Bill James is the godfather of baseball statistics when it comes to analyzing talent. He is the main brain behind the “moneyball” approach to building a baseball team. In this article from Slate Magazine, James shares his thoughts on how we (American society) are skilled at finding and developing athletic talent, but fail to do so in the world of literacy. James contends, and I agree, that there is plenty of academic talent in our country, just that we choose not to do much to develop it like we do when scouting and building athletic teams.
Our society is very, very good at developing certain types of skills and certain types of genius. We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills—better than we are, really, at almost anything else. We are quite good at developing and rewarding inventiveness. We are pretty good at developing the skills necessary to run a small business—a fast food restaurant, for example. We’re really, really good at teaching people how to drive automobiles and how to find a coffee shop.
We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this? … The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.
Hat tip to the book Imagine: How creativity works by Jonah Lehrer for making reference to this article. After you read the James article, be sure to check out the Lehrer book (the best read I’ve had this summer).