Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hold On, We're Half Way There

Below is a list of "must-read books on words and language."  This may actually fall one step short of meta: books about language and words, which compose books, rather than books about full books themselves.

However, if I've done triple-layered meta as a blog topic, I feel entitled to also do stripped-back, not-quite-meta.

Besides, if the author titles it so, it must be so.  Right?  WRONG.  Well, that example aside then.

This is a BrainPickings repost

Meta: 5 Must-Read Books on Words & Language

by Maria Popova
What single Chinese men have to do with evolution and insults from Virginia Woolf.

We love, love, love words and language. And what better way to celebrate them than through the written word itself? Today, we turn to five of our favorite books on language, spanning the entire spectrum from serious science to serious entertainment value.
<="" a="" align="right" width="170">Harvard’s Steven Pinker is easily the world’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist, whose multi-faceted work draws on visual cognition, evolutionary science, developmental psychology and computational theory of mind to explain the origin and function of language. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature reverse-engineers our relationship with language, exploring what the words we use reveal about the way we think. The book is structured into different chapters, each looking at a different tool we use to manage information flow, from naming to swearing and politeness to metaphor and euphemism. From Shakespeare to pop songs, Pinker uses a potent blend of digestible examples and empirical evidence to distill the fundamental fascination of language: What we mean when we say.
Sample The Stuff of Thought with Pinker’s fantastic 2007 TED talk:
In 2009, The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring became an instant favorite with its enlightening and entertaining compendium of history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of mockery, contextualizing today’s era of snark-humor and equipping us with the shiniest verbal armor to thrive as victor knights in it. Last year, author Lawrence Dorfman released a worthy sequel: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries — a linguistic arsenal full of strategic instructions on how and when to throw the jabs of well-timed snark alongside a well-curated collection of history’s most skilled literary insult-maestros.
Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen
It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.” ~ Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone
I am reading Henry James… and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” ~ Virginia Woolf on Henry James
He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” ~ Capote on Faulkner
Ultimately, the book is the yellow brick road to what, deep down, you know you always knew you were: Better than everybody else. (Read our full review here.)
Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’
The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society.
As beautiful as the English language may be, it isn’t without insufficiencies. C. J. Moore’s curates the most poetic of them — rich words and phrases from other langauges that don’t have an exact translation in English, but convey powerful, deeply human concepts, often unique to the experience of the culture from which they came. (For instance, in Tierra del Fuego there is a specific word — mamihlapinatapei — for that an expressive, meaningful romantic silence between two people. And in China, gagung literally means “bare sticks” but signifies the growing population of men who will will remain unmarried because China’s one-child policy and unabashed preference for male progeny has reduced the proportion of women.)
Witty and illuminating, the book covers 10 different types of languages spanning across various eras and locales, from ancient and classical to indigenous to African to Scandinavian, digging to find the precious meanings lost in translation.
From researcher Jag Bhalla comes I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World — an entertaining piece of linguistic tourism, exploring how different cultures construct their worldview through the nuances of language.
The book is divided into different themes, from food to love to just about everything in between, that reveal specific cultural dispositions towards these subjects through the language in which they are framed.
And on a semi-aside, @hangingnoodles is a must-follow on Twitter, a treasure trove of interestingness at the intersection of science and culture.

Lobbying for Lobbyists, Spinning the Spinners

Lisbeth pointed me to this excellent meta lobbyist article, before I even realized that its author is my friend's roommate.  Small world, DC journalists writing about lobbying, small world.  And, a side note, I was going to post along with this post the first image that came up when I google-image-searched 'lobbyist,' but they were all so negative that I decided it went against the point of this article.  See for yourself.

Key excerpt:
In a city full of journalists, lawyers, and congressmen, lobbyists have kept an unfortunate claim on being the most despised profession in town. But unlike some of those other punching bags, they know what to do about it. For the past 30 years, the American League of Lobbyists has worked to dispel the stereotype of money-grubbing, briefcase-toting palm-greasers. They are the lobbyists’ lobbyists.
And the Young Lobbyists Network, with its cheerful happy hours, is Exhibit A in the campaign to change their public image—to spin the professional spinners.

