Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Talent versus character

Mets lose!Major League Baseball's playoffs have begun, and I am left to justify a little bit of gloating I indulged when I wrote Bye-bye, Mets! I freely confess to hating New York's baseball teams as virulently as I despise Notre Dame football and Duke basketball. In the case of the 2007 Mets, though, there is a MoneyLaw point. Please bear with me.

In the immediate wake of the Mets' epic collapse -- since the advent of divisional play in 1969, no other major league team has ever blown a lead of seven games or more with no more than 17 games to play -- William Rhoden of the New York Times asked whether the Mets' catastrophe lay in a failure of talent or a failure of character. Rhoden reported the punchline of an interview with Pat Gillick, the general manager of the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies:
Gillick said that for many years he felt that talent was everything. But he said after watching Philadelphia overcome injuries and other adversity this season and overtake the Mets, he had concluded that talent was overrated.

Talent is important, he said, but what is more important is mental toughness, character, passion and the desire to win.
Read it again. Talent [is] overrated. Talent is important, . . . but what is more important is mental toughness, character, passion and the desire to win.

As firmly as I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow in the east, I believe Pat Gillick. Talent is important, but what is more important is toughness, passion, and the desire to win. Talent matters. But character trumps talent.

Salmon spawningOn Main Street as on Wall Street, from Bellingham to Boca Raton, talent abounds. There is no shortage of smart people. This forum devotes much of its energy to decrying lazy academics' reliance on credentials as a proxy for performance, largely because talent is actually quite easy to calibrate. Read, listen, assess. Sometimes it takes no more than a minute to assess talent. But assessing talent is hard work, and a minute is a long time. Even so, those who approach the question of talent with patience and honesty will find a satisfying answer.

Character, on the other hand, is an elusive trait. Of "mental toughness, character, passion and the desire to win," the traits that propelled the Phillies and not the Mets to this year's baseball playoffs, Pat Gillick says: "These are things that cannot be measured." By contrast, William Rhoden reasoned: "perhaps they can be, in the space and time it takes for a team to collapse with 17 games left."

Character rarely if ever reveals itself upon first contact. Indeed, weeks, months, years may pass before we realize, with consternation, that a fellow faculty member, talented though she or he may be in the classroom and in the research studio, is so odiously selfish, so morally bankrupt that we would gladly trade that Arschloch's annual output of 14 credit hours and 200 journal pages for a year of peace in the hallways and at faculty meetings.

Why should this be so? I believe that it is yet another manifestation, in academia as in life at large, of the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil:
Three deansAnd it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
Every virtuous colleague is alike. Every evil colleague is evil in his or her own way.

NeroNero flipped

The Roman emperor Claudius -- legendarily and perhaps unfairly too -- called his fourth wife (and the mother of Nero), Agrippina the Younger, the "worst woman in Rome." I remember well the moment I realized that I had met the worst professor in the American legal academy. Indeed, in what is perhaps the greatest failure of moral judgment in my career, I had once counted him a friend. All that came before he devoted his considerable energy to destroying his school. I remember equally well the words that others used to excuse his odium. "He's a smart guy. Brilliant, even." Others liked his "charm." I needn't contest his brilliance or his charm, because this much will be true till the day he leaves academia for good: Any law school claiming him as a faculty member would be stronger without him. Worst of all, till character joins talent as a coin of the academic realm, law schools will continue to hire -- and tenure -- morally stunted professors who systematically place their own interests ahead of those of their students and of their schools.

The worst law professor in the United States reportedly hates baseball, among his many other flaws. But if he were a follower of the great American pastime, he would definitely be a Mets fan.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Not being brilliant, charming or caring at all for the Mets I am relieved to know that, at worst, I am the second worst law professor.

Your post strikes a cord. I can remember being on an appointments committee discussing a high level lateral hire. There were charges that he was improperly involved with students and some other matters. Finally, the dean who was sitting in on the meeting, said something to the effect that it really was time to turn to the merits of the hire. Huh? Most of us thought we had already started that discussion.

10/03/2007 11:11 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So, basically, the only reason I can rule out some folks I know as being the "worst law professor ever" is that none of the candidates I have in mind could possibly be in the running, given the criteria: each lacks (pick any) true brilliance, true charm, or any real caring for more than himself. I can live with that.

Can we start a second list of people who, if they improved dramatically, could be in the running for "worst ever"?

10/04/2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Actually, Nancy, neither brilliance nor charm is necessary for someone to qualify for the "worst professor" crown. Indeed, in the absence of moral factors, I would assign the "worst" title to someone who is dull and stupid.

What makes Professor Odium so, well, odious is his relentless selfishness. It is something that you can't detect through a home page or a CV.

To sum up: you don't need to be brilliant or charming to be evil. It's simply that being brilliant or charming cannot redeem your malignant soul.

10/04/2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

As a long-time Red Sox fan, I have to say that I'm glad that the huge choke job this year belongs to the Mets. I feel better about a certain World Series as a result. Sometime in the mid-1980s, can't remember exactly....

10/07/2007 7:55 PM  

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