From Lincoln to Linsanity: The Link Between Opportunity and Success

Abraham Lincoln is widely hailed as the greatest US president of all time. Its not really close since his main competition, George Washington & Thomas Jefferson, did most of their great deeds before they were actually elected. What’s interesting is that Lincoln actually lost the popular vote to the Democrats in 1860 – 47% to 39% – a blowout in a typical election but 1860 was special. Only New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania recognized one Democratic Party. The other states were split between a candidate from the North and one from the South, thus handing the election to Mr. Lincoln. This was the only time in which that happened. Without that fluke event, Mr. Lincoln would never have had the opportunity to showcase his greatness.

If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?

The United States of America is different from most other western democracies in that they have a distinct executive branch of government and not a parliament. Instead of the leaders of the parties squaring off in a congressional like setting you have one winner with all the power and one loser with no role in governance. The job of president, or “Leader of the Free World” like the American Media likes to say, is like no other.

The way people get selected for this job is also unique among western democracies. Elections in Canada and elsewhere are toned down affairs with only a few weeks of debating prior to an election which results in a little shuffling of seats among the parties with most of the major players returning for another term. Elections in America last forever with an endless series of primaries and debates, and a large cast of characters which is slowly whittled down to one man. It is in many ways the longest, most difficult job interview in the world.

At the present time it appears likely that Mitt Romney will be the one to go up against President Obama in November. While I don’t have a dog in this fight and don’t care to comment specifically on their politics I do find it interesting that these two particular men are up for this role. Mitt Romney it is said looks like a president. He’s a handsome man, well spoken, and likewise could be cast as a president in a movie. In 2008 much was made of the fact that Mr. Obama didn’t look like other presidents, an obvious nod to his biracial heritage. However, without question, Mr. Obama is also a handsome man and very well spoken. Is this now a requirement of being a good president?

Lincoln himself famously said, after being accused of being two faced:

“If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

How about the timbre of his voice?

Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered.
–William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.
–Abram Bergen in Intimate Memories of Lincoln

The difference of course is that Lincoln lived at a time when photography was in its infancy. While he wasn’t the first president to be photographed, those images were still decades away from showing up in your daily paper. In contrast the election of 1920 took place during the golden days of the newspaper industry. Both candidates were newspaper moguls and the winner that year, Warren G. Harding certainly looked presidential. He is also widely considered to be the worst US president of all time.

Don't Judge a Book By its CoverIn Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he refers to this tendency to judge a book by its cover as the the Warren Harding Error.

Now one could argue that presidential politics is different because in the real world a person would be fired immediately if they proved to be incompetent. However it is important to note that ones success or failure is directly related to the opportunities one is granted in the first place.

Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity. – Henry Hartman

All the preparation in the world won’t help you if you are never given the chance. Consider the case of another recent news maker, one Jeremy Lin

When Jeremy Lin graduated from high school he was named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year. However he was not offered a scholarship to play basketball in University. Many would make the case that it had something to do with his Asian heritage.

It is likely far more complicated than that but his case illustrates another way that opportunities often go to the wrong person. My own opinion, albeit as someone who knows very little about basketball, is that it was a combination of four factors that caused the scouts to miss on Jeremy’s talent.

The first has to do with sample size. It has been said that Jeremy only applied to the schools in the PAC 10. That’s 10 schools with 13 scholarships each, divided by the five positions on a basketball team. Assuming they recruit they all positions equally (certainly not a given) that leaves only 26 possible opportunities. If Jeremy had been willing to apply to Long Beach State or a number of other division one schools, his odds of landing a scholarship would have been much higher.

The official reason given by the scouts is that they thought he was undersized. Currently he is 6’3″ and 200lbs which is small by NBA standards but right in line with most division 1 schools. However its fairly likely that he has filled in quite a bit since his high school days and was indeed undersized.

