the women around the mat. But, the women have the better flexibility usually and, having smaller frames, don’t have to create that much space to get out of positions I would find much harder to escape-I’m thicker, heavier and I have to make more room to make the same move. I can probably take more punishment in a fight, but they likely can escape better. Never underestimate a 120 pound 5 foot woman’s ability to choke you out from a triangle.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

      Women actually have more pain tolerance than men, so if you’re going for pain-punishment, a woman’s more likely to not pass out. (Childbirth is tough, and women need to stay conscious).Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Damon says:


      Every time I see a women’s MMA fight go the ground I think, “Now it’s going to get fun.” Some of my favorites (Felic Herrig, Rose Namajunas) are just spectacular, especially in scrambles or escape situations where their flexibility gives them opportunities to do things the guys simply can’t. Guys often have to be content to try hip escapes or sweeps. Girls contort themselves and make things a lot more interesting. I don’t know that I have ever seen a male fighter try to hook the arms of a mounted opponent with his legs to pull them backwards out of the mount. I’ve seen girls try it dozens of times. Flexibility.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Namajunas looked amazing against Waterson in April.

        Another factor I like is the lower bodyweights. Like the lighter men, it’s a lot harder to hold somebody down and reach a stalemate than it is a 220 pounds. The small flexible folks are constantly rolling and moving.Report

      • Damon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Indeed. I don’t watch the sport on tv, but I’ve personally seen women who’ve turtled down so much I cannot get a hook in. And the women in question is getting much better tolerating my frame on her chest.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    Good piece, nothing to really add. Except your metaphor in the third to last paragraph with LeBron James and Yao Ming is….risky. (and probably one I wouldn’t have done).Report

  3. j r says:

    This isn’t to say it is impossible that there is something about black DNA that gives the average black man a tiny bit better than the average Chinese man at shooting baskets. What I do know is that any such difference is nigh invisible when compared to the privilege of playing against the players LeBron James grew up playing against. He’d be nothing without his history.

    I agree with the overall point that for most people in most of the things that we do every day the amount of work that we put in is going to determine the level of our output. That said, I think that you may be discounting genetics a bit. Part of the problem is that our conversations tend to take the shape of this nature v. nurture dichotomy that I’m not sure really exists as an objective concept. More likely there is something broadly defined as human development that is composed of a a series of very complicated feedback loops that play out through genes and environment and intentional action and a whole lot of random luck.

    In other words, Lebron James genetics is part of his history. James was 6’1 at age 13 and 6’3 as a high school freshman. On a podcast, I head Jay Williams talk about how Lebron came to work out with the Bulls prior to the 2003 draft and, at 18, was holding his own against NBA vets. Someone who didn’t have that genetic predisposition would have never been in the position to play against those opponents in the first place.

    To perform at the highest level of any activity, you likely need both the genetic tools and the work to transform that raw potential into realized ability. But yeah, for the most of things that you and I do on a given day, our willingness and ability to try and fail and try again is likely going to be the deciding factor to how successful we are.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to j r says:

      This pretty much sums up my view of it. I was that kid that had a natural talent for math. I would have a mathematical concept presented to me, either in a book or in class, and I would just immediately get it, easy-peasy. That held true until maybe my 2nd or 3rd year of college. I don’t know what else to call that but native talent. Could I have become a mathematician? Probably a 2nd or 3rd tier one; I was talented but not a prodigy.

      Anyway, this question of nature vs. nurture seems pretty much settled to me; it’s both. The more interesting question to me is why people want to insist on it being one or the other and how that lines up with politics depending on the particular trait being inspected.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Road Scholar says:

        And I know someone with a natural ailment in math (actually quite a few. uses 2’s complement to do addition level of “doesn’t do math well”). He’s tops in his field (and it’s a mathematical field), he just fakes the math when he needs to explain himself to other people.

        Some people have a native talent for developing themselves, and bridging “I can’t do that” into “well, I can make these few things work together…”Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to j r says:

      To perform at the highest level of any activity, you likely need both the genetic tools and the work to transform that raw potential into realized ability.