The rest is reposted from Washington City Paper below - interesting read.

Lobbying for Lobbyists: Can happy hours change the public image of a reviled profession?
By Aaron Wiener on May 27, 2011

The crowd of well-dressed 20-somethings clustered around the bar at Vapiano in Chinatown is full of a strictly professional kind of good cheer. The men, with suits and well-knotted ties and names like Brent and Dakotah, drink Peroni and Pilsner Urquell. The women, in dresses and suit jackets, mostly sip wine. They introduce themselves with their first and last names and regale one another with stories from their work on Capitol Hill.

“In one of my lobbying meetings today,” says Dakotah Smith, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, “the Hart [Senate Office] Building got evacuated. It was one of their emergency drills. But we caught the staffer coming out of the building, so it was perfect.”

A knowing chuckle arises from the two or three lobbyists he’s addressing. The other 30 or so attendees of the Young Lobbyists Network’s recent monthly networking happy hour engage in similar banter as the hours slip pleasantly by.

In a city full of journalists, lawyers, and congressmen, lobbyists have kept an unfortunate claim on being the most despised profession in town. But unlike some of those other punching bags, they know what to do about it. For the past 30 years, the American League of Lobbyists has worked to dispel the stereotype of money-grubbing, briefcase-toting palm-greasers. They are the lobbyists’ lobbyists.

And the Young Lobbyists Network, with its cheerful happy hours, is Exhibit A in the campaign to change their public image—to spin the professional spinners.

“By providing young professionals with meaningful professional programs and social events,” explains the ALL website, “YLN will seek to raise positive awareness of the League’s core mission of helping Americans understand the critical roles that lobbyists play in our society.”

In recent years, with the Obama administration imposing tighter (if frequently circumvented) restrictions on lobbyists and watchdog groups applying greater scrutiny to the industry, lobbyists have fought back with a public relations effort to persuade the world of their good deeds. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “The amount of money spent lobbying about lobbying has steeply increased during the past decade, reaching $14.6 million in expenditures in 2009.” Just under a year ago, the ALL launched the YLN as part of its continued effort to demonstrate that lobbying isn’t a dirty profession—or a dirty word. Even the network’s name reflects the group’s efforts to turn lobbying into a badge of pride.

“It started as the Young Leadership Network,” says Brittany Carter, who serves on the YLN board and organizes the monthly happy hour. “We’re making a move to make it the Young Lobbyists Network. Just ’cause we’re like, ‘We’re not ashamed of that name.’”

And why should they be ashamed? If the YLNers are to be believed, lobbying is just about the noblest work around. Anthony Dale speaks with great passion about the lobbying firm he founded that specializes in juvenile criminal justice reform. Smith explains that his lobbying for Bayer focuses on making commercial buildings more energy-efficient. Chatting with the members of the YLN, you’d get the impression that lobbying for oil companies or big banks was a thing of the past. (Quick fact check: The finance, real estate, and insurance industries spent $475 million lobbying Congress last year, and energy and natural resource companies spent another $450 million.)

But when business hours simply won’t suffice to fight the good fight, these young lobbyists join together and devote their spare time to the cause. In July, members of the YLN will participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, about which they’re already battling to one-up each other in their excitement. (“I really like wearing a hard hat.” “It’s gonna be my first time. I’m jazzed.” “Oh really? It’s so much fun.”) Outreach, according to one of the young lobbyists, is one of the three pillars of the YLN’s mission, alongside mentoring and networking. But of this tripod stubbornly propping up the image of lobbyists as valuable members of society, it’s the networking pillar that’s the main support. By bringing the YLN together on a regular basis, the happy hours help young members of a profession reviled by the outside world connect to one another and reaffirm that most lobbyists are just normal people doing honest work.

