Moneyball’s Learning Curve

The fundamental mistake is in taking the patterns we observe around us as facts of nature. They are not; they are the result of rational individuals adjusting to a particular set of constraints. . . . Change the constraints and, given a little time to adjust, the patterns change. — David Friedman, Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life

What’s the best way to get someone to change their behavior? Use a carrot? Use a stick? I’ve been interested in motivation every since I became a teacher and discovered that teachers can’t motivate students. If you beat them with a stick it doesn’t increase their skills and they’ll come to hate the process of learning. If you entice them with the carrot they’ll do just enough to get the carrot and no more. Unlike teachers, most students don’t enjoy learning for its own sake. Come to think of it, teachers don’t either: they learn in order to accomplish a goal. But one thing that separates teachers from students is that teachers can’t understand why the goals they love aren’t what students love. 
And that brings us to Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, based on the book of the same title by Michael Lewis. Lewis has a talent for making economics interesting in such bestsellers as Liar’s Poker and The Big Short. With Moneyball he looks inside the economics of baseball. The conventional wisdom is that the big spenders (Yankees, Red Sox) buy the best players and the division titles. They may even win the World Series. Money equals wins. But Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, had little money—in fact, the lowest buying budget of any team around the league. 
His first move was to hire a shy, soft-spoken kid, an economics graduate from Yale, who lived and breathed statistics—baseball statistics. It was the kid’s idea that meticulous scrutiny of a player’s stats could reveal patterns of performance that pointed to value rarely seen by scouts or managers alike. Most of the players Beane picks up in following this advice are the bargain-basement overlooked or the over-the-hill gang that no one wants.  
Predictably, the A’s scouts, a group of leathery, tough old guys, can’t see the logic and don’t appreciate the implication that tables of stats can trump years of experience. Beane is too old to waste time on methods that no longer work and young enough that he’s willing to bet the farm—and his reputation—on unproven concepts. This isn’t a movie review and I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but this is the takeaway I received: what people are worth is the value they place on their integrity. 
Billy Beane takes a clutch of misfits, has-beens, and also-rans and turns them into a team that wins 20 in a row—a record that no other team had achieved before—by thinking of them as parts in a system rather than individual stars. Without the money to buy a slugger he goes for the ones who get on base. He buys a pitcher whose delivery looks like a knuckle-dragging primate on speed, and turns a broken catcher, Scott Hatteberg, into a first-baseman. “What’s your biggest fear?” asks David Justice, a veteran player. “That someone will hit the ball toward me,” breathes Hatteberg. After Justice stops chuckling, he says, “Good one! That’s funny. But seriously. . . “   “No, really,” says Hatteberg, looking away. “That is my biggest fear.” 
By accepting the constraints and working to maximize the effects, Beane and his staff turned the club around and, some would argue, changed the game. He was hardly an inspirational speaker, at least as portrayed in the movie, and he seems to have deliberately distanced himself at first from the players. “That makes it easier for him to cut us, right?” asks a player of Beane’s assistant. But as the season grinds on with few wins Beane holds informal seminars on the method and gradually convinces the players that together they can win. A few men with journeymen talent and an ability to put ego aside can achieve more than the glittering superstars. He trades a player whose taste for the fast life is messing with his game, sends a rookie star to Philadelphia because of his attitude, and regretfully but firmly drops a player who cannot measure up. 
What are we worth? Exactly what we contribute when we put our hearts into it. But there’s no gauzy optimism in the A’s locker room, and you’ll never hear “I Believe I Can Fly” blasting from the sound system. In a scene that would make motivational coaches and school counselors cringe, Beane strides into the locker room after yet another loss and berates the players for celebrating anyway. “Do you like losing?” he yells and flings a bat down a corridor. In the sudden silence the sound reverberates for a long, long time. “That’s what losing sounds like,” he snarls, and stalks out. In the economy of teams at the bottom only one effect can give rise to a new cause: you have to hate losing more than you care about winning. In Beane’s pedagogy that’s neither a carrot nor a stick: it’s self-respect coupled with realism. 
Carol Dweck is a psychologist whose 30-plus years of research into motivation among children seems to back up Beane’s intuitions. She notes in her book, Self-Theories, that “The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles.” Moreover, she punctures beliefs that are prevalent in our society, such as those with high ability are more likely to be mastery-oriented, and praising a student’s intelligence will encourage qualities of mastery. They’re not and it won’t, she says. Instead, the ones who succeed are most often those who persist with vigor and humility to overcome obstacles, and who believe that they can learn, that intelligence is not fixed at birth. That’s a cheer for the underdogs, but Dweck even goes one better: her research shows that the students who easily pull A’s but collapse in frustration when up against something difficult can learn a new attitude. They can shift from avoiding anything that would spoil their record to enjoying the challenge of learning something new. In other words, they are motivated from within. 
Perhaps, at the risk of over-simplification, this could be expressed as a set of goals: See your limitations as challenges. Learn to love the questions. Keep at it. Share what you know. 

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