Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dean Keith Simonton: Greatness

Dean Keith Simonton's Greatness is an attempt to catalog all the influences that allow some people to have a larger effect on the world than their fellows. It takes a more wide-ranging and less data-driven approach to the question than Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. I thought it was less successful, mostly because there were too many sections that were speculative, not well grounded, or inconclusive.

There were, of course, sections that contained important insights, but if one part in three, scattered evenly throughout a 500 page book is unfocused material, the useful portions are harder to identify and lose much of their impact. The most important conclusion I found in the book is that great results are the consequence not just of intelligence, insight, or drive, but that perseverance matters, even for people with huge natural talents. Simonton shows that even for the giants who are widely acknowledged to have remade their fields and outshone everyone else who has worked in the same fields, their masterworks appear in about the same proportion as for others who ended up contributing less overall. Their secret was no secret: they merely worked harder and longer and produced more. Their natural talents sometimes give them a slightly higher batting average, but overall productivity of great works and long-lived impact is a result of starting early and working more hours over more years than their rivals. Great achievers all have mediocre and uninteresting works mixed into their corpus, it's just not so noticeable given their best output. You'll find similar statistics for how long after someone started working that they produced their best work for the great and the near-great. The great simply find more time to be productive, and continue longer. It's possible that early productivity and continuing results enable the greatest producers in any field to continue contributing longer, which adds to their records, but single-mindedness and continuing focus is also crucial.

Simonton covers topics including intelligence, personality, birth order effects, genetics (mostly focusing on the extent to which greatness runs in families), pathology, and what makes some periods more fertile than others. The lack of mathematical models makes most of his speculation hard to trust as he seldom compares the statistics of the successful with those of their surroundings. If you don't know how often familial connections should arise by chance, it's hard to conclude that any particular number of examples demonstrates the existence or lack of any effect. Overall, there were lots of interesting facts and factoids, and the writing is engaging, but it's hard to take many of the conclusions very seriously as anything more than anecdote.

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