“I think that the vast majority of lobbyists are like us in the room, maybe a few years older,” says Nate Smith, a lobbyist for the American Traffic Safety Services Association, which represents companies that make road safety products like highway guard rails. “And then there’s only a couple who are the traditional stereotype.”

At first glance, the Vapiano crowd could easily be a group of Hill staffers or non-profit workers, if perhaps a bit better dressed and coiffed. (Carter contests the latter notion: “Really? I just feel like everyone in Washington looks put-together.”) But few other organizations in town feel such a need to justify their existence and their members’ work. The young lobbyists of the YLN are all about it, at least in the presence of a reporter; after all, they’re message people. Case in point: The morning after the happy hour, I receive almost identically worded emails from two YLN members thanking me for attending and asking to see this story before it ran in the paper. Per Washington City Paper policy, I politely decline.

At times, the young lobbyists’ eagerness to buck the stereotype and prove their normalness smacks of Shakespearean protesting too much. Carter, after excusing herself to chat with “a long-lost friend, an old co-worker,” feels compelled to explain herself. “You may have seen him handing me $100,” she says. “No shady things—he was paying me for the Glee ticket we’re going to.”

Yes, lobbyists watch Glee, just like ten million other normal Americans. They also, as they point out, mostly don’t work on K Street these days, nor do they carry briefcases or smoke cigars.

“We’re young, and living in Washington, and no one makes a ton of money,” says Carter, straining credulity just a bit: The median salary for lobbyists in D.C., according to Salary.com, is $107,254 a year.

Of course, the bulk of the chatter at Vapiano has nothing to do with the lobbying industry or stealth meetings with congressional staffers. The lobbyists discuss the D.C. Council at-large special election, the utility of time capsules, the difficulties of wearing a ring that’s often confused for an engagement ring. When, halfway through the happy hour, the news breaks that Sen. John Ensign will resign, the lobbyists do what any good D.C. yuppies would, pulling out their smartphones en masse and prognosticating.

After two hours of schmoozing, the young lobbyists slowly begin to file out of Vapiano, onto their normal evenings as normal people. The next day will be another full of modest-paying work, far from K Street, as they and their young, ambitious colleagues fight to make the world a better place—one bill at a time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Coffee table book about coffee tables

Thanks to Junayd for this hit blog post idea.

The ONLY better, more meta coffee table book would be a book about coffee table books.  But shh.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Question about a Question

I receive a text from Erik, my little brother.

Erik: What is a question?

Thinking I'm clever, I respond:
An expression of curiosity.

But apparently (obviously), I was supposed to realize it was meta!  Oops...  Erik is good at this.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Community: the Sitcom.

This is an Atlantic repost, by Hampton Stevens -

The Meta, Innovative Genius of 'Community'
It's one of the most inventive shows in sitcom history. But can it make us care about the characters?

Community is the most innovative sitcom of all time.

Wait! Hold on. Don't pummel the comments section with rants about All in the Family and Cheers just yet. "Most innovative" doesn't necessarily mean the best. It doesn't mean the NBC show, which airs the conclusion of its two-part season finale tonight, is the funniest sitcom ever, or has the most memorable characters. Community's protagonist Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, is no charming scamp like Sam Malone. Jeff and Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs, are certainly not a classic sitcom couple that audiences will root for like Sam and Diane. Or Ross and Rachel. Or Jim and Pam, Niles and Daphne, Dave and Maddie, Mulder and Scully, Jeannie and Major Nelson, and so on.

Jeff and Britta, in fact, are an appalling pair. Deliberately so, and that's one of the things that makes Community so unique. Jeff and Britta aren't a "real" sitcom couple at all—if such a thing can even be said to exist. They are a satire of sitcom couple. Their courtship is a plot device that Community creator Dan Harmon uses to satirize the whole, done-to-death will-they-or-won't-they sitcom premise.

