MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Day 1: Recap and Thoughts

This was my first time attending this conference, and Day 1 was an amazing experience.  At this point last year, I literally didn’t know that there was a term (“sports analytics”) for the stuff I liked to do in my spare time.  Now I learn that there is not only an entire industry built up around the practice, but a whole army of nerds in its society.  Naturally, I have tons of criticisms of various things that I saw and heard—that’s what I do—but I loved it, even the parts I hated.

Here are the panels and presentations that I attended, along with some of my thoughts:

Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours?

Featuring Malcolm Gladwell (Author of Outliers), Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN), and others I didn’t recognize.

In this talk, Gladwell rehashed his absurdly popular maxim about how it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, and then made a bunch of absurd claims about talent. (Players with talent are at a disadvantage!  Nobody wants to hire Supreme Court clerks!  Etc.) The most re-tweeted item to come out of Day 1 by far was his highly speculative assertion that “a lot of what we call talent is the desire to practice.”

While this makes for a great motivational poster, IMO his argument in this area is tautological at best, and highly deceptive at worst.  Some people have the gift of extreme talent, and some people have the gift of incredible work ethic. The streets of the earth are littered with the corpses of people who had one and not the other.  Unsurprisingly, the most successful people tend to have both.  To illustrate, here’s a random sample of 10,000 “people” with independent normally distributed work ethic and talent (each with a mean of 0, standard deviation of 1):


The blue dots (left axis) are simply Hard Work plotted against Talent.  The red dots (right axis) are Hard Work plotted against the sum of Hard Work and Talent—call it “total awesome factor” or “success” or whatever.  Now let’s try a little Bayes’ Theorem intuition check:  You randomly select a person and they have an awesome factor of +5.  What are the odds that they have a work ethic of better than 2 standard deviations above the mean?  High?  Does this prove that all of the successful people are just hard workers in disguise?

Hint: No.  And this illustration is conservative:  This sample is only 10,000 strong: increase to 10 billion, and the biggest outliers will be even more uniformly even harder workers (and they will all be extremely talented as well).  Moreover, this “model” for greatness is just a sum of the two variables, when in reality it is probably closer to a product, which would lead to even greater disparities.  E.g.: I imagine total greatness achieved might be something like great stuff produced per minute worked (a function of talent) times total minutes worked (a function of willpower, determination, fortitude, blah blah, etc).

The general problem with Gladwell I think is that his emphatic de-emphasis of talent (which has no evidence backing it up) cheapens his much stronger underlying observation that for any individual to fully maximize their potential takes the accumulation of a massive amount of hard work—and this is true for people regardless of what their full potential may be.  Of course, this could just be a shrewd marketing ploy on his part: you probably sell more books by selling the hope of greatness rather than the hope of being an upper-level mid-manager (especially since you don’t have to worry about that hope going unfulfilled for at least 10 years).

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