Getting to Ten Times Better

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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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  1. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    I am skeptical of the 10X programmer as such. I do think that there are serious thresholding effects: There are tasks that some programmers can handle without a lot of struggle that others can’t really manage to do at all.

    The 10X programmer is not necessarily 10X in every programming task. They are probably wasted on the whole “grind out boilerplate javascript for web pages” thing, and they probably do not produce 10X over the average person in that position.

    And, if you compare the average programmer grinding out boilerplate javascript for web pages to someone who is only just learning to code, that person looks like a 10X programmer.

    One thing that I am good at, and I really am good at it , is coming up to speed on new codebases quickly. I’ve done this many times in new positions. I learn fast, I read, I observe, I remember. This makes a big difference. But I doubt I’m more than 3X the average replacement guy. Mind you, 3X is a lot, and it also justifies the 2X salary you mentioned (though I never quite got there).

    Yeah. Power laws are a thing, but so are thresholds.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      I think that there are programmers who create ten times as much value as the average programmer, consistently. That may actually be an understatement. As you say, it’s not really a matter of performing typical programming tasks ten times faster than a normal competent programmer. From having observed one, I think the key advantages are:

      1. Knowing what to work on. He’d go poking around in some graphs on a whim, find some inefficiency, and three days later push out some change that saved the company $100,000 a year. Multiple times.

      2. Writing better code. The fewer bugs you have, the less time you spend fixing them. The less time you spend fixing bugs, the more time you have for new feature work.

      3. Having a good grasp on software design principles, which means less time spent thinking about how to design a particular feature or component, and reduces maintenance costs in the future.

      4. Knowing a lot, which means less time spent looking up information.

      Surprisingly, he wasn’t very good at all at mental arithmetic. I always assumed that was something that correlated very strongly with programming ability because of working memory requirements.Report

  2. Avatar veronica d
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    says:

    I think the “10x” programmer thing is probably real enough. Note, the idea was introduced by Fred Brooks a million years ago, based on his experiences at IBM. It is not a product of SV hacker culture. It was not meant as Paul Graham style nerd self indulgence. In other words, it is an idea of respectable providence.

    That said, I don’t think it’s merely a matter of raw brain power. I think it is as much the capacity to hyper focus and work for extended periods of time. It’s a deep dive where you shut out everything but the code. Don’t forget your Adderall.

    Note, such engineers can be very productive, but they can be very difficult to work with. Any distraction can drive them into a rage. So managing such people has a cost beyond measuring salary-versus-lines-of-working-code. Also, pity the poor bastard who has to maintain that code over the ensuing years. It is very often needlessly complex, and the documentation only runs on the brain of the original engineer.

    When I was younger, I could produce code like that (even without Adderall). Nowadays, it takes a heavy toll on my soul. I can still be productive, but I’m not going home Friday thinking about a problem, and then arriving at work Monday morning having solved that problem during a 40-hour brain surge over the weekend. At one time I could do that, but not now.

    On other other hand, I’ve seen everything, so even terrible complex software doesn’t scare me. I rarely encounter something that intimidates me. (The code base I work on is 600k lines of Common Lisp and 400k lines of C++. It’s about fifteen years old. Needless to say, it’s hellishly complex.)

    Plus, even if I take longer to produce code, my coworkers hate me less. I don’t freak out, or fight over minutia, or generate freakish towers of hyper-logic that only I understand.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d
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      says:

      I want you to know that in spite of my comment above that is disparaging of the “10x” idea, I am not at all skeptical about your narrative description of a certain type of programmer, who is able to pass certain difficult thresholds, and is maybe 2 or 3 times more productive than other programmers.

      I am also boggling at the notion that someone started a project in Common LISP in 2005. That seems to say a lot about what it does, too. Sounds like some pretty unique stuff, stuff that has something in common with the work of Margaret Hamilton, for instance.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay
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        says:

        Note, I didn’t start the project. I’ve only been working on it for about five years now. I’m starting to kind of understand a bit of it.

        Anyway, we search for airline flights and fares, which sounds like it should be pretty easy, but given 1) the complexity of the industry’s filing practices and 2) the need for real time inventory management, together make it a really tricky problem. This is a 2009 slide deck that discusses the complexity: http://www.ai.mit.edu/courses/6.034f/psets/ps1/airtravel.pdf

        (When I first got hired, they sent me that document to see if I was actually interested. I was.)

