David Brooks Responds to Readers: The Structures of Growth

David Brooks, Op-Ed columnist, answered a few questions posed by commenters about his latest column, The Structures of Growth.

Q. Citixen:

“Kids increasingly flock to logarithmic sports, like soccer, over exponential sports, like baseball.” What?? These are just judgment calls, David. Just because soccer seems superficially to be about kicking a ball around a field doesn’t mean it’s logarithmic next to baseball. There are intrinsic lessons and skills to be learned in each sport that affect your judgment about what category they belong to, but as you so aptly ended your essay, you have to expand your analysis beyond the individual skills needed in each sport. (It helps to have some experience in the activity one is categorizing.) I think your analysis holds up better when comparing altogether different activities, rather than variations on a same basic activity, like sports. Compare learning a musical instrument to playing soccer, or baseball.

“It does seem clear that our society celebrates fast-payoff instrumental activities, like sports and rock stardom, while undervaluing exponential activities, like being a statesman or craftsman.” Here you equate “celebrating” with “valuing” something. This shouldn’t just be presumed. Yes, we often celebrate the things we value, and vice versa. But many of our celebrations are known only through public display, while the things we value often are not. We don’t seem to value statesmen, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, or that we don’t want them. Other “growth structures” interfere with our individual appreciations, such that our view of them is distorted.

A. David Brooks:

Thanks for the smart feedback. I stand by my subjective judgment that soccer is a logarithmic sport while baseball is an exponential one — that is, you can take up soccer and play at a totally fun level right away but baseball has skills that are harder to master up front.

I say this having been an extremely mediocre but enthusiastic player in both sports, and I say this during these World Cup weeks, when each soccer match takes on a seeming historic importance that few baseball games ever achieve.

But I think it’s true. Baseball starts with two motions: a pitcher throwing a ball 45 or 60 feet into a box a few feet square. That is a very hard thing to do. Next, a batter with a stick has to hit that ball, which is coming with frightening inaccuracy. It takes years to perfect the techniques to perform those motions, which is why kiddie baseball starts out with coach pitch and machine pitch.

Soccer comes more easily, but as you improve it is harder and harder to become really good. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the greatest of all players, like Diego Maradona or Paul Gascoigne, seem a little mentally unusual. It is as if it takes a slightly off-kilter brain to be a really creative player. Baseball, at the upper reaches, does not reward minor madness; if anything it rewards the ability to not think.

As for celebrating people who succeed fast over people who succeed slowly. I take your nice distinction between celebrating and valuing. But I would say the people who are most highly valued are those like Mark Zuckerberg whose businesses took off with astonishing speed. We do not celebrate the sort of “Good to Great” leaders Jim Collins celebrates, who tend to be duller, more regular and more unassuming. Their success is gradual and bourgeois, not rapid and spectacular.

If you are in a new field, then your success is likely to be logarithmic. Either you have an idea that hits the moment that you execute well or you don’t. If you are in an established field, your success is more likely to be exponential. It’s about having a slightly superior awareness of the environment, which yields incremental advantages that accumulate over time.

Q. Stephen Beard

I wonder what Brooks thinks about such things as excellent athletic performance by a team — the San Antonio Spurs, for example. They are an ever-evolving group with a few mainstay players who somehow manage to remain at or near the top in the N.B.A. standings year after year despite having players who individually are little better than average than their competing peers throughout the league. What elevates a Boris Diaw, a good player before he joined the Spurs to a near transcendent player after becoming a member of that team? Does a logarithmic progression explain this, or is it more an exponential growth occasioned by a coach and teammates who simply expect more and work very hard to make such growth possible by smart movement and equally smart creativity in positioning and selflessness for the good of the team?

A. David Brooks:

I wish I had a good answer for Stephen Beard. But I agree very much with the implication of his question. It is relatively easy to find talent; it is hard to form teams. In hiring I suspect most companies and organizations pay too much attention to the former and too little to the latter. I think the United States military is a giant and very effective exception.

Obviously good teams take advantage of each members comparative advantage, but there is something else going on here, some chemistry that leads to the inner transformation of individuals, providing bursts of confidence, bursts of loyalty to one another, bursts of hard work and commitment. I wish I understood it. The key to success is not found in the individual members but in the quality of the space between them. I can only note that a good team is based on some sort of mutual love, and we want to honor what we love and become what we love.

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