      Consider the Tour de France. Every single one of those riders is a genetic freak. They are every one way out in the far right tail of the human distributions for all of oxygen transport, muscle recovery, pain tolerance, ability to absorb calories, and more. Even at that level there are only a handful who are freakish enough to seriously compete for the individual title. It’s one of the reasons doping is so often a problem in the sport — someone who comes up just a bit short in oxygen transport or muscle recovery genetics looking to offset that.Report

      • Joe Sal in reply to Michael Cain says:

        It probably has a lot to do with finding that niche also. I can only imagine how many riders that never competed because they didn’t find riding a activity worth doing.Report

        • Michael Cain in reply to Joe Sal says:

          As a group, Tour riders are among the most studied extreme athletes in the world. I recall a piece about the genetics aspect that said we know enough about human distributions to estimate that there are probably a few thousand people in the world with the genetics to be serious Tour competitors. Almost all lack the opportunities or the interest to do so.

          Some of the things that turn out to be important are surprising. Riders’ performance is limited by how much they can eat and how many calories their gut extracts from that food. An extra couple hundred calories per day is a significant advantage.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

      I agree. Many people share LeBron’s history. Or, at least, early history. But he responded to that history differently, in part based on genetics, and their histories diverged.

      I have two sons with similar enough contexts for their upbringing. And yet from birth certain differences were obvious. As well as certain similarities.

      We are not solely our histories. We are a blend of our histories, our genetics, the interplay of the two, and a whole bunch of other stuff.Report

  4. fillyjonk says:

    Yeah, my students act amazed at how good I am at identifying plants (and to an extent, insects) in the field. I always want to tell them – but find it a little depressing to – “I’ve been working on this since as long as you’ve been alive” (in some cases now: longer). I first started learning plant identification, other than the few things I knew as a kid (a few of the trees, and wild strawberry, and poison ivy – knowing poison ivy is important for everyone, not just botanists) back around 1990 or so.

    I can only hold out hope that when I’ve been playing the piano that long, I’ll be as good. So far, signs do not point to that….Report

  5. Oscar Gordon says:

    So the smart thing for Google to do, if they want to approach parity in tech, is not to try hiring their way there today, but rather invest in education and opportunity for kids to enjoy coding/etc. So in 15-20 years the number of women graduating from college in the engineering fields will be closer to parity.

    But that is a long term investment.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I think the kind of intervention that would actually yield results would be prohibitively expensive, and considered intrusive and controlling by the education institutions, regardless of whether they agreed with the goals, which they probably would.

      We all need to work on this, not just Google. “Women don’t do math” is a culture-wide bias.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Doctor Jay says:



        Although I wonder, how wide-spread is the “Girls can’t math” myth today, among grade & high school students? Does anyone track such things?Report

    • I went to work at Bell Laboratories near the end of the glory days. The Labs’ philosophy at the time was to hire the smartest technical people they could find and then teach them the business. At one point, the Labs hired about 25% of all new physics PhDs each year. Not to do physics, but because to finish a physics PhD required that you be either a very good applied mathematician (theorists) or a very good working electrical/computer engineer (experimentalists), plus have a talent for insight into problems. We know what it produced: microwaves, the transistor, lasers, UNIX, and patent-a-day output on the development side. The break-up of the Bell System in 1984 did away with the kind of guaranteed cash flow needed to support that model, though.

      I find it interesting that 90% of the smartphones sold today run an operating system kernel that is essentially a recreation of the UNIX kernel.Report

      • fillyjonk in reply to Michael Cain says:

        also, in my experience, completing a Ph.D. (at least in the lab/field sciences) indicates a v. high tolerance for doing the same boring thing over and over and over again, and having a series of minor day-to-day failures without totally melting down, and being able to put off all other goals in favor of one big long-term goal. And to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure. I actually counsel my students now (1) that tenaciousness is more important than smarts in graduate work.

        And a lot of those things – esp. the “boring thing over and over and over again” are a big part of almost any career.

