The Counterintuitive Yet Elegant Philosophy of Non-Action

Recently I read Michael Lewis's Moneyball. It is a remarkable book, especially considering that I know little about statistics and less about baseball--or little about baseball and less about statistics: take your pick.

But the book is well-written and gripping. In many ways it reminds me of Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand which kept me on the edge of my seat even though, by the time I'd read it, I'd seen the movie several times. It takes a good writer to surprise you with a known outcome.

But the part of the book that strikes me most is not the ending. About half-way through the book, Lewis begins to discuss Bill James, hits, and runs. He basically goes through the math of showing the worth of a player who is willing to be walked versus a player who flails away at anything (which is pretty much the way I play the game; shoot, I start waving the bat AFTER the ball crosses the plate).

He goes on to examine Oakland A's' unique willingness to "hire" (buy?) players willing to let pitches go by, even to earn strikes, in order to get on-base. David Justice--whose age had lowered his apparent worth (yeah, men in sports over 30 slow down)--still had the supreme gift of being patient at the plate; the A's, through DePodesta, had discovered that "an extraordinary ability to get on base was more likely to stay with a player to the end of his career than, say, an extraordinary ability to hit home runs."
The Two Hattebergs

And then came the part of the book that made my hair stand on end, the chapter about Hatteberg:
Hatteberg's was a more subtle, less visible strength. He was unafraid of striking out and this absence of fear showed itself in how often he hit with two strikes . . . The A's hitting coaches had to drill into hitters' heads the idea that there was nothing especially bad about striking out . . . It angered [Hatteberg] far less to take a called strike than to swing at a pitch he couldn't do much with, and hit some lazy fly or weak grounder.
Lewis discusses how counter-intuitive this business of striking out, allowing for strikes, is in a culture where hitting, hitting anything, has become the end-all-be-all of a player's life.

But it isn't just counter-intuitive in baseball--it is counter-intuitive in life. At least American life.

I read what Lewis wrote about the worth of not reacting precipitously and thought, "But that's just about every single argument I've tried to make in the workplace in my life."

And lost--because our culture says that to do something, ANYTHING, is better than not doing something. Administrations/heads/bosses feel a constant compulsion to rejigger things, overview stuff, review whatever. Change what happened before. Add extra steps. BIG BIG BIG. MORE MORE MORE.

I knew I was a libertarian before reading Lewis's book. I had no idea it was more than just a distaste for punditry and political excess.

For example, I have always instinctively worked to keep my courses from becoming morasses of "little work"--continual small homework assignments and projects with endless readings and recourse to the textbook. I always figured, if I can't convey basic writing principals in a single semester using a minimum of assignments/outside texts, I'm not doing my job. The more I've taught, the more I've come to believe this. (In fact, I've reached the point where I think textbooks should be banned; any instructor who relies on a textbook to teach a class shouldn't be teaching.)

Because constant motion doesn't automatically achieve anything. And Moneyball proves this. Or maybe Bill James did before the Oakland A's put it to the test and Lewis wrote about it. But Lewis says it in a way that instantly clicked in my head: There's nothing automatically meritorious about doing-something-for-the-sake-of-the-doing. There's nothing to be gained from creating more and more hoops for people, like students, to jump through for the sake of showing how hard somebody other than the students are working. There's nothing worthwhile about inventing supposed needs--students must learn to do X, Y, or Z--just so teachers and administrators can then fulfill those needs.

There's no merit in appearing caring and charitable if the care and charity is merely meant to show off the personalities and character of the responders.

"We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented," Matthew 11:17. Seems like an odd sentence to show up in the New Testament but boy, does it say a lot about human nature, especially the political mindset, wherever that mindset appears.


Anonymous said...


Here is a curious paradox. As you observed, popular entertainment celebrates the cerebral protagonist who uses brains to defeat brawn. An example is The Karate Kid where the old man guru uses unconventional techniques to prepare the undersized Daniel to defeat his angry, wild and ferocious bully. There are many more such examples and the American people lap it all up.

But in the real world the American people have no expectation of such behavior in their leaders. There is nothing cerebral in how our politicians act and only rarely is it the case in our managers. Rather, in the real world urgency and intervention is applauded. This is so to the point that we celebrate those who respond to crisis, irrespective of the responsibility such people have had in creating the crisis. As so, why are we surprised that so much of government finds itself in crisis?

Thus the paradox: People embrace the fiction of the unorthodox hero but in real life they invariably resort to orthodoxy, both in accepting it and practicing it themselves. What explains this divide between the type of leadership people hope for and what they actually accept?

~ Dan

Kate Woodbury said...

I wonder about this myself. In fact, I was about to tweak the post just a bit to clarify that the arguments I've made in various committee meetings throughout the years were not necessarily the right arguments. I might have been wrong. Or right. But I remember them because the consistent reaction has been a kind of gasping, "But surely you don't expect us to remain idle!" with the undercurrent implication of "You're just being obstructive."

I think it's that fear of being obstructive and unhelpful that keeps leaders--and employees--moving, rah, rah, rah. Maybe we allow our movie/sports heroes to be cerebral because it's "just" a movie/just a game. But our "real-life" leaders can never ever afford to appear callous or uncaring. I almost always give up when I try to argue non-action, especially in settings that involve "helping" people, because I don't know how to counter responses like "But don't we need to show we care?! Isn't it important that people have this skill or aid or solution? How can we not act? Aren't we trying to make the world a better place? Are you just going to give up? Our recommended solution isn't that big a deal, so why not just do it? Aren't you being a tad . . . lazy?"

Uh . . .

When I read Lewis's book, my brain went "oh WOW"--it was a sign, like getting a voice from beyond the grave, confirmation that this type of approach CAN work; failure--or perceived failure--is a legitimate way to handle problems. The willingness to allow it--to let the strikes come--is more valuable than a need to react.

But I still don't think I could prove non-action (wait for a better pitch) in a meeting--or successfully rebuttal a bunch of ethical and emotional responses.

Part of the pressure, for leaders at least, is that humans are capable of grossly unreasonable expectations. Dial-up used to be so slow, and now I complain about DSL. We figure if we can imagine it, it should be true and true *right now.* Those expectations fuel the ethical and emotional responses, making them that much harder to refute.

On the other hand, I like to remember Hyneman-Savage from Mythbusters. Apparently, they were (laughingly) proposed as a ticket in the last election. So it was kind of a joke, but I understood the reasoning; there's something so cool and relaxing about the experimental nature of the show, the willingness of both men to say, "Huh, that didn't work. What if we tried it this way?"

Wouldn't it be amazing if that was the attitude in Washington? Huh, this isn't working--hey, let's try something different! It may not work either, but how do we know until we try? And if it doesn't work, we'll scrap it too.

Yeah, it will never happen, but it's nice to know that there are people out there who wish that it would.