        Myself, I mostly work on the “reshop” product, which airlines use to change an existing ticket. We have to reconstruct the original data from what the airlines provide, and then using the restrictions on the original fares, try to find a (near) optimal solution that satisfies the customer’s desired change. Usually it’s simply changing the dates of the return flight of a round trip, but it can get very complex. For example, a customer might have a trip booked from Boston to New York to London to Johannesburg, and then back through Milan to Boston. If they want to change the Johannesburg-Milan leg to a Johannesburg-Paris leg, with the ensuing changes to the return Boston flight, it can be complex figuring out 1) if they can change the ticket, and 2) how much that should cost.

        It’s much fun. However, showing up with the “10x programmer” nerd bullshit is not going to work.Report

        • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d
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          says:

          Ok, that’s not what I thought specifically, but it does have an AI-ish quality that corresponds to using LISP. Which I also thought!

          These days I tend to think that anything done in LISP can be done just as well in Javascript using a package like Ramda. But legacy code is legacy code and it works just as well as it did when it was first written.

          Here’s an interesting train of thought: Even though in college and grad school I was very mathy and loved optimization type problems such as these, I’ve never worked on them professionally. I’ve done a lot of systems-oriented work instead. In spite of being a mathy/algorithms guy.

          And the funniest part, which seems relevant, is that the biggest-impact, highest-visibility thing I ever did was redo a companies software update system. It turned something that took 6 people an entire evening to do one site into something that one person could for two sites in one evening. None of that required “big brains”. Just a lot of tough slogging and determination to get all the details right and working smoothly.

          Is that 10X programming?Report

          • Avatar veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay
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            says:

            Is that 10X programming?

            Sure, why not. 🙂

            I like {whatshisname’s} mantra: “smart and gets things done.” The whole “10x” has morphed into nerd self indulgence and excuses for terrible behavior. “Smart and gets things done” is as valuable, but more humble.

            Oh, and nothing but Lisp is Lisp. A lot of modern languages have tried to become more Lisp-like, but they aren’t Lisp. On the other hand, Common Lisp, which is what I use, is a horrible brainfuck of terror that was spat from the void by an evil god who hates us. But Lisp remains Lisp, and nothing else is Lisp.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to veronica d
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      says:

      That said, I don’t think it’s merely a matter of raw brain power.

      I’m old, and programmed back in the day when a 10x spread among the programmers in a shop was not unusual (The Mythical Man-Month was a new book; so was Weinberg’s Psychology of Computer Programming, which never got as much credit as it should have). Sometimes it was sheer brainpower. Often that was a matter of “trick” memory — some people could hold a ridiculous amount of the overall structure of the code in their heads, all at once. Often it was domain knowledge — much programming was done by domain experts rather than dedicated coders. It was a time that didn’t include the enormous collections of libraries that are available today — the task might include re-inventing a number of wheels. Most of the 10x people had their own libraries tucked away so they didn’t do that. Lots of less-usual tools existed but were not widely known — regular expressions, compiler-compilers, etc. The only time I was accused of being one of the 10x people was when I made use of those types of tool, and only had to write a tenth as much code as everyone expected.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        I’m definitely the “trick memory” sort of person. At least, I’ve had a number of coworkers tell me I have a ridiculous amount of short term memory. Instead of 7-plus-or-minus-2, I think I do more like 15-plus-or-minus-2.

        I also like to do math problems without using paper. I used to get a bit drunk, grab a calculus text, and try to solve all the “methods of integration” problems in my head without using paper. I think doing this trained my brain to hold a lot at once.

        (That’s totally true. I used to really do that. While drunk. I’m weird.)Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to veronica d
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      says:

      One can not stress enough the value of well commented/documented code. If your 10X programmer is brilliant and creates code that is incredibly valuable, but fails to document it, it’s value will quickly fade should they no longer be available to maintain said code.

      I’ve mentioned before the one developer we had in our group who was crazy smart. Wrote really tight, compact code that got the job done is very interesting ways. And she never documented any of it, and was very vocal with her attitude of, “If you can’t understand my code, you aren’t a real developer and you should be fired.”

      Guess who got fired (or, rather, she was strongly encouraged to find employment elsewhere).