        (1) though honestly, these days? I don’t tend to counsel people to do a Ph.D. unless they are really DYING to have one or are on a track to run a lab, because once you go past a Master’s you become “overqualified” for most of the jobs – at least in biology right now – that currently exist. That makes me sad but it is what it is.Report

        • also, in my experience, completing a Ph.D. (at least in the lab/field sciences) indicates a v. high tolerance for doing the same boring thing over and over and over again, and having a series of minor day-to-day failures without totally melting down, and being able to put off all other goals in favor of one big long-term goal. And to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure.

          I’d say that also applies to working low-level customer service jobs. Maybe with some adjustments, though: I’d replace “to be stubborn as hell in the face of failure” with “to keep going on in the face of constantly being treated as a servant.” (I’m not denigrating your point. I’m just trying to add on to it, along with a suggestion that a history of those jobs can augur success at other jobs.)Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

        That is another tack Google (etc.) could take, which is to commit to some OJT. Offer to hire women who want to become engineers and then train them.Report

        • Swami in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          And perhaps the NBA should do a similar outreach program to Asians and Hispanics. A little OJT should balance things out nicely….

          Seriously, the Google kerfuffle revolves around the more difficult concept that extreme proficiency comes out of extreme passion and there are extremely well proven differences in interests, personalities and passions between men and women and these can show up in different expected distributions in different fields.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          There are millions of jobs where “good enough” is good enough. OJT is perfect for those jobs.

          You know these jobs. Sit here. Push these buttons. When you see this particular error, run this particular script. If the script doesn’t work, call deep support.

          If you’re hoping for the best 1% of the best 1%, OJT won’t give you these people.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

            Except that isn’t the goal. The goal is to get more women in the field, so you have a larger pool of top 1% to hire from. If colleges are not graduating enough women, perhaps it is because there are a lot of women who would be good at tech for whom college is too high a bar (due to cost, social pressures, etc. – not so much academic ability). So create an alternative path for those women.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I thought it was more like 98% or so of smart phones are *nix. Essentially every smart phone is either Android or iOS. Windows phones exist, theoretically, but I’ve only ever seen one…Report

  6. Doctor Jay says:

    You have every reason to be proud of yourself. Your daughter will continue to reap the benefits of more self-confidence for years.

    The kind of mistaken attribution you are running into is so commonplace among humans that you will never fix the world. If you can fix just a couple of people, starting with yourself, that will be a major accomplishment.Report

  7. North says:

    Great piece Vikram, well done.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of sysadmin stuff come naturally to me (including, of course, Googling). So when I encounter something like, for example, Rock Climbing, it is exceptionally frustrating for me to be doing stuff where even the really easy stuff feels impossible.

    I try to do the thing where I fail every week… just fail better every week. Fail a little higher up the wall. Fail later. Fail better.

    But, man. It’s hard.Report

  9. switters says:

    I think you are failing to consider how much other genetic factors may impact one’s success. Lebron’s willingness to put in the work, over and over again, his ability to remain focused, to fight through the failures, to really want to destroy his opponent, would be other factors. I suspect there are humans as physically gifted as MJ, Tiger Woods, or Lebron, or even more gifted, but who lack the desire, willingness or ability to focus on a singular task, to really develop that physical ability to its true potential.

    I think its great what you’ve done with your daughter. But I’m also fairly certain that there are a huge number of children (pretty sure 3 of them are mine), who could be given the same opportunity, who would fail to have the same measure of success at climbing as your daughter. Some who would fail completely.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to switters says:

      Some people subscribe to the “Skill or Will” type of thinking, arguing that some athletes (its always athletes we seem to have these talks about…) were just born great and others are there because of grit and guile and whatnot. David Thorpe, whose worked with many elite college and pro basketball players, insists that will itself is a “talent” and rarely is something that can be improved… at least not once folks reach young adulthood.

