Day: December 17, 2017

Fifth-Grade Basketball as a Metaphor for Science, Life, and Anything Else You Can Think of

I love watching my kids take part in various athletic competitions. For Eldest, it’s been swimming; for Middle Boy, it’s been flag football, soccer one season and a couple of years of lackluster swimming, but his main sport is basketball. He’s really good at it and passionate about the game. I’m that parent who yells supportive and possibly embarrassing stuff from the sidelines (I don’t care; all grace and self-consciousness evaporated once I started having children). It’s interesting to see how much these kids want to win, how they compete with all they’ve got, and how much they hustle. None of them have hit puberty yet, so I can only imagine how the games are going to look once all the testosterone kicks in…

Middle Boy is now in fifth grade and the YMCA basketball season is in full swing. He loves this year’s team, which is mostly composed of his friends from school. (If you felt the need to say “comprised by” here, I hate you with the burning passion of a thousand suns and I will never be your friend, for the banishment of the misuse of ‘comprise’ is  among the grammar hills I am willing to die on.) There are a couple of kids not from MB’s school, one of whom is excellent and has had the possession of the ball 75% of the time in the first two games; the team lost both of those games. Honestly, I thought the team was not very good, as there were no plays, just that one kid trying to do his own thing and sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

That excellent external kid missed the last two games, and the team blossomed. It was amazing to watch. Suddenly, they moved the ball, made passes, organized offense, every single one of the players got to touch the ball, and nearly everyone scored at least once. The kids played beautifully and won these last two games, all with their nominally best player absent. We finally saw that the team had five more great people, who could both hold their own and mesh well together.

MB tells me they are joking that they should ‘fire’ that kid who’s their best player. The kid is selfish with the ball, not a team player (focused on scoring himself and blowing far too many good chances that could have resulted in scoring if a play had been executed), and overall just not an asset to the team, or not as great of an asset as everyone had thought at the outset. We’ll see what the coach does when the kid comes back.

But this is also a metaphor for doing science and life in general.

I am not sure that there is any level of excellence in science or in any other endeavor that justifies extreme selfishness. Or rudeness, or being otherwise toxic to other people. We in science, just like people in ‘the real world,’ tend to forgive a lot to people whom we perceive as brilliant, as someone who’d be hard to replace.

We shouldn’t. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Removal of assholes is always a benefit.

Tolerance of assholes brings everyone down.

One’s value is not measured when that person is in vacuum, not interacting with anyone else. One’s value to any enterprise and the society at large comes in part from that individual’s capabilities, but at least as much, if not more, from how they gel with the capabilities of others.

Any team sport will show the same dynamics: if the team has good chemistry, they become much more than the sum of individuals’ abilities. Otherwise, they are not a team, and they will be overrun by the opponents who are one.