December 7, 2004

Tail of the distribution

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at December 7, 2004 4:07 PM

Kevin Drum has an important point here:

This is something that too few smart people appreciate: in most things that matter, you're not competing with the whole world. You're competing with a tiny subset of the world that's probably at least as smart and knowledgable as you — and probably more so. Caveat emptor.

The example that prompted this was investment, but it's equally true in physics. I only gradually realized that my ability puts me somewhere in the vicinity of the median among physicists, and as a corollary, the competition for the few jobs in the field (should I decide to stay in academia) will be very tough.

UPDATE: I was thinking more about this and realized something else. Back when I was an academic hotshot (this mainly means high school), I felt that this status in a way excused my weird, anti-social personality quirks: shyness, poor conversational skills, an inability to parse language and detect nuance. I was still unhappy about having these flaws, but they didn't matter that much because (a) it seemed like a trade-off for being really good at physics, and (b) I saw physics as a kind of calling for which it was worthwhile to set aside normal human interaction. Now this thinking by itself is pretty irrational, but over time I had to give it up anyway; nowadays I routinely meet people who understand physics at a level far beyond my capabilities, but also have well-developed social skills, so there's no way to maintain the illusion that "I can be weird because I'm a physicist". As I've found myself closer to the population median than the high end, my character flaws have become more prominent, and correction of them has become more urgent—this may just be a convoluted way of saying an obvious fact: not being the best at something is forcing me to become more well-rounded.

(I want to clarify that I don't think weirdness is necessarily a flaw; just that aspects of my weirdness happen to be flaws.)

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Comments

Thinking realistically is important, I will agree. But I also think it's equally important to recognize what makes you unique. (I'm using "you" in the general sense.) There may be others "as smart and knowledgable as you", but there is something that makes you different. Recognizing individuality and embracing it can make a big difference in a competition, I've found. Then again I'm not a scientist or an academic, so I'm not able to speak from experience.

Posted by: Tracy | December 7, 2004 6:53 PM

I think that's true in a lot of contexts; one example is that if I do leave academia, having a physics PhD will help me stand out among job applicants, and this by itself may help me win the job even if it's not one that is directly related to physics. In physics itself, one's prior research and publications are of such primary importance that uniqueness may not be as much of a factor, but it probably still applies in some form.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 7, 2004 7:29 PM

Regarding the update: Okay, I admire your recognition of your "character flaw". In my limited counseling experience at HAWC I have found that recognition of a problem is a really big step. The next step is to walk the walk. It's one thing to admit a flaw, it's another to take active steps to change. A person can only talk for so long.

My mother is an excellent example: she has been "quitting smoking, I swear" for the past 30 years. She talks about it a lot. She knows all of the facts, she recognizes the problems, she even understands the deeper psychological influences at work. But she never quits. She's a good talker. But no action. See what I mean?

Posted by: Tracy | December 8, 2004 12:09 PM

You're quite right, and as others here can attest I've recognized the existence of these flaws for some time even though I haven't taken steps to correct them. Indeed I chose my words carefully when I said that correction had become "more urgent"; even with my increased focus I have yet to take any major action. Instead I have concentrated on some other changes I wanted to make to myself (which are mostly accomplished at this point).

Lately I've been formulating strategies for attacking this shyness/poor social skills combination. It's not like I can just practice by going out and talking to random people; the likely outcome is that I will embarrass myself and get discouraged. And it's a difficult thing to attack piecewise--overcome the shyness and then learn social skills--because these things reinforce each other. I'm distrustful of chemical approaches (e.g. Paxil). But there are other avenues I haven't tried yet, and I think a successful strategy probably exists.

And if I can't learn to interact with others like a normal human, I should at least be able to learn to fake it.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 8, 2004 2:09 PM

So...what you're saying is that you're still not doing anything. I'm not trying to be argumentative here, I'm just cutting through the talk.

Posted by: Tracy | December 8, 2004 2:47 PM

It's worse than that: I still haven't even taken the time to figure out what I should be doing. This isn't like quitting smoking where the task is obvious, and what's missing is the motivation or the discipline to do it. I don't (yet) even know what set of actions I need to take to get rid of shyness and learn social skills.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 8, 2004 3:00 PM

Bah... I would rather people be interesting/nice/etc than have good social skills!