On the literal level, Community is about Jeff Winger. A smarmy attorney disbarred for faking his undergraduate degree, he enrolls at fictional Greendale Community College to get one. There he finds a motley bunch of students played by a very talented group of actors, including Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Danny Pudi, and future mother to my children, Alison Brie. The crew forms an unlikely study group, and an even unlikelier family dynamic ensues.

Figuratively, however, Community is about something else entirely. The show's real subject is mass media, especially the conceits, tropes, and conventions of TV and movies. Just as Jeff and Britta aren't a real TV courtship, Community isn't actually a sitcom—not any more than The Onion is an actual news-gathering organization. Community, instead, is a weekly satire of the sitcom genre, a spoof of pop culture in general, and an occasionally profound critique of how living in mass media society can mess up human relationships in the real world. It's also funny, too. Some of that "profound critique" comes disguised in the form of boob jokes.

Sure, All in the Family was innovative for its time, tackling issues like Vietnam and Watergate that no other show would touch. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking, too, not only for its feminist message, but for being the first sitcom to have truly ensemble cast. Virtually every one of those talented actors went on to star in shows of their own. Ed Asner in Lou Grant. Valerie Harper in Rhoda. Gavin MacLeod captained The Love Boat for ten years. Ted Knight's Too Close for Comfort ran six. Cloris Leachman is still on TV an amazing 30 years later, playing a delusional grandma on Raising Hope. The Great Betty White, of course, has never stopped working, from Mama's Family and Golden Girls to this year's appearance as special guest star on Community's season premiere. When Dan Harmon, previously head writer for The Sarah Silverman Program, talks about not wanting to make a "template sitcom," he's talking about breaking the template Mary made.

Other than worshipful respect for Betty White, however, Community has less in common with Mary than with another 1970s classic: M*A*S*H. The sitcom set in the Korean War that lasted far longer than the war itself never stopped finding new ways to tell a story. Ignore for a moment the show's moralizing drumbeat, especially in later years. Ignore, too, that some of that famously sparkling dialogue was cribbed from the Marx Brothers. If there was a new camera angle, an untried lighting effect, or an experimental plot device, M*A*S*H would give it a go. Think of an innovation in TV storytelling over the last 40 years, and M*A*S*H probably tried it first. Decades before The Office and Modern Family, they shot fake-documentary episodes, with handheld cinema verite feel and characters making confessional asides. They shot an episode in real time, 24-style, complete with ticking clock onscreen, another that covered an entire year in the life of the camp, and "Point of View," in which all the action is seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier.

In the 1980's, the sitcom changed. When Baby Boomers started having kids, they turned away from broad social issues, worrying less about saving the world, and more about personal relationships at home and work. Television reflected that Reagan-era cultural retrenchment, and the socially-conscious, experimental sitcom fell out of favor. It was replaced by straightforward family or pseudo-family comedies, typified by Cheers, Newhart, and, of course, The Cosby Show. Other than an occasional—and usually lamentable—"Very Special Episode," '80s sitcoms avoided any problem in the world bigger than Vanessa Huxtable wanting to quit the clarinet.

These shows were sealed off from each other, too, and from the rest of pop culture. Beyond that TV staple, the wildly implausible guest star appearance, like when Dizzy Gillespie plays Vanessa's music teacher, '80s sitcoms were loathe to acknowledge other mass media, too. The characters never went to movies or rock concerts like the rest of us. They never wore t-shirts emblazoned with advertising for shoe companies and soft drinks. With the notable exception of Roseanne, they also never showed characters doing something that most Americans, then and now, enjoy for several hours a day: watching television.

In 1989, The Simpsons exploded into pop consciousness and changed everything. Marge and Homer, working class Baby Boomer parents with three Generation X kids, were the first family on TV to address the problems of living in a mass society. The Simpsons were first to capture how it feels to live in an America utterly saturated by mass media, where kids are casually obsessed with hyper-violent cartoons, and someone you will never meet, like a local anchorman, plays an intimate role in your daily life. The Simpsons, in essence, were the first characters on TV to be as dramatically affected by pop culture as the rest of us.

