Saturday, July 24, 2010


This was in the drafts folder for a long time. I didn't have time to turn the notes I jotted down into anything polished.

How do we decide what we're impressed by? And how much of it do we even get to decide?

Some factors are probably:

1. how hard did someone try?

2. how unique is the skill vis a vis a reference point?

3. how much does our culture respect people who can do it?

I ranked them according to what our intuition probably says is most important. We respect effort first and foremost, and are most impressed by achievements people invest years of their lives in.

But is that true? Would you be more impressed by someone eating 100 sticks of butter in 15 minutes or someone composing the best music on the best selling classical CD this year? I don't think anyone can actually do the former. It far and away more difficult, but if someone did I doubt they'd do it to much fanfare. We just aren't impressed by unusual talents like that. How much is that a product of acculturation and how much is it a product of not understanding?

It could be the later. After all, I don't know anything about competitive eating. That sounds like a lot of butter, but maybe it's common to eat that much on the circuit. Maybe it wouldn't even be that hard if you trained for a year. But to compose a best selling CD? You could train for decades and never accomplish that, right? We're more impressed by things we understand because we can put the achievement in context--how hard did they have to work? (I'm putting aside the issue of natural talent here.)

But I think that factor isn't as important as we think. Here is a thought experiment I like to use. Whose accomplishments are more impressive, Michael Jordan's or Mozart's? I'm pretty sure most people will say Mozart as a snap answer. But most of those people don't know much about composing. They don't have any idea how much people actually like Mozart (do you? Classical music makes up < 2.5% of total album sales). Most people know a little more about Jordan, if only because he's still alive. He won 6 championships and he's far and away the best basketball player of all time. We know roughly how old basketball is (100 years) and how many people play (tens of millions) in the U.S. A lot more people play sports than compose classical music, and a lot more people are alive today then hundreds of years ago. If Mozart was one of the best composers in an era when few people composed and fewer people lived, doesn't that add up to an best guess that there are a lot more Mozarts out there than Jordans? If our judgements were driven primarily by praising what we understand we should be more impressed with Jordan. But we aren't.

So the question is whether everyone is impressed by Picaso's paintings and Shakespeare's plays because everyone likes them, or because everyone told them they're impressive for so long?

Note: This didn't fit in, but it's a nice dig on Cambridge elites. I've noticed the same people who tend to claim the most interest in diversity are the least accepting of these kinds of ideas. They have the strongest commitment to traditional views about what makes good art and what constitutes "success." Isn't it time they opened our eyes to the diversity of human achievement? Like eating 4.5 lbs of steak in 7 minutes.

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