3 October 2012

Despite Being Praised for their Huge Potential, Many “Young Hopes” Never Fulfill their Potential and End up as “Old Disappointments” … It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (5)

In many areas of sports, arts, academia or simply in various professions there are people (usually young ones) that show great potential for high performance. For this sometimes they are praised. At the same time many of the “young hopes” never come up to fulfill their potential and end up as “old disappointments”. Why is that?

One very simple explanation for this phenomenon is that simply not everybody that has potential for performance actually is good enough or has the right conditions to actually achieve high performance in a field. After all, if 1 out of 10 businesses survive the firs years, there are 9 potentially good businesses that fail. Simple laws of statistics can help explain why many “young hopes” end up as “old disappointments”.

Another simple explanation could be that these people do not really have a huge potential and their qualities are simply exaggerated by people who could have a personal gain. Imagine an artistic manager that manages a young music band. It is simply normal for the manager to say that his band will be a huge success and that it has enormous potential. In this way the artistic manager simply follows his own interest of getting contracts for his band.

However, these are not the cases that I want to focus on. It simply obvious that not everyone that has potential will end up a high performer and it is obvious that some people who have a personal interest will exaggerate the potential that one has. What I want to focus on is those cases where “real” potential is praised and then wasted. In order to better understand this (apparent) paradox we should think about the motivation of high performers.  

In order to make the explanation easier let’s take the example of a football young player. What drives a young man (boy) to go through rough training sessions, extended cantonments and usually a not very pleasant coach? Moreover, someone that takes such a path in life will most likely give up on academic performance (though not many footballers are cut out for school performance) and eventually give up on a “good job” after the sporting career is over.

One motivation is for sure money or at least the hope for money. Everyone sees on TV and in the press examples of high profile footballers that get paid millions of Euros per year. Similarly anyone knows about artists (singers, actors etc.) or other sports men and women that are highly paid. This is a very good case of observation bias (not seeing beyond what is in front of your eyes). For each highly paid star there are hundreds or thousands of footballers, athletes or artists that have low or regular incomes. I know that this sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but is it so unreasonable to acknowledge that for each star singer or band that can fill up a 50.000 seats stadium there are thousands of singers that perform in bars, at parties or simply on the street?

Now, the truth is that financial motivation is more a motivation by the possibility of earning a lot of money. If you accept a more far-fetched comparison it is somehow like the motivation of playing the lottery. More or less everyone knows that the chances of winning are more theoretical than real, but there is the hope of getting a huge sum of money. The difference in hoping for a high income due to excellent performance as compared to playing the lottery is the role of personal action. In the case of a lottery the only thing that one can do to win is to pick up the “right” numbers whereas in the case of excellent performance one can do much more.

Since financial motivation is not as strong as it seems at first glance, it is reasonable to assume that there is at least one more motivation for high performance in sports, arts and other fields.  In my opinion, the extra motivation is gaining (social) status.

When talking about social status there are two major issues that should have been presented clearly. First is that (having) financial resources are a part of social status. At the same time, money or wealth is ONLY a part of social status. One good example that illustrates this is professions that bring a lot of social respect but are not paid very much. Think about fire men (or women), police people and even people that work in education. It is not be understood that these professions are badly paid, but rather that they are underpaid. At the same time, these professions are usually respected by most members of society.

Moreover, social status includes visibility or being known by members of society. It might be that wealth and visibility are correlated to a certain degree, but there is not a perfect correlation. There are rich people that are not known and there are not rich people that are known in society.

Second, (social) status is relative to the group of reference. This implies that status does not have the same magnitude across different social groups. For example a football player can be the best footballer in the league he plays. Now… that league might be the third league (division) and the player to be an average player in the second league and a below average one in the first league. In status terms, this person would have high status in the social group of “fans of the third league teams” and at the same time have very low status among first league fans.

Why status is important? In brief, social status increases one’s value on the social market. Society and social relationships work as (economic) markets. Each human being has friends, has or wants sexual and romantic partners, competes with other humans for limited resources and so on. One’s value on the social market is strongly linked to the social, sexual and competitive success that he or she will have. Now, don’t make the mistake of judging only on the quantitative side. Indeed some people want to have as many friends and sexual partners as possible, but there is also a qualitative side to social relationships. Many people don’t want to have many friends; rather they want to have good friends. Similarly for sexual partners, some people want to have few high quality partners. As in the case of status, quality is also relative to reference points which are usually one’s own quality. This is an extensive topic and I don’t want to talk about it here.

