September 30, 2004

Pyramids of Excellence - Winners

When we think of competition, we think of winners and losers. We celebrate winners, we denigrate losers. A silver medal is a loss. Final four and out is a loss. National League Playoffs is a loss. This perspective, however, diminishes the richness and depth of the competitive experience.

There is an apprehension, even a revulsion, at competition within our society. It is tolerated it certain unimportant arenas, like football. It is even tolerated in some critical areas where there is a recognition of the mandatory requirement for unusual skill and competency, such as neurosurgery or space flight.

But in most areas competition is frowned upon as detrimental to the psychic health of the participants since, by definition, most participants will be losers.

Breaking this perception and then building a healthy competitive society requires a reorientation on the meaning of winning and losing.

The common imagery is of a triumphant victor standing atop a pile of bodies. All defeated, all vanquished. All fodder to the appetite of the victor. Losers feed winners. Winners consume losers. Lion and antelope.

Humans do not want to be antelope. They do not want to participate in an activity where their energy and skill and effort is used and discarded. So, when given the option, humans back out of competition perceived as exploitive or threatening.

This is not the proper picture of human competition. Competition needs to be redefined as a form of stewardship. As a combined effort to lift everybody to a higher level of performance. With the top performers standing on the shoulders of everyone else in the pyramid. Everyone who competes holds up those who compete to the next level.

The person who runs the mile in 3:50, thereby driving the winner to a 3:49 win, has made a core contribution to the winner. He drove the winner to excel and exceed what he would otherwise have accomplished.

Thus, the competitive environment can be seen differently. It does not have winners and losers, it has winners and drivers. It has those who win and those that drive them hard to achieve the level of excellence that accomplished the win.

In each competitive arena, we can identify different levels of contribution to success. Each is critical.

The winner is the person who comes in first, today, maybe tomorrow. Who so excels that they are recognized and affirmed and rewarded for achievement.

The driver is the person who pushed the winner so hard that in order to win the winner had to reach extraordinary levels of competence to come in ahead of the driver. Every driver has the capacity to be next week’s winner. Every driver is also driven toward their own level of excellence by the winner of the competition.

The pacer also plays a crucial role in the eventual rush to excellence of the drivers and winners. Pacers are those who compete strongly enough to be critical to the competition, but who do not have the talent, skill or drive necessary to be a winner themselves. They are the NBA players who do not start and only play when a starter needs to sit, is injured or fouls out.

Pacers run with the winners and drivers for three out of four laps. Pacers are the practice squad, the second string, the utility infielder. Without pacers there can be no game, or the game is greatly diminished.

Pacers also determine the outcome. A second string cornerback can knock down a star wide receiver, a low seed basketball team can eliminate a high seed. Any winning team that does not treat every opponent as an excellent opponent will get beaten by a team with less raw talent and skill. Every playoff season has the wrecks of strong teams defeated by less capable teams.

The competitive pyramid is a giant human pyramid with each level standing on the level below. The broader and deeper the lower level, the higher the pyramid can reach.

Sam paces Charlie in the elementary schoolyard basketball court. Charlie drives Jamal to excellence. Jamal makes the middle school team and drives Shawn to excellence. Shawn makes the Junior Varsity and driver Hap to make the Varsity. Hap is driven by Mark and overcomes Mark’s ferocity to gain a scholarship. Hap then drives Devon to excellence on the Freshman team. Devon moves to Varsity and drives Isreal to all star performance. Isreal is recruited to the NBA and joins the practice squad. On the practice squad he drives Michael to extraordinary performance. Michael plays in the NBA as a backup guard. Michael drives Thomas to outstanding performance. Thomas becomes a superstar starter.

Thomas is now standing on the shoulders of Sam, Charlie, Jamal, Shawn, Hap, Mark, Devon, Isreal and Michael and the ten thousand other pacers and drivers who drove him to excellence at the top of the pyramid. Thomas would never have achieved his level of skill and accomplishment without being driven and paced by all of those who supported him in his success.

This pattern applies to every area of human endeavor. If you want extraordinary performance and the contribution to human experience expressed through such performance, then we must honor the contribution of every pacer, every driver, and every winner. All contribute and all will reach the highest level of achievement and contribution through the fierce competition that drives to excellence.