      It also ignores that all the “skill” in the world is useless without will. Vince Carter is a guy oft-cited for lacking “will”. And it’s probably true that his basketball prowess might have trumped, say, Kobe’s and the latter’s superiority is a result of greater will. But you don’t become a borderline HoFer without immense will. VC is likely in the top like 5% among all humans when it comes to that which we call will. If he lacked will he’s never have left the playground. The “problem” is that most of his competitors were in the top 1%.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Kazzy says:

        Doing the “skill or will” analysis on top athletes is problematic because the stakes are so high and the selection so tight that the best of the best are almost certainly an optimal mix of both. No amount of will would ever make me as good at basketball as LeBron James, partially because he’s 9 inches taller than I am and partially because he’s better than most of the people who ever played NBA and I seriously doubt that they’re all just a little lazier than he is. Likewise, it’s pretty likely that no amount of talent will ever make anybody as good as LeBron James if it’s only coupled with half-assed practice and determination.

        “How do I get to be an NBA player / principal ballet dancer in a world-class company / top Broadway star?” is a hard question to answer if you’re short or have weird feet or an annoying voice, but those careers are pretty selective. You can become satisfactorally good at most skills and hobbies as an average person who is willing to put in the time.

        Most people who are smart enough to graduate high school and maybe pass some community college classes can become an OK programmer, and most bright people can hone the analytical skills to become pretty good programmers. Will they be the next Ken Thompson? Probably not. Thompson is probably a perfect storm of genetics, environment and obsession. But that’s a far cry from at 10 year old saying, “I’ll never be good at computers because I don’t get math.”

        I always go back to something my first college math professor said: “I don’t get why people always say learning is fun. Learning can be fun, but sometimes it’s just hard and miserable. Sometimes you juts have to practice taking integrals until you get the hang of it. *Knowing* is fun.”Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

          But that’s a far cry from at 10 year old saying, “I’ll never be good at computers because I don’t get math.”

          Like I’ve said before, I didn’t ‘get’ math until my first college algebra course. I knew I wanted to ‘get’ it, and the fact that I didn’t frustrated and annoyed me to no end, which is probably why I kept going back for more.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

        I know someone who climbs 7500 feet in four hours on the treadmill. In one day.
        He’s training to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest in 4 days (from sea level).

        There’s will, and it has an awful lot to do with how quick you can ramp up your training.Report

  10. Troublesome Frog says:

    I don’t remember which celebrity was telling the story, but this reminds me of a story some celebrity told in an interview. He was hanging out at an autograph signing table with a great athlete of some sort and a father came up with his son for an autograph and said something like, “Please tell my son about how hard you practiced and how important it was for you to practice to become so great.” The guy responded tepidly, “Yeah, practice is pretty important.”

    After the father and son left, the narrator said, “You were pretty lukewarm about the kid practicing. What was up with that?” He answered, “Practice is important, but you have to understand that when I was his age, nobody had to tell me to practice. I was just practicing all the time.”Report

  11. CJColucci says:

    If we all worked very hard at something, we’d all become much better at it. We might become astonishingly better at it. If I had worked as hard at basketball as Lebron James, I’d have become an amazing basketball player, kicking a lot of ass at pickup games. But I wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship to a major college program or gotten a whiff of the NBA. There is such a thing as talent. Lebron working half as hard as he does would still be a far better basketball player than I could ever have been, but if he had done nothing but sit around eating Cheetos while watching MJ play he wouldn’t be anything.
    There are people who are just “good at math.” They’ll pick it up faster and see deeper into it with ordinary effort. They’re the ones who, if they work hard enough, become math Ph.D.s and solve Fermat’s theorem. Few of us can aspire to that no matter how hard we work; but too many people give up on their pre-college math because they’re “not good at math.” It’s true that they aren’t as good as those who are “good at math,” but they’re plenty good enough, if they work at it reasonably diligently, to master what is taught through high school and, possibly, a bit beyond. We pay too much attention to talent, which is a real thing, and not enough to effort.Report

  12. Lyle says:

    In music at least there is the 10,000 hour practice rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world class musician. That works out to around 5 years of full time work. I have also that the same thing appears to apply in a lot of athletics. If you look at it for example by the time an athlete turns pro he has at least 10 and likley more years invested in practice, both in particular when sports starts in the 7th grade, and runs 6 years in thru highschool, and then 4 years in college (or in baseball time in the minor leagues). So a pro player in major sports likley beats the 10,000 hours of practice and play (or total experience rule0Report