Granted, it's not like I'm one to talk, but if some of the ways that I prefer acting turn people off, then so be it. There's also a group of people who specifically respect me for my bluntness, etc. Of course, I somehow have an incredible rapport with students even with my reputation for really high expectations, so I obviously have some social skills. Or it could be the Summer Fun Cthulhu in my office that indicates I'm not just some typical stuck up professor... (I _would_ like to get better at meeting people in the first place, but I think I do fine once I know them. I have been told on several occasions that I can be charismatic once somebody gets me to talk, but this is colored by the fact that it's always from the set of people who continue talking to me, so there are clearly significant correlations here.)

As for the level of the competition, no kidding! Some of these people are just freaks! That's how brilliant they are...

In terms of social skills, I agree that many physicists actually have them. (It's amazing when one discovers that, eh?) One thing that is quite interesting is that when one walks into math departments, one finds that most of these people _don't_ have good social skills. The difference is really quite stark. Go to a pure math conference versus either an applied math or a physics conference and these people are just walking bundles of social and neural inadequacies. (And I mean this in the kinding way possible...)

P.S. How close to Davis are you? It's an hour, right? I'm going to be there on 1/4 to talk about my research and stuff. I arrive early on 1/3 and could possibly hang out that day before the interview. (Will you even be in the Bay Area that time of the month?) I think Tim will be around, so we could power up my mad math skillz with some steak soup and prime rib!

Posted by: Mason | December 8, 2004 6:36 PM

Bah... I would rather people be interesting/nice/etc than have good social skills!

Um...I'm thinking that interesting/nice/etc could/should go hand-in-hand with good social skills. I'm wondering if perhaps the phrase "social skills" needs defining for our purpose here. I know that for me social skills would include being thoughtful of others, having good manners...I'm going to have to think about this now. Hm.

Posted by: Tracy | December 8, 2004 7:42 PM

Mason: Personally I think your conversational skills are pretty good; clearly you're more of a physicist than a mathematician. :)

Of course, it's another self-selection effect that my friends are people who value interesting/nice/etc. over social skills. :)

Tracy: What I mean by "social skills" are things like being able to strike up conversations with strangers, being able to mingle with a group of unfamiliar people, being able to fill conversational lulls, and so forth. Thoughtfulness and politeness don't seem like "skills" in the sense of "techniques" (which is the way I'm using the word).

I worry that my lack of social skills may be misconstrued as thoughtlessness or rudeness, since I am likely to miss subtle emotional signals, or accidentally commit a gaffe which I then don't know how to fix. I also worry that I appear rude when my shyness freezes me up in conversation or drives me to the edge of a group. Of course, this doesn't remove the possibility that in addition to these factors I am indeed thoughtless and rude, which, reading your previous comments with your definition in mind, you appear to believe. I admit that this surprises me, and I will need to examine this aspect of myself. Improving my conversational techniques will do me no good if I am actually an asshole.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 8, 2004 8:28 PM

Hrm... Hrm...

First off, lemme think back to the Gazebo as he was when I first met him. Now lemme think about him now.

Hrm...

Maybe not by any concious effort, but there is a big difference there. Partly, I'm sure, just by how well I knew you. Partly, maybe, from my own point of view changing over time. But there's a big difference there.

Of course, I don't know how much I'm one to talk. I think of myself as being shy and completely socially retarded. On the other hand, I know that for some non-zero fraction of the time, I oddly have no problem interacting with people socially, even people I don't know at all.

Ponder ponder ponder...

Mason: Interestingly enough, pretty much everyone I've met here in applied math, aside from the super-introverted asian crowd who never talk to anyone, are fairly cool/socially adept. Certainly more adept than, say, yours truly. These are, for example, the people I game/eat pizza with on friday nights, and I still can't get myself to keep thinking, "what am I doing here, I'm not cool enough to hang out with these people..."

Yes, I know how retarded that sounds. It's just a little noise that goes off in my head once in a while.