For the best doctors, compete. For the best teachers, compete. For the best dentists, compete. For the best congressional leaders, compete. For the best breakfast cereal, compete. Everyone benefits. Everyone wins. Therefore, celebrate everyone who joins the competitive arena, whether as a pacer, a driver or a winner.

Posted by creagb at 11:43 AM

September 29, 2004

The Pyramid of Excellence and Genetics

Any endeavor has a pyramid of excellence. A winnowing process that takes every interested person in at the bottom and then selectively moves exceptionally qualified participants to the next level. Each level has ever-smaller numbers of skilled participants competing for the level above. At the top level are a very few people who have successfully out-performed all of those at the lower levels.

One of the key characteristics of the pyramid is that those at the top are dependent on the quality of those below to achieve their level of skill and competency. Ferocious competition demands more skill and more commitment to succeed at each level.

One of the most successful current pyramids of excellence is the black sports pyramid. Blacks dominate the top levels of professional sports way beyond any proportional representation formula.

A key characteristic of success at professional sports is that it is colorblind. Either you can catch and throw or you cannot. Race and ethnic background do not matter; all that matters is raw skill and competence on the field. The result is that the one arena where blacks clearly dominate is the one arena where race matters least.

There are two explanations for this result and both lead logically to conclusions that are untenable within our dominant perceptions of race. The first explanation is that black dominance is due to genetics, thin legs, large lungs, and wide arm span. Characteristics from birth that are immutable. The white men can’t jump explanation. The second explanation is the pyramid of excellence. That talented and ambitious young blacks focus their energy on the one clearly identified area that richly rewards excellence. This creates enormous competitive pressure and a very aggressive selection process. Rising to the next level at each level requires extraordinary commitment, skill and talent.

If the explanation is race, then this leads to the conclusion that other human characteristics that drive to excellence might also be race based. Like being able to do math or build and maintain strong leadership relationships. If this is true, that genetically whites have a head start in logical reasoning and team leadership, then the conclusion can only be that there will be more white quarterbacks, accountants and presidents. If genetics drives excellence as a forward or tight end, then there has to be a possibility that genetics drives excellence as a manager or scientist. Blacks do the physical stuff, whites, the leadership stuff and Asians the thinking stuff.

If the explanation is the pyramid of excellence, then the reason blacks dominate is the attraction of the rewards and the ferocity of the competition. Level playing field, fierce competition, and great reward. The formula for success in a free society. However, if this is true for sports, then there is no reason that it should not also be true for accounting, politics, teaching and engineering. Thus the criteria for black success would not be dumbing down, affirmative action and preferences, but pyramids of excellence that validate competition in other areas in the same manner as happens in sports.

Each of these conclusions contradicts current social policy. Our culture does not accept racial dominance and denigration, but our culture also does not accept the value of hard competition with great rewards. Except for professional sports and perhaps entertainment.

Clearly, our society is not going to accept the proposition that unusually successful people get that way because of the luck of genetics. That leads to a caste system, knowing your station, accepting your place at the table, white man’s burden, back of the bus. Smug condescension on being blessed for dominance, weary despair at being burdened with the hardships of life.

On the other hand, there is resistance to admitting that high standards, hard work, dedication, tough competition and great rewards lead to high performance and high rewards in all areas, not just sports. Because the conclusion can only be that a ferociously aggressive educational environment will produce excellence across the board, not just in sports. That if black schools supported science fairs and debate clubs and theater and chess clubs with the same intensity as they support basketball, then a huge number of black students would emerge with great skill and dedication to these other pyramids of excellence.

So, the choice is simple. We have in our faces, every professional game we watch, the clear evidence of the results of a pyramid of excellence. Way over representation of blacks at the professional level where race counts for zero and skill and dedication count for everything. Either this occurs because, back in Africa, blacks chased down antelopes while whites in Europe shuffled through the snow looking for roots, or, this occurs because professional sports is one of the few areas with a pyramid of excellence that rewards accomplishment regardless of race, thus attracting smart, competitive, competent blacks in numbers way beyond proportional representation.

