Thursday, September 25, 2008

Obscuring the ceiling: how good students strategically sabotage themselves

How is a procrastinator like Usain Bolt--in a bad way?

After I wrote this post about Usain Bolt on my sports blog last week, Grinnell alum Hung Pham initiated a conversation about the post in which Pham used the idea of obscuring the ceiling to describe what I was commenting on in Bolt's pre-finish line celebration in the 100-meter dash.

Obscuring the ceiling is what I think Bolt successfully did in his race: I argued that by celebrating before the finish line, Bolt let everyone imagine how much faster he might have run--and those imaginings have, in fact, credited him with being even faster than he is. If obscuring the ceiling can make perhaps the fastest human who has ever lived seem faster, it is a powerful tool indeed.

Pham's phrasing helped me articulate something that had nagged at me since I praised the power of Bolt's maneuver: I've seen this before. And after a few days, I got it. Obscuring the ceiling is what a lot of my students do--and a number of people I know in other ways, but I think of this phenomenon primarily through my teaching.

To the best of my memory, when I started teaching about 15 years ago, I thought of student motivation like this: every student is more or less self-motivated, and every student has positive and negative external forces that affect performance. That is, I imagined intrinsic factors to be neutral or positive--at worst, the absence of positive motivation. What surprised me, therefore (and I've seen it surprise other new teachers), is the extent to which students will actively sabotage themselves in all manner of small and large ways: doing work well but handing it in late, making flamboyantly bad choices about time management, and so forth. I slowly came to realize that many of my students were choosing to incur penalties consistently so that I never got a chance to judge their best work in a straightforward way. That was the point. If you never try your hardest, nobody can ever find your limits. Like Usain Bolt, you have obscured your ceiling.

When I started articulating this idea, Molly Backes, an alumna of Grinnell's education program, pointed out the similarity of my thinking to Martin Covington's failure quadrant, which, as she put it, goes something like this:

* if you try really hard and still fail, you feel the worst
* if you try really hard and fail -- but you have an excuse, like
your grandmother just died -- you feel less bad
* if you don't try at all and fail, you feel better
* if you don't try at all and you have an excuse, you feel best

Another alumna pointed me to Homer Simpson's more concise formulation: "trying is the first step toward failure."

I had brought up this subject through the words of Malcolm Gladwell, who put the point yet another way in an interview with Bill Simmons, discussing sports:

Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?

The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

I return to the subject now because the exaggerated glorification of Bolt's run has reminded me of the profound effectiveness of obscuring the ceiling. If the fastest runner in history can make most people think he is even faster by obscuring his ceiling, how tempting must it be for the rest of us to use the same method when we can protect our self-image?

We are starting to understand how to avoid the temptations of obscuring the ceiling: valuing the produce of work rather than the aura of talent, seeking the lessons of failure instead of making excuses, trying to improve even upon apparent successes.

I have only begun to recognize and struggle with the means of obscuring ceilings within myself, and I feel I have even farther to go in understanding how to help my students find, reveal, and shatter their own ceilings

Comments are most welcome. Especially critical ones!

(This post is crossposted at Sports Guy Talkin' Crazy Again.)


Katherine said...

I really enjoyed this entry. Perhaps because I've just applied for a very competitive job, and am quaking with fear over my impending interview tomorrow. It reminded me of what people invariably say when you talk about applying for something: "What's the worst that could happen?" This obviously implies that rejection is the worst that could happen, and that rejection isn't that bad. In fact, as you point out (without being flippant) rejection really IS the worst thing that could happen. Do you think we all feel this way and that our personalities determine whether we give something our very best shot, or do you think that personality plays in at the beginning? (As in, rejection may actually not be that bad for some people). I'm interested to hear what you think.
(you can reply on Plans, if you want. This is Katherine Rochester)

Hilary said...

Responding to both Katherine's comment and to Erik's responses on Plans:

In my experience (and I believe a published academic like the author would agree) the best way to develop a thick skin against rejection is to do and try and apply for lots of things, thereby getting rejected all the time! It is in that way that you learn that rejection *isn't* the worst thing that can happen, nor does it necessarily reflect just on you, your talent or your effort. Participating in selection/hiring processes, too, can be eye-opening to this end. There are a vast combination of elements that go into every grade, every selection, every hire which make it difficult to pinpoint where a "failure" may have occured, and at the top end of the spectrum, a handful of excellent applicants is a no-lose situation for the decider. Often it's nothing personal.

Obviously, sabotaging one's success would be a significant detriment to it -- but at the end of the day, there are plenty of times when you will give your very best and someone else out there is simply better-suited/-positioned/-polished/-spoken/-prepared than you are to succeed at that moment. Other times you will come out ahead. The only way to win sometimes (and to ever win big!) is to lose a lot of other times. And the more you lose such games, the less significant each loss becomes.

Sports is a great vehicle for the discussion, because it is acceptable for us to discuss team wins and losses and the strengths and weaknesses of specific athletes. How many races has Usain come in second, for example (and how long ago did he stop taking it personally)? It is, as Erik notes, less acceptable to critique our own successful articles or failed job interviews. But in both cases, serial failure (and the threat of such failure) is essential to learning, to improvement and thereby to concrete success.

I would say then, Katherine, that the worst thing is not rejection, but a paralyzing fear of that rejection that keeps us from trying, learning and growing.

Two questions for you, Erik: who defines the ceiling (and, relatedly, success)? and is the ceiling ever actually a ceiling?