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Next entry: Eastern Europeans flooding into British universities
Previous entry: I am having what the Americans call a learning experience
Thursday March 20 2008

Time for another book chunk, and again I reach for a book about sport, What Sport Tells Us About Life by the Middlesex and England professional cricketer, and writer and journalist Ed Smith, who read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.  Sport figures prominently in education, if only because boys do love it so, and Ed Smith’s book about sport has a lot to say about education.  This particular passage once again pours a bucket of cold water all over that cliché about how those but can do while those who can’t teach.  The Billy Beane story shows that failing at a game often prepares you ideally to be in charge of it, and of telling others how to play it and run it.  As Smith says towards the end of this excerpt, “we never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings”.

An academic study once traced the fortunes of a generation of high-school beauty queens across America.  How had the beautiful people done in the game of real life?  Not very well.  Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse - in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness - than their less good-looking contemporaries.  They had peaked too early.  It is another version of the parable of the hare and the tortoise.

We can only speculate what went wrong.  Perhaps they had found adolescence so easy that the rest of life was a slow process of disappointment.  Maybe, all too familiar with childhood adulation, they crumpled at the first adult rejections. Perhaps there is something in the cliché that you can be too pretty for your own good.

How could the same principle - the curse of talent - apply to much more interesting worlds than the adult frustrations of ageing beauty queens?  A baseball team, a brilliant manager and a publishing phenomenon are a good place to start.  The team is the Oakland Athletics, the manager is Billy Beane and the bestseller is Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

Not only is Moneyball one of the best and most influential sports books ever written, but it also could have been subtitled, ‘How being the sporting equivalent of a beauty queen ruined my career and made me turn conventional wisdom on its head.’

imageIf you were trying genetically to construct the perfect professional sportsman, you would probably end up with someone who looked like Billy Beane.  By the time he was fourteen, he was 6’ 4” (six inches taller than his father), impossibly athletic and seemingly able to pick up and master any sport at will. Beane was the high-school quarterback, the star basketball player and a peerless baseball player.  Michael Lewis wrote about Beane in Moneyball, ‘He found talents in himself almost before his body was ready to exploit them: he could dunk a basketball before his hands were big enough to palm it.’

Scouts from professional baseball hovered around the schoolboy prodigy, each of them desperate to get to know Beane personally.  The attention was so overwhelming that Beane would run from practice straight to a friend’s house to avoid the scouts’ incessant phone calls to his home.

Beane had each of the five ‘tools’ that baseball scouts revered: he could run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power.  Beane was also intelligent, ambitious and intensely competitive.  Above all, Beane had the kind of sharp features the scouts respected.  Many of them still believed they could tell by the structure of a boy’s face whether he would make it in professional sport.  They had a phrase they used: ‘the good face’.  Beane had the good face.

Unsurprisingly, Beane was first-round draft pick by the New York Mets.  He hoped to combine his new $125,000 salary with his admission to Stanford - but the university withdrew Beane’s place once they discovered he would not be playing baseball for them.  The young man’s predestined greatness as a baseball player now faced no further impediments.

Except it never happened.  Beane had a miserable six-year major-league career, averaging just .219 with only three home runs.  He played for different teams at different levels; he tried every possible technical approach; he smashed up dressing rooms and raged against himself; he retained the aura of a superstar without the achievements.  He simply couldn’t hit.  Michael Lewis summed up what had gone wrong for Beane: ‘A wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it.  It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.’

‘Whom the gods wish to destroy,’ wrote Cyril Connolly, ‘they first call promising.’ By 1990, Beane had had enough.  He walked from the locker room to the front office of the Oakland Athletics and became the first professional baseball player ever to pronounce the sentence: ‘I quit as a player. I want to be a scout.’

The end of one of the most disappointing playing careers ushered in the beginning of one of the great managerial careers.  Beane was quickly recognized as a brilliant scout and judge of players, and in 1997 graduated to far greater powers as general manager - the youngest GM in the game.  The turnaround was astonishing.  In 1997, the Athletics won sixty-five and lost ninety-seven games.  From 2000 onward, the As consistently won around ninety games, all of this despite losing their stars every year due to having one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.  In 2002, the As won 103 games - matched only by the New York Yankees, a team that cost three times as much.

How had Beane managed to mess up a playing career that ‘couldn’t go wrong’, and then to mastermind a managerial record that was apparently impossible within the financial inequalities of major-league baseball?  The answers are linked.  Experiencing the first had led Beane to the solutions he used to achieve the second.

Beane’s reflections on his own career had taught him to respect performance - largely because it was never demanded of him as an emerging player.  Everyone assumed talent would get him through.  Where he had been indulged himself, he was careful not to make the same mistake with others.

Talent, he discovered, is rated too highly. One cliché that bounced around the dressing-room walls was: ‘He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.’ In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement.  And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve.  Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.  Beane could vouch for that himself.

Conclusion one: the As stopped signing high-school prodigies who looked great in a baseball uniform and seemed predestined to ‘make it’, and started signing college players who had a proven track record of being able to score runs - and something going for them beyond baseball.  Everyone said the As were mad. But the runs kept coming.

If talent was overrated, Beane discovered that personality was too often ignored by scouts and managers.  The baseball community overestimated its own capacity to graft real psychological resilience on to inert, talented young men.  But it also suffered from a reflexive fear of players who operated outside the predictable range of jock-sportsman routine behaviour.  Many coaches wanted clay models to mould with their own imprints of what a champion should look like.  The difficulty, of course, is that real champions want to be themselves.  So while show ponies were patiently indulged by the baseball community, independent-minded performers were written off as difficult ‘eccentrics’.  Principle two: we’ll have the eccentrics, you can keep the show ponies.

By 2002, Beane was the most sought-after general manager in baseball.  He was almost hired away by the Boston Red Sox, while two of his assistants went on to become general managers themselves.  In 2004, Theo Epstein won the World Series with the Red Sox using methods devised alongside Beane at Oakland - a case of flattery by imitation.  In fact, by that point almost every team was at least dabbling with what had become known as Moneyball methods.

Beane’s personal history was central to the Oakland experiment.  We never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings.  They often form the foundations of our clearest analytical insights.  Beane had wrestled with the reasons for his own frustrating career and come up with some original answers.

In Beane’s case, the way his own career had foundered and been misinterpreted became the guiding principle of his managerial code.  He concluded: the baseball system couldn’t even imagine I would mess things up - but I did, despite phenomenal talent and intense ambition, so there must be fundamental flaws in the received wisdom behind the system.