As a (nearly) life-long resident of the DMV area, I am a Washington Wizards fan. I have been watching these NBA play-offs and the first round match-up with the Chicago Bulls. It got me thinking about something that I have harped on many times before, but never written about: society’s imperfect view on effort.

Randy Wittman Smiles
This guy knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The Bulls were the media darlings heading into the play-offs. I mean what is not to like about the Bulls team? They come out every single night, charged and ready, and despite numerous flaws and set-backs throughout the season, secured the #4 seed with one of the best records in the NBA after the midpoint of the season. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, basically acknowledged and praised their toughness and effort. It worked, in the regular season. Out of 19 ESPN “experts,” only a single analyst chose the Wizards to win, yet here we are staring at a 4-1 Washington victory.

Of course, this brings me to the main point of this article. You had the vast basketball world jumping on the bandwagon of the Bulls because they mistake their performance for ability. This is something that happens so frequently in life, it is almost strange when it doesn’t happen. It is probably one of the single most important life lessons, right after the key one: Life Isn’t Fair.

When you were little, your mom probably told you something along the lines of “don’t worry Jimmy, just put in maximum effort and you will be rewarded.” Now, this is good advice. You certainly can’t do any worse than your potential if you put in maximum effort. The problem is that the world does not play out in a vacuum (see above, Life Isn’t Fair), and many times your are competing against someone else who’s mom told them the exact same thing.

Watching some of the post-game interviews, you have to feel bad for the Bulls. It almost sounded like their mom told them they could do great things if they just put in maximum effort, and then ran into a wall. They come back and ask, “but Mom, we tried our hardest!?!?” and then everyone is scrambling to explain away. The entire series is a reminder to us all that evidence of performance does not indicate evidence of ability. Let’s go over some examples.

Since I was already talking about basketball, I will go ahead with the basketball example here. There are certain coaches, like Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich, that are disciplinarians. They are great coaches that basically milk the last bit of potential from the roster. This obviously leads to good to amazing success in the regular season. However, there is this notion of ceilings in the NBA and in life as a whole, based on ability. It makes sense from a logical point of view: if the Bulls expend 100% effort during the regular season, then their standings at the end of the season exactly matches what they can accomplish. That is, they cannot beat the teams that finished above them 99.9% of the case (leaving 0.1% chance in there for injuries and the unexpected) and if the teams below them always put in 100% effort, they would beat all the teams below them.

The last bold point is an important one. With few exceptions (the Bulls and Spurs being some of them), most teams never put in 100% effort during the season consistently. There are many, many reasons for this, like new rosters, inexperienced and young rosters, mediocre or bad coaches, coaching style, etc. This is what was so crazy about the media. They actually believe the Bulls can compete for a championship? With all the teams above them and admitting that the Bulls always put in 100% effort? They do realize that you can’t go over 100%, right?

The Bulls hit their ceiling, and their performance, great as it has been, is the single biggest clue to their ability. It’s just that our society makes the exact opposite conclusion than what actually makes sense! Instead of recognizing that a team that puts in 100% effort is at 100% of their potential ceiling, we start to think the Bulls are an elite team based solely on their performance and heart. This is a great story for a movie, but let me once again point you to: Life Isn’t Fair.

You must always consider the amount of effort expended to produce a certain degree of performance, when evaluating ability.

The one I love to question is that of advanced degrees and school performance. I mean any short stint in corporate America will tell you, just from pure observation, that these things are poor indicators of ability. Yet, again and again, people make the mistake of confusing the two concepts. A thought experiment works well here.

Let’s say we have a student, A, who studies at least 12 hours a day, and gets straight A’s. Mom would be so proud, yes? He or she is putting in what can certainly be labeled as maximum effort, 100%, and achieving the highest potential. This person has a high probability to start life on a very strong footing and be successful.

Now, we have student B, who crams before tests, maybe studies an average of an hour a day, and gets the same straight A’s. Mom is still proud (Mom’s are usually not looking over your shoulder at college watching you study, they just see the results), but no one can say this person is putting in 100% effort. Granted, this person will have the same opportunities as A initially, but I don’t think anyone can argue that once you get past the artificial ceiling of the grade scale, student B likely have a much higher ceiling.

If we change it so that student B perhaps doesn’t really study at all, or doesn’t put in much effort and gets B’s or even C’s (a much more likely scenario), they will likely stunt their initial opportunities. Student A will probably come out of the “gate” at a much higher relative position. However, even in this scenario you can easily see that student B has the probability of a much higher ceiling.

The same principle can be said of advanced degrees. Moving past the point that in many cases they can be bought at private institutions (essentially), the basic truth is that it takes time and ability to complete advanced degrees (along with money of course, but we will leave that out since it is an artificial limitation put on by a capitalist society). If I have a deficiency in ability, I can ratchet up my time and start to look the same as someone who has higher ability. The conclusion you can draw from this is that grades, advanced degrees, and most measures of performance are not particularly useful if you are interested in figuring out ability.

In the sports world, and in life itself, it is important to remember these points. Don’t immediately believe that someone who has a lot of credentials will excel relative to another. For many situations, like when a company is hiring, the distinction may not matter because generally such a person can get the job done. These kinds of things are a good indication that either someone will put in 100% effort and achieve their potential, or they are at least willing to achieve at a certain rate by putting in a certain amount of effort. It is just important to discount performance when trying to evaluate ability and potential, since we do not really usually know the true effort put into creating that performance.

One Reply to “Great Performance Does Not Always Indicate Great Ability

  1. Hey, Matt:

    I left two comments on your finance blogs, specifically on probability of touching and American options, several days ago but they have been viewed and published. I wonder if you still take care of the old blog or have abandoned this blog completely.

    Best Regards
    Hansen

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