However I also suspect this might be a bit of politically correct shorthand for what scouts really thought of him. Namely that he was the product of an excellent school, had excellent coaching and all the benefits afforded a wealthy family. He was in a sense already as good as he could be and the one things all scouts look for is project-ability. A player of equal skill but with an impoverished background and little coaching would seem to have more upside.

Lastly I think when it comes to a difficult decision people tend to do what they feel is the safest option. There is an expression in the computer business that no one was ever fired for buying IBM. When you are faced with a player like Jeremy who is already on the margins due to limited opportunity, size, and project-ability, what scout is going to risk his reputation by making the case for the player that looks different? Some people might call that racism but I don’t think its quite that simple.

The Jeremy Lin saga continues onto college where he proves himself again to be a great player and yet is not drafted into the NBA. Despite that he manages to land a spot on the bench of an NBA team and plays sparingly in his rookie season, primarily in the garbage time at the end of a game. He’s cut, picked by a second team, cut again before the season starts, picked up by a third team and sent to a developmental league. Then the impossible happens. A rash of injuries strikes the parent club and he gets a temporary spot on the bench. Then while the team is desperately trying to sign a veteran replacement, one that will require Jeremy to be cut again, yet another injury befalls the team and instead he gets a chance to start. Linsanity ensues.

LinsanityLinsanity itself was conflated by a number of factors. The two highest paid stars were out with injury, thus giving Jeremy the opportunity to make his own decisions on what to do with the ball and thus reap in the lions share of the credit when things turned out so well. It helped that he played in the biggest media market in the world, New York City, and his arrival happened to corresponded with a slate of games against conveniently weaker opponents, which was right after the Superbowl when there was a lull in sporting related news. His Cinderella story and Asian heritage only drove it to greater heights. While the media hype has since died down one truth still remains, Jeremy Lin is a very good basketball player and all the NBA teams, including several that had him in house, misjudged his talent.

I think not being drafted is the easiest to explain away. Once he committed to Havard he basically took himself out of the running. Havard hasn’t produced an NBA player since 1953 and I doubt the Ivy League is scouted at all. Despite all that he did there the perception would be that he was playing against inferior talent. Another theory that has been proffered is that the system Coach D’Antoni was running in New York perfectly matched his skill set. Well that may in fact be true there is another theory, best expressed by the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The Anna Karenina Principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one in which every last one of the possible deficiencies has been avoided.

To put this is a sports context, a player has to be really good at everything in order to overcome the bias that would normally prevent them from getting an opportunity to perform in the first place. Example, short baseball players are as a group, much better hitters than taller players. There is no athletic advantage to being short, it is simply the fact that players with ideal body types are given more opportunities to succeed while their shorter teammates are weeded out unless they are really good.

In a sense you become your opportunities. People who are given one great opportunity are often give another based solely on that first experience, and it builds from there. Conversely a person that was never given that experience, is already at a disadvantage despite the fact that they indeed may be more competent that that person if only given a chance.

A survey of Fortune 500 CEO height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 6 ft 0 in (1.83 m) tall, which is approximately 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) taller than the average American man. 30% were 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height. Similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m) in height. Ninety percent of CEOs are of above average height.

Numerous studies have shown that short people are paid less than taller people, and yet no study has proven that tall people are in any way more competent than their vertically challenged peers.

Now I can’t blame my own career struggles on my height. While I’m not a tall man, I’m not all that short either. I have though had many job interviews in my life, many of them could have been monumental, life changing experiences. I have another one this week and I’m trying to stay positive because I know, all it takes, is one opportunity.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Billy on March 18, 2012 at 3:12 am

    Another great perspective Dave.

    5:11 AM – What’s up with that!!


  2. Posted by jennifer on March 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Thought-provoking and incredibly well written! I’ll be sharing this with a few key people who I know are waiting and deserve to have opportunity cross their paths
    as well.


  3. Posted by aj on March 21, 2012 at 7:19 am

    politics, sports and brain games

    good luck with your interview


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