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6. Present Yourself as a Reformed Hare


In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr Duckworth cites surveys where Americans say they believe that effort is more important than talent for success. There is also evidence, she says, that employers see an employee’s ability to work hard as being more important than their intelligence. It’s the same story for musical experts asked about the importance of effortful practice over natural talent.


At least that is what they say.


The scientific evidence produced by Dr Chia Jung Tsay, as we saw in the second post in this series, suggests something else, which she calls the “naturalness bias.” This bias can be defined as:

“… a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.”


This is where Dr Duckworth introduces the concepts of the “natural” and the “striver.” Because of the naturalness bias, individuals who are considered naturally talented receive more favourable treatment and are more often selected over strivers when opportunities for advancement arise.


But then Duckworth highlights the difficulties in distinguishing between being a natural and being a striver in terms of what we’re capable of achieving. When she asked Dr Tsay about what she thinks of herself, Tsay said she has some talent but is very much a striver. Dr Duckworth also recounts her colleague Barry Kaufman’s evolution from “learning disabled kid with no real future” to a leading academic with degrees from Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge University and Yale. We’ll talk more about Kaufman’s journey in the next post.


Dr Duckworth also shares how she was herself considered only borderline gifted as a child, though we know she eventually went on to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant”.


But her main focus is on the perception of external observers, and in particular her former employer, McKinsey, which in its report The War for Talent, advised organisations to chase after “A Players” as if their success depended on them, because according to McKinsey, it does.


What Duckworth finds most noteworthy, apart from McKinsey’s policy of only hiring the best and brightest for their own consulting practice, is its report’s definition of talent, which begins:

“In the most general sense, talent is the sum of a person’s abilities - his or her intrinsic gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgment, attitude, character, and drive. It also includes his or her ability to learn and grow.”


Duckworth says she is not surprised that the first-mentioned elements of talent are “intrinsic gifts”. According to Dr Duckworth, that’s consistent with a focus on naturals over strivers.

She ends her discussion with the observations of well-known author, Malcolm Gladwell, who questions the belief that focusing on how bright or intelligent people are is the way to organisational success. His examples include the culture that contributed to one of the largest corporate failures in American history, that of Enron. Dr Duckworth writes:

“Gladwell argues convincingly that demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.”


In this way, Duckworth seeks to warn us of the dangers of elevating natural talent to these levels. Enron is her case in point and a salutary lesson for those who dismiss the importance and value of grit too quickly.


Team Analysis


The ancient fable of The Tortoise and the Hare depicts the hare as naturally gifted, but also arrogant and lazy, and the tortoise as less athletic yet consistent enough in its efforts to ultimately win the race. While we were taught as children to be more like the tortoise, most of us instinctively understood it would be far better to be the hare - but just with a little more self-awareness and discipline.


Our natural attraction to this hybrid “Reformed Hare” option is consistent with our naturalness bias. It highlights the difficulty involved in changing what is ostensibly part of human nature.


Duckworth is understandably disappointed by the existence of the naturalness bias. She makes this clear when she talks of our “preoccupation with talent” being harmful because it downplays the importance of grit.


Dr Duckworth wants grit to shine brightly, as the hidden treasure she is revealing to the world. Its emphasis on effort over talent, is what she wants us to acknowledge and champion with her. The naturalness bias is not helpful to her cause, but rather an obstacle in the way.


Yet the naturalness bias is what it is. Like it or not, it is our reality, at least for the foreseeable future, regardless of how many people read Dr Duckworth’s book on grit or take on board her “effort matters twice” mantra.


People will always say they aren’t biased, especially if doing so makes them appear more culturally or politically sensitive. But the science of revealed preferences says that the naturalness bias is real and even predictable.


This reminds us of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s division of our thinking process into System 1 and System 2 thinking - which is roughly the difference between our fast, intuitive responses to events and our slower, reasoned consideration of them. This division highlights that our brains nearly always begin with a spontaneous, intuitive pre-judgment of a state of affairs, and these judgements will often be shaped by natural biases to minimize effort and maximise perceived gain.


We therefore do ourselves no favours by elaborating on - or demonstrating through exaggerated exertion - how much effort we might have to put into an activity to keep up with our seemingly more capable colleagues or competitors. Doing so just makes us look more like strivers and them look more like naturals. And