      Right now, one of the projects I am responsible for is a tool a number of our big customers love (car makers here and in Japan), as it solves a rather niche problem for them. It was written by a mechanical engineer who decided to retire a few years back. A mechanical engineer who taught himself C 30+ years ago, and followed up with some C++ and Java, so I have a tool written in C, C++, and Java, by a guy with no formal training on how to design code, and who documented, maybe, if I am being VERY generous, 5% of the code.

      Bug hunts are a freaking nightmare. Don’t even talk to me about feature enhancements. I’ve occasionally called in some of our very experienced C++ developers for help tracking something down, and even they get stumped with regard to what the code is doing.

      The 10x programmer is only that valuable when left their own devices. Once you put them in a team with normal humans, they either have to degrade their performance considerably so everyone else can keep up, or they so degrade everyone else’s performance that they become a liability.

      And, honestly, such people are often so difficult to work with, even if you had a team of them, it would be like herding cats, and the overall performance would still be degraded.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        I’ve mentioned before the one developer we had in our group who was crazy smart. Wrote really tight, compact code that got the job done is very interesting ways. And she never documented any of it, and was very vocal with her attitude of, “If you can’t understand my code, you aren’t a real developer and you should be fired.”

        Good grief.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Very little in software is ever totally discarded, and your own code can come back and bite you in the butt. I once threw together a bit of code to handle the peculiar timing issues of an early laser printer. It required specific delays in the data flow under some circumstances or it barfed. I figured it was a one-off and would be tossed soon (as in weeks). Five years later I got a phone call from someone who had been charged with updating that code to handle the timing oddities of their new laser printer. Apparently some computer center had bundled up useful bits of code and passed them around all of the offshoot companies when the Bell System was split up.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          I was talking with a co-worker about just that last week, how there is a non-zero chance that some bit of code we wrote years ago is still chugging away somewhere.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            says:

            Running in a command-line window on my computer is a little program called scraps. It replaces all the little scraps of paper you write something on and then promptly lose. I wrote the first version 34 years ago, plus-or-minus one. It’s in absolutely vanilla C, and over the decades I’ve ported it to every operating system I’ve used. It makes as few assumptions about the underlying platform as possible. I use it every day.Report

  3. Avatar CJColucci
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    says:

    I’m not sure what it means to be 10X the basketball player someone else is. Certainly if I, a slow-footed 5’7″ man eligible for Social Security and having no jump shot went one-on-one against LeBron James, he would score against me at will and I would be extremely lucky to get a single basket against him. Does that make him a (near) infinitely better basketball player than I am? If I were ten times the player I now am, however one might measure that, the result would probably still be nearly the same.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to CJColucci
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      says:

      Plausibly, you could set up sabermetrics type algorithm that compared salary versus potential profit in some betting network. You would have to adjust for the fact Basketball is a team sport, and therefor probably has synergistic effects between players on a team, but I think we can imagine ranking players that way — with a suitable set of provisos.

      But your point is a good one. Being able to fit a power-law versus normal distribution requires measurable quantities.Report

  4. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    The amount of wealth that can be accumulated through labor and skill alone is never enough to be vaulted above maybe a few millions.

    At some point, the power of finance and politics themselves become the driver of the accumulation.Report

  5. Avatar JS
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    says:

    The first step to being a billionaire is, of course, to be born the child of one. If you cannot manage this, endeavor to be born the child of millionaires closing in on that billion.

    A surprising percentage of “self-made millionaires/billionaires” started on third base, as it were. Although I suppose to make the metaphor apt, they started the 9th inning ahead 100-0, and the opposing team is blindfolded.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to JS
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      says:

      A surprising percentage “self-made millionaires/billionaires” started on third base, as it were.

      What percentage?Report

      • Avatar JS in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        Of American billionaires? About half total inherited or were given at least a million in start-up capital. About half of those (21% or so of the total) were born on home plate, as it were — given or inherited their first billion.

        So depends on where you define “third base” — if it’s “Born to wealthy enough parents that they can give you your first million” then half.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to JS
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          says:

          That seems surprisingly low to me. Making a billion dollars in a single generation is hard, but growing $50 million into a billion over a couple generations seems relatively easy. A priori, I would expect a solid majority of billionaires to have inherited at least $50 million or so.