Bet on the latter. Talent flows to opportunity. Close off opportunity in other areas and the talent will be focused on the only expressions available. Convince someone that they cannot succeed as an accountant or engineer, refuse to provide the tools and environment to nurture success as an accountant or engineer and that hungry and talented youngster is going to the park and shoot hoops.

These inaccessible opportunities are a combination of perception and preparation. This is actually a Catch 22. Not supporting education because of ineptitude resulting in ineptitude due to lousy education. No perception of the ability to climb onto the pyramid of excellence for engineering or law or management, so focus on the accessible pyramid, sports.

The conclusion; blacks don’t excel in sports because their ancestors chased down antelope, they excel in sports because it is one of the few accessible areas where ambition, hard work, dedication, skill and talent drive great rewards. If this is true for sports, then there is no reason why it should not also be true for every other available endeavor.

Posted by creagb at 05:29 AM

September 28, 2004

The Pyramid of Excellence

A discourse on race and excellence. Or, why equal opportunity will mean that blacks will not continue to dominate sports.

Every activity with a pyramid of excellence has certain common characteristics:

The flatter the pyramid, the less distance between the top and the bottom, the less difference between pay at the top and pay at the bottom. The higher the pyramid, the greater the gap between rewards at the top and bottom.

For accountants, entry level pay is adequate while top pay is attractive but not huge. For point guards, entry level pay is zero while top pay is stratospheric. A top accountant will be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while a top point guard will be paid tens of millions a year.

The deeper the pyramid, the higher the level of accomplishment and compensation of those at the top.

Simple observation:

The black sports pyramid of excellence is very deep as this is one of the few avenues currently accepted as viable for substantial success. This means that there is intense competition from elementary school on to gain access to the next level of excellence. The result is that those who reach each level have excelled in a very competitive environment and thus have highly developed skills. The people who succeed in reaching the pinnacle have benefited mightily from all those below them who constantly challenged them to excel.

The reality of this very competitive process is that most of those who do not get to the top will end up at the bottom of some other pyramid. That all the massive investment in time and energy and skill in attempting to achieve the next level will have detracted from gaining competency in other areas.

Explictly, this means that devoting enough time and energy to basketball to have a shot at the next level probably means not devoting enough time and energy to mathematics to have a shot at becoming an accountant or teacher.

If the odds of becoming a successful accountant, teacher, engineer, programmer or account executive are seen as low, then the only available outlet for the drive for competency and excellence will be one of the high pyramid areas, such as professional sports or entertainment.

As opportunities in other areas become more credible and accessible, there will be subtle but significant shift away from high challenge endeavors toward more achievable goals. The goal for someone who focuses on mathematics is an excellent shot at accounting or teaching. A good living, respect for contributing to others and some small shot a high income. Almost no shot at the big bucks.

The big buck arena presents a tough choice. Absolutely big bucks, but also high risk of bitter disappointment through injury or close, but no cigar, performance. A forward who cannot get recognized will end up driving a taxi. However, an accountant who does not make partner will still live well and comfortably.

Thus, as other areas become more accessible, the level of competition in the high challenge sports pyramid of excellence will gradually drop. Not as many young people will focus single-mindedly on becoming a guard, tight end or shortstop. Since the competition on the way up will be somewhat reduced, the level of excellence required to reach the next level will also drop. Those reaching the top and achieving professional level competence will not have traveled as far and faced as ferocious a competitive selection process.

Result, more and more black athletes will come up through a selection process that is similar to that of white athletes. Most young people will have chosen some other path as they will have seen that the probable rewards from that other path are much greater.

If this point of view is valid, then, over the next two decades, the percentage of black athletes at the very top of the game will drop as the selection pyramid becomes similar for all athletes.

One of the ironies of this is that the areas in which blacks most excel are those in which raw talent, ability, discipline and skill count the most and background and race count the least. The one thing that does not exist on the basketball court or football field is affirmative action. Either you can accomplish the job or you are out.

So the area most dominated by black excellence is that in which being black counts the least.

When other areas are also seen as credible expressions of black excellence, then talent and ambition will flow to those also. The inevitable impact of this is to diminish the current extraordinary pyramid of excellence that drives so many talented and ambitious blacks into sports. Result; more black engineers, fewer black linebackers.

Posted by creagb at 03:37 AM