The bottom line is that having high status in a group will lead to having social success in that group. Some examples are readily available: the best male athlete in a school will end up with the most popular girl in school (at least according to American teenage movies). The best performing student in a school will be very likely forgiven if he or she has a disciplinary mishap such as breaking a window with a football (or worse).

Now let’s go back to the apparent paradox of the effect of praising on early performance. Imagine a young (16 years old) football player that is a “young hope”. Let’s call him Joe. Joe has real potential to become a top 5% footballer. What do you think his reference group is? Most likely he comes from a family with a not so nice background, most likely he lives in a not so nice neighborhood, goes to a not so good school etc. This young man does his best to perform very well on the football field so that he would be appreciated by members of his broad social group and, why not, become a great player in the first division.

At this age Joe does not get paid too much for his football playing. He does not starve and maybe has slightly nicer clothes than other teenagers his age. But money is not  his primary motivation. Rather it is to be the best, to get the attention of first league scouters, to be appreciated and envied by other young men and to impress the girl(s) he likes. This young man wants STATUS.

Now further imagine that this young man with huge potential in football has a great accomplishment. Let’s say he ends up winning the European Cup for “under 17” and he is chosen as “best player” of the final tournament. That is something really big considering the age he has. At the same time being the best player at the “under 17” Euro cup is not a guarantee for a brilliant career in top football. A football player reaches his peak around the ages of 27-28. That is more than 10 years from this point in his life. Even the best player at the “under 17” Euro cup can become even better.

Do you know what would be the worst thing that can happen to Joe, apart from a serious injury? It’s being praised for his success and great accomplishment of wining the Under 17 Euro cup and being selected as best player of the tournament. If this young man is praised, there are huge chances that his career as a footballer will end before it starts. Let me explain why it is so.

Imagine that after this accomplishment Joe gets invited to give many TV interviews, the sports newspapers and magazines publish extensive materials about him and what a magnificent player he could become etc. More so, he is invited by the local city hall from this small community to give public speeches to other young people and as a reward for the community’s new football star the local football field is named after him. At first glance this is the best thing that could happen to him and he deserves it. But it is not so, it is in fact the worst thing that could happen to his footballer career.

If what is described in the above paragraph actually happens to Joe, he will be the star of his social reference group. He will have any girlfriend(s) he wants, all his friends will appreciate and envy him and so on. He will have high status in his group. If that is the outcome of being praised, then what is the motivation to work hard, endure rough training sessions and obey the unpleasant coach’s rules? He is the star now, he got what he wanted. Why make the extra effort, why be away from this girlfriends for weeks at a time, why obey that old nasty coach’s rules?

The truth is that 9 out of 10 Joes will not make the effort of hard work in training and simply cash in on this new social status. It could be that older and more experienced people would “know better” and still persevere in their efforts, but here we are talking about a teenager. 

If Joe simply goes with the flow and takes full advantage of his new social status, sooner or later his status will fade away and by the age of 27 when he could have reached his footballer’s career peak which is 10 years form his huge performance, he will be playing for some unknown fourth league team, most likely have a failed marriage, abuse alcohol and look with huge nostalgia at this trophy placed in the center of his small apartment in the same old and not so nice neighborhood from which he wanted so much to escape when he was a teenager.

Giving high status for rather small accomplishments is the sure way to long term failure. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Joe should not be congratulated for his performance at the age of 16. He should definitely be congratulated and rewarded for it. The media should give him his 5 minutes of TV glory. Maybe he deserves a nice holiday and a huge party with hundreds of liters of beer. But that is it! If Joe is ever to be a top 5% footballer he needs to get back to training and to work on his skills.

Media attention is one huge component of status. It is the means of becoming known in society. At the same time, media attention is the reward and if the reward comes “for free” or not for the “right reasons” (aka. Performance) then it is detrimental to performance.

I've illustrated my explanation using the example of a fictional young footballer with high potential, but football or athletics are not the only areas where (too) many “young hopes” end up being “old disappointments”. Anywhere status is gained “for free” or to be more accurate, wherever there is an imbalance between the levels of status one gets and the level of performance one has it is room for this sad story to occur.

The lesson of this apparent paradox is that status is highly desired and valuable, but at the same time status should come for real performance and not be fabricated. The “status game” is somehow unfair in the sense that it does not include equality. By nature there is ONLY ONE best!

And as a final note, I am all for positive feed-back, encouraging people, congratulating them for their efforts and accomplishments. But these are tools, and as you know tools can be used to do all kinds of things good or bad.

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