          Also, given the ratio of millionaires to billionaires in the US (about 30,000 to 1), I don’t think starting with a million dollars is even close to being analogous to starting on third base. I mean, I’ve saved up about half a million dollars, and I don’t see a clear path to turning that into $500 million in my lifetime. You inherit $100 million, sure, you can just park that in an index fund for 30 years or so. But you have to work pretty hard and pretty smart to turn a million into a billion.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I work with a handful of 10x better people.

    I do what I can to buy them breakfast burritos and donuts. I know that just the tiniest nudge of productivity on their part will benefit my team immeasurably.

    As for billionaires… well, they got lucky. I can appreciate the argument that their reward for their luck is completely and totally outsized compared to the value they added.

    But I look at someone like Bezos and Amazon and how many packages show up at our house in any given month and think that we’re far from outliers there… and, yeah, Bezos directly benefits my life.

    And then I look at ISS, Inc v. Busk and think that the richest guy in the world could have his morality and ethics improved by reading “A Tale Of Two Cities” again. No matter how many lives he has also improved.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      Even for a guy like Bezos or Larry Page and Sergei Brin (founders and inventors of Google). I don’t begrudge them the money, they did something that has a big, big impact and helps me every day.

      AND, they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes your luck is in what year you were born.

      I ain’t a billionaire, but I’ve done better than most. I can’t say whether I deserve it. I am smart, and I’ve done things that were smart moves, and I’ve worked hard (love that Ezra Klein quote), but I do know I’ve been lucky in several ways.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Doctor Jay
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        says:

        But that’s just the thing, is that Jeff Bezos DIDN’T do the thing that changes your life every day.

        Like most entrepreneurs he had a few very bright insights that made his company successful where others failed.

        But almost from the start, the actual work and innovation and bright ideas which followed weren’t from Bezos, but from his employees. He doesn’t actually “run” the company any more, he couldn’t possibly. What he does is manage a small team of executives, who then manage a larger team of managers, who actually run the company.

        Like most billionaires, his wealth is not from a voluntary exchange of labor for capital. Most often, the bulk of the wealth is from ownership share in the company.

        That is to say, its the legal structure which protects the copyright and patents which drives the accumulation of wealth. This isn’t to say they are necessarily unjust.

        Just that the pile of wealth didn’t arise as the compensation for 1,000,000,000X employee.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          This is our own little horseshoe effect… we (that is some of us on the idiosyncratic right) agree that the rules and structures of the politico-economy are mis-aligned.

          Where, perhaps, we disagree is thinking that taxing Bezos and the “billionaire class” rather than realigning the incentives and laws so that all the contributors to the corporate enterprise structurally incorporated as stakeholders is a better way.

          {I should note that this is neither Sander’s 20% plan nor Warren’s 40% corporate board plan… we’d say both of those are constrained by 1970s notions that don’t address modern circumstances, nor take advantage of new technologies nor address the underlying structural issues}Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Marchmaine
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            says:

            Which is why I often harp on the rules and structures such as IP and inheritance which are such big drivers of wealth accumulation.

            We, collectively as a society, just accept the continual expansion and prolongation of IP out into eternity, and we just accept inherited wealth.
            But there isn’t any reason to do so, or at least, not without a robust challenge.

            We also just accept the corporate form of business and forget that it was created to benefit society. We could, with a stroke of the pen, pass a law that the corporate form of business will only be legally recognized if it conforms to certain provisions such as profit sharing and caps on its maximum size.Report

            • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Chip Daniels
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              says:

              Clearly we have to schedule a meeting of the Idiosyncratic Comintern because while I understand your concerns about IP and Inheritance, comrade… they don’t even rate for me as things we’d start with first.

              On the matter of Corporate Charters… there’s room for fruitful discussions.