By the mid-1990's, the first wave of Generation X was hitting 30. Bart and Lisa's cohort, the first generation to never know a world without TV, was old enough to start writing TV shows of their own. References to pop culture started pouring into the once hermetically sealed sitcom world. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, characters would casually mention movie stars and rock bands. Jerry Seinfeld got in trouble for making out with his girlfriend during Schindler's List. Eric on That '70s Show imagined himself as Luke Skywalker.

By the 2000s, shows were doing more than just incorporating pop culture. They were making fun if it. South Park and Arrested Development, the only real rivals to Community's meta-comedy crown, mocked the conventions of film and TV. A whole wave of "backstage" shows, including The Flight of the Conchords, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, satirized the entertainment industry from the inside. Maybe the best of them, premiering in 2006, is 30 Rock.

Tina Fey is a brilliant innovator—Lisa Simpson all grown up—and there is no question 30 Rock built the road Community drives on. Still, for all of 30 Rock's meta-humor and nods to the audience, it's a fairly conventional workplace comedy at heart. Essentially it's a reworked version of Mary Tyler Moore, with Tina Fey in Mary's role, Alec Baldwin as the Lou Grant-like figure, and Tracy Morgan reprising Ted Baxter.

Community is Something Completely Different, and its relationship to 30 Rock is more than a little like that of The Colbert Report to The Daily Show.

Where Jon Stewart's show makes fun of pundits, The Colbert Report is, in itself, a spoof of punditry. In the same way, Dan Harmon, Bart Simpson all grown up, isn't making a sitcom. He's making a parody of them.

That difference was made vivid a few weeks back when both shows aired a "clip show," TV's version of a victory lap, where characters recall past events as a pretext for cutting to highlights of past episodes. 30 Rock, celebrating five years on the air, wove their clips around the wafer-thin premise of Tracy wanting to destroy his own credibility.

Community's clip show, ladies and germs, was a new whole different kettle of fish ball wax. First we see the study group making yet another diorama for Anthropology class. This one, though, depicts the study group in the act of making a diorama—just a hint of the Charlie Kaufman-ish weirdness to come.

The cast starts reminiscing and flashing back, but there's something odd about the clips we flash back to. They aren't highlights. They are all-new, shot to look like highlights, and we are "remembering" events that never aired. We weren't shown crucial stuff, apparently, too. Like during the Halloween episode. We flashback to the cast wearing the same costumes on the same set, but this time see that Jeff and Britta's "Will they or won't they?" has been an "already did" for months.

Then it gets really weird. We start genre-hoping, jumping from template to template. We see the cast jump from a "memory" of mocking Glee, to another where they visited a Scooby-Doo-style ghost town, to another of being held at gunpoint by a drug lord, to finally wearing straight-jackets in a padded cell. The scenes flicker at a ever faster pace, all the while Jeff's valedictory, what-did-we-learn today speech effortlessly adapts to each.

Community, it seems, didn't a make a clip show after all. They made a spoof of clip shows, and there's a good reason Harmon ended it in a padded cell. Too much media consciousness will make anyone go crazy.

In Jorge Luis Borges' fable "On Exactitude in Science," a map made on a scale of one to one replaces the territory it's supposed to represent. For theorist Jean Baudrillard, that map is a metaphor for postmodern life. On Community, that map represents mass media: the depictions of human experience in pop culture that have become the standards by which our flesh and blood lives are judged.

In Community's pilot, Pudi's character tells Jeff, "I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you're more like Michael Douglas in any of his films." The audience only gets the joke if they have seen Bill Murray play a wise-cracking slacker hero and Michael Douglas playing a creep. But real human beings, like Greendale's mascot, are more complicated than fictional characters. Real human relationships take more than 22 minutes of witty banter a week. In an age when even the simplest human interaction is colored by media-created expectations, when our flesh-and-blood romantic relationships are judged against the standards of TV and movie love affairs, Community asks if it's even still possible to make an authentic connection?