You know, I swear I was going somewhere when I started writing this, but I have completely forgotten what I was talking about. Win!

And wrt to the possibility of a little meet-up in Davis. I still don't know if I'll be able to swing it, but if more people might be able to be there, I could certainly try harder to pull it off. ^^

Ah well. Gazebo, I still think you're way too damn critical of yourself. If you ask me, *that* is your only serious flaw. Suck it.

Posted by: Lemming | December 9, 2004 12:38 AM

Oh hey, I forgot to respond to Mason's question about his Davis visit. It turns out I'm returning to Berkeley from my holiday excursions late on 1/3. I could try to meet you in Davis on 1/4 if you have time...

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 9, 2004 1:09 AM

Uh....1/4 is my interview. I could call you when I get back from dinner.

The stakes are high. (I hope, however, that on 1/3 the steaks will be high!)

Tim: I distinguished applied mathematicians from the pure mathematicians. You didn't notice that dig or have you just heard it from me enough that it slides under the radar now?

To put things in perpsective:

Applied math = me
pure math = Ben Miller


Actually, I like Ben Miller quite a bit, but I like to use this particular example when contrasting pure and applied mathematicians. :)

Social skills: I separate this from the quality of a person. Smooth talkers (who typically have good social skills, at least the way I use the word) are far from my favorite people in the world. There are a number of people whose social skills depend mightily on their insincerity, and I would just like to fart in their general direction right now. Give me the tactless person who is legitimately nice every day of the week! (Speaking from one who knows and acts kind of like that...)

My social skills: I do fine with people I know. Just think of what I was doing during Rotation (just sitting and chilling instead of meeting frosh), although I grant that that's forced. It's the meeting in the first place that's my problem, although the Cthulhu in the office really helps in that regard. :)

Once I am actually talking I'm ok, because it doesn't take me long to amuse people with a quip, etc.

Posted by: Mason | December 9, 2004 4:02 PM

Uh....1/4 is my interview. I could call you when I get back from dinner.

The stakes are high. (I hope, however, that on 1/3 the steaks will be high!)

Tim: I distinguished applied mathematicians from the pure mathematicians. You didn't notice that dig or have you just heard it from me enough that it slides under the radar now?

To put things in perpsective:

Applied math = me
pure math = Ben Miller


Actually, I like Ben Miller quite a bit, but I like to use this particular example when contrasting pure and applied mathematicians. :)

Social skills: I separate this from the quality of a person. Smooth talkers (who typically have good social skills, at least the way I use the word) are far from my favorite people in the world. There are a number of people whose social skills depend mightily on their insincerity, and I would just like to fart in their general direction right now. Give me the tactless person who is legitimately nice every day of the week! (Speaking from one who knows and acts kind of like that...)

My social skills: I do fine with people I know. Just think of what I was doing during Rotation (just sitting and chilling instead of meeting frosh), although I grant that that's forced. It's the meeting in the first place that's my problem, although the Cthulhu in the office really helps in that regard. :)

Once I am actually talking I'm ok, because it doesn't take me long to amuse people with a quip, etc.

Posted by: Mason Porter | December 9, 2004 4:03 PM

I think there is a certain class of people who are not terribly socially adept generally, but do well in social situations where they have a pre-defined role. Being a caretaker, for instance, I was automatically the one everybody turned to for advice and general conversation. Answering the same questions over & over got me used to talking to everybody in a casual & low-key way, & gradually I got more comfortable talking about just about anything with them. When you're working in a lab, your role is less generally helpful, but still -- if you're talking about your research with people who are interested in similar things, or who've gone to you specifically to inquire about an aspect of your work you're very familiar with, it's probably relatively easy to answer them. I think the key to becoming more "socially adept" (not that it will make you the butterfly at every cocktail party, but i don't think it's really necessary -or in everybody's personality - to get to that level) is to actively take on roles that require you to interact with people a lot -- whether they're fellow physicists , or patients (says the someday-doctor), or hikers, or people in a coffee shop. It's a sort of less-awkward societally-acceptable behavioral conditioning. : )

Posted by: Anonymous | December 10, 2004 1:43 PM
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