              Though as a business owner, the idea of profit sharing just makes me chuckle… profit is just stuff left over after I’ve decided not to repurpose it elsewhere. I own the profits and can make them come and go as I please. Ask Hollywood if they negotiate on profits or percent of gross.Report

            • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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              says:

              The importance of inheritance is overestimated because, in reality, most heirs are unable to preserve let alone expand their assets.

              https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2019/06/24/amazing-facts-that-prove-inheritance-is-mostly-overrated-as-a-reason-for-wealth/#2ffa21881eca

              Two thirds of the wealthy are “self made”, their heirs mostly lose the money. So… given that they’re created mostly by providing vast amounts of economic benefit to the masses, why are a Billionaries a bad thing?Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Dark Matter
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                says:

                (Same Link)

                scientists Robert Arnott, William Bernstein and Lillian Wu in their research paper “The Myth of Dynastic Wealth: The Rich Get Poorer.” Their key findings include the following: “The average wealth erosion for the 10 wealthiest families of 1930, 1957, and 1968… was 6.6 percent, 5.3 percent, and 8.7 percent, respectively. These figures correspond to a half-life of wealth—the length of time it takes for half of the family fortune to be redistributed within society through taxation, spending, and charitable giving—of 10 years, 13 years, and (remarkably) 8 years, respectively.”Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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                says:

                If that’s true, then what’s wrong with establishing a cap on maximum inheritance since most of them won’t keep it anyway?Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                I’m sure plenty of muggers use the same logic. “It’s not like they can take it with them when they go!”Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                What would be the purpose and justification for this?Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      As for billionaires… well, they got lucky.

      Luck. Good health. Skill. Tallent. Right place right time. A willingness to take risks with crazy amounts of money. And providing some benefit to the masses.

      Everything needs to line up to make this happen.Report

  7. Avatar Aaron David
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    says:

    Neither the 10x programmer nor the tall poppy are what makes up a billionaire. They are simply better at what they are doing, right now and right there.

    And it isn’t luck. Its the ability to rewrite the rules. Which in turn takes being able to see the rules and how the can be rewritten.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Aaron David
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      says:

      There’s no way around the Pareto distribution when small differences in talent, initiative, knowledge, or luck can affect outcomes. Equality is easy in a herd of grazers, but the more complicated a system becomes, the more unequal the outcomes will be. Marxism and other schemes don’t even touch the fundamental problem that skills and success won’t evenly distribute, and the more important skill becomes, the more unequal the distribution of outcomes is going to be.Report

  8. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    says:

    Interesting post, I enjoyed reading it!!Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    I’ll stick to the sports analogy because I know that better.

    “Basketball” isn’t a single skill. Being an elite basketball player is really about being elite at a number of things.

    Go down to your local courts and you’ll likely see a bunch of guys that can shoot. And a bunch of guys that can dunk. Some guys will have good handle. A few might be exceptionally tall. Others exceptionally fast. A few will have “high basketball IQ”. And court vision. Etc.

    LeBron? LeBron is probably in the 99.9th percentile for ALL of these skills. Which is why he is in the NBA. Those other guys are only probably very good at one, maybe two of those things. Which is why they’re still on the local court and probably peaked in high school or maybe college.

    Does this theory posit that each of these skills is subject to the power law dynamic? Some of them? Or does the power law dynamic tend to emerge in an area where multiple skills must come together to place someone on the far end? I mean, simple math would dictate the reason we see so few elite athletes… imagine five skills necessary to be elite. If even a 95th percentile ability in each is required, you’re only going to see .000031% of the population be top 5% percentile in all 5 (assuming they’re independent of each other, which may or may not be a fair assumption).

    Some of this is harder to see in the course of the game because even among the elites, there is a wide range and the competitive aspect of the sport factors in. There are “bad” shooters in the NBA. Take Ben Simmons, who famously refuses to shoot from 3 because of his inability, doubt in his ability, or a combination thereof. Ben Simmons is a “bad” NBA shooter. And yet you can find video of him in the gym sinking 3s at a far higher rate than I could. Simmons is probably a better shooter than like 90 or 95% of humans. But in game conditions, he pales in comparison to the guys even better than him. So even when these guys are “bad”, they’re still obscenely exceptionally good.Report

  10. Avatar Michael Siegel
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    says:

    Bill James has written about this pretty extensively. He was pointing out that Pedro Martinez wasn’t *dramatically* better at any part of the game than other pitchers. But he was maybe 10-20% better in so many different things, it added up to being one of the most dominant pitchers in history.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Michael Siegel
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      says:

      I’ll have to look for that.

      Sports can be funny. Sometimes being a +
      B+ at everything makes you a C+ player, because you need to be elite somewhere to be good. And sometimes that same arrangement can make you an A+ player because you lack any weaknesses that can be limiting or exploited.Report

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