March 24th, 2013

Bedtime reading

Working hard won't guarantee success

A friend on Facebook had commented on a post (which meant I saw it in my newsfeed) in which the writer was praising himself for having got where he was today purely by his own hard work. If he'd left it at that, I'd have just rolled my eyes and moved on, but what made me angry was the way he was criticising those who live in poverty, saying it was their own fault for not working harder. According to him they should have applied themselves more, got themselves better trained or moved to where the jobs were. A quick glance at the numerous comments, mostly agreeing with him, led me to quickly hide the post before it raised my blood pressure to a dangerous level.

There was a time when I would have leapt in and tried to argue, but I've now decided that there are too many ill-informed idiots on the Internet and I pick my fights with great care these days.

Whilst hard work tends to lead to progress and better jobs and a better life, there are all sorts of factors that mean it's not a guaranteed road to success. I'm not going to go into detail here about the factors that can derail the most diligent and aspirational of people, but a rigid belief that anyone is capable of achieving their goals, simply by determination and hard work, is the downside of a society that claims to be a meritocracy. It leads to the belief that if people are in poverty and struggling, then it's entirely their own fault. If I can become a success and a best selling author, the poster said, then these people can better themselves too. But did he become a best-selling author entirely by his own efforts? Was it just down to his hard work and skill?

Which leads me to another link I came across today, about the success of the writer Hugh Howey and his best selling Wool series. Now I'd never heard of Howey or Wool and so I went to read some Amazon reviews of his book. Which led me to wonder, why this book? The plot (humans have been driven underground by some apocalypse that has made the world uninhabitable until one of them ventures outside and learns the truth) has been done umpteen times. I've used Amazon's Look Inside feature and the prose is fine, perfectly competent, but the first few pages didn't suck me in and want to buy the book. So why has Howey's book caught on while an old rasfc friend's novel didn't? Both started life as self-published books and unless Howey does something very unusual with a tired old trope, Gruff's book is much more original and better written. Did Howey work harder when he wrote his story? I suspect not, though admittedly he has now written quite a lot more in the Wool series.

And finally I came across this article about the Mechanical Turk, an 18th century automaton that played chess. (Bear with me, it is relevant!) It was, of course, a fraud. Concealed inside the base was a real chess player who actually played the game, but even those who, like Edgar Allen Poe, realised that's how it was done, still over-estimated the complexity of the problem and speculated about chess playing dwarfs or child prodigy chess players. But as Adam Gopnik explains:

"It turns out that the chess players who operated the Turk from inside were just chess players, an ever-changing sequence of strong but not star players, who needed the work badly enough to be willing to spend a week or a month inside its smoky innards. Maelzel picked up chess players on the run, wherever he happened to be, as Chuck Berry used to hire back-up bands on the road.

We always over-estimate the space between the uniquely good and the very good. [...]

The few people who do grasp that though there are only a few absolute masters, there are many, many masters right below them looking for work tend, like Maelzel, to profit greatly from it."

That sentence about always over-estimating the space between the uniquely good and the very good really chimed with me. This is why we think that anyone who becomes a best selling author should be a hugely better writer than the mid-list authors. (And perhaps this is why people get so offended when bad writers sell so well?) Yet actually, they're not necessarily much or indeed any better. Neither are they more hard working. They did, of course, have to write a reasonably decent book and they also need to keep doing it if they want to keep on being a best-selling author, but mostly they just had a huge amount of luck and somehow wrote what a lot of people wanted to buy. Or to put it another way, it was the large number of readers that made them into best-sellers, not the efforts of the writer.

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