Probably not. But we shouldn't quit trying. Neither should Community. The danger, for people, and for this remarkable TV show, is in no longer trying to authentically connect. Consider a very different kind of sitcom. How I Met Your Mother, nearing the end of a hugely successful run, hasn't been on the air for nearly a decade because it wittily critiques life in the mass media consumerist simulacrum. How I Met Your Mother thrives because audiences feel emotionally connected to the characters on it.

If Community forgets that, they're in trouble. No matter how inventive they may be, if the sight gags, puns, one-liners, pop culture name-drops and media-on-media meta-critique overwhelm the relationships between characters, Community will take a one-way trip to Flash-in-the-pan-ville. If the show, in a gargantuan irony, stops offering viewers a sense of community, all the innovation in the world won't keep us watching.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Au revoir.

Taking a break from the blog until June for a trip to Istanbul and then REUNIONS!!!

See you en juin.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Q&A About Meta

Due to some recent confusion about what indeed constitutes 'meta,' here is a fun little quiz I devised at your disposal.  Here you will see the thought process I go through daily...

Q: Would the blog 'Stuffwhitepeoplelike' be meta? Since it's white people talking about stuff white people like?
A: yes.

Q: Is volunteering to volunteer meta?
A: yes, probably

Q: Are charts about sex meta?
A: No.
Elaborate A:
i want to say yes. but i dont think so. am i missing something?
charts about charts = meta
sex about sex = waht's that?
sex while watching sex = meta
but not quite there.
lady's source:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Decisions to be Made

All, I'm slowing down on blogging this week, not sure why.  Maybe I got a bit of a life?  Anyways.

What would you think about me switching this over to a blog about 'decisions to be made' - there are so many!  And don't you always wonder WHO makes such decisions?  I might not get all the answers but I'm sure I could dig up some - or if not, ask the question.

-who in an office building decides at what temperature the rooms should be set, or is there some law or building manager code all in the building must follow?

-when you are on the bus and you see "irving and mount pleasant" stop illuminate above the driver in the bus abbreviated "irvng and mt p" - is there one person whose job it is to pour through all stop  names in an entire bus system and decide which vowels to drop?

-traffic lights; is it semi random how long each one is green for, especially at those intersections where you feel like you are waiting forever for your light even though no one is coming for miles in either direction, so you just hope it's for some greater better reason, well thought out and alleviating traffic down the road for miles to come?  Maybe it is super well reasoned, based on tons of data and studies, and by who?

Readers if you can answer any of my questions, please do in the comments.... and, thoughts on the topic?

Poetry about Poetry

With no further ado, I present to you Poetics by A. R. Ammons. I do like a good poem during a relatively somber time such as this.  Thanks Kaleena.

A.R. Ammons

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper -- though
that, too -- but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

(a poem about form, about the poetry of nature, yes?)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

True Grit


It's an article about how people can be born with the talent to work hard.  It's meta in that talent for hard word breeds other talent.  A talent for cultivating talents.

The repost:

Which Traits Predict Success? (The Importance of Grit)

What are the causes of success? At first glance, the answer is easy: success is about talent. It’s about being able to do something – hit a baseball, play chess, trade stocks, write a blog – better than most anyone else. That’s a fine answer, but it immediately invites another question: What is talent? How did that person get so good at hitting a baseball or trading stocks? For a long time, talent seemed to be about inheritance, about the blessed set of genes that gave rise to some particular skill. Einstein had the physics gene, Beethoven had the symphony gene, and Tiger Woods (at least until his car crash) had the golf swing gene. The corollary, of course, is that you and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or composers, or golf pros, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has shifted. It turns out that the intrinsic nature of talent is overrated – our genes don’t confer specific gifts. (There is, for instance, no PGA gene.) This has led many researchers, such as K. Anders Ericsson, to argue that talent is really about deliberate practice, about putting in those 10,000 hours of intense training (plus or minus a few thousand hours). Beethoven wasn’t born Beethoven – he had to work damn hard to become Beethoven. As Ericsson wrote in his influential review article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”: “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

That’s interesting, right? Talent is about practice. Talent takes effort. Talent requires a good coach. But these answers only raise more questions. What, for instance, allows someone to practice for so long? Why are some people so much better at deliberate practice? If talent is about hard work, then what factors influence how hard we can work?

The ability to ask these questions, to peel away layers of explanation, is one of the reasons I’m drawn to the psychological sciences. And this leads me to one of my favorite recent papers, “Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee.” The research, published this month in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science,  was led by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at Penn. (Anders-Ericsson is senior author.) The psychologists were interested in the set of traits that allowed kids to practice deliberately. Their data set consisted of 190 participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a competition that requires thousands of hours of practice. After all, there are no natural born spellers.

The first thing Duckworth, et. al. discovered is that deliberate practice works. Those kids who spent more time in deliberate practice mode – this involved studying and memorizing words while alone, often on note cards – performed much better at the competition than those children who were quizzed by others or engaged in leisure reading. The bad news is that deliberate practice isn’t fun and was consistently rated as the least enjoyable form of self-improvement. Nevertheless, as spellers gain experience, they devote increasing amounts of time to deliberate practice. This suggests that even twelve year olds realize that this is what makes them better, that success isn’t easy.

But that still begs the question: Why were some kids better at drilling themselves with note cards? What explained this variation in hours devoted to deliberate practice? After analyzing the data, Duckworth discovered the importance of a psychological trait known as grit. In previous papers, Duckworth has demonstrated that grit can be reliably measured with a short survey that measures consistency of passions (e.g., ‘‘I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest’’) and consistency of effort (e.g., ‘‘Setbacks don’t discourage me’’) over time using a 5-point scale. Not surprisingly, those with grit are more single-minded about their goals – they tend to get obsessed with certain activities – and also more likely to persist in the face of struggle and failure. Woody Allen famously declared that “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. Grit is what allows you show up again and again. Here are the scientists:
Our major findings in this investigation are as follows: Deliberate practice—operationally defined in the current investigation as the solitary study of word spellings and origins—was a better predictor of National Spelling Bee performance than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading. With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance.
There are two interesting takeaways from this study. The first is that there’s a major contradiction between how we measure talent and the causes of talent. In general, we measure talent using tests of maximal performance. Think, for instance, of the NFL Combine: Players perform in short bursts (40 yard dash, short IQ test, catching drills, etc.) under conditions of high motivation. The purpose of the event is to see what players are capable of, to determine the scope of their potential. The problem with these tests, however, is that the real world doesn’t resemble the NFL Combine.  Instead, success in the real world depends on sustained performance, on being able to work hard at practice, and spend the weekend studying the playbook, and reviewing hours of game tape. Those are all versions of deliberate practice, and our ability to engage in such useful exercises largely depends on levels of grit. The problem, of course, is that grit can’t be measured in a single afternoon on a single field. (By definition, it’s a metric of personality that involves long periods of time.) The end result is that our flawed beliefs about talent have led to flawed tests of talent. Perhaps that explains why there is no “consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance.” We need to a test that measures how likely people are to show up, not just how they perform once there.

The second takeaway involves the growing recognition of “non-cognitive” skills like grit and self-control. While such traits have little or nothing to do with intelligence (as measured by IQ scores), they often explain a larger share of individual variation when it comes to life success. It doesn’t matter if one is looking at retention rates at West Point or teacher performance within the Teach for America program or success in the spelling bee: Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance. Thomas Edison was right: even genius is mostly just perspiration.

Taken together, these studies suggest that our most important talent is having a talent for working hard, for practicing even when practice isn’t fun. It’s about putting in the hours when we’d rather be watching TV, or drilling ourselves with notecards filled with obscure words instead of getting quizzed by a friend. Success is never easy. That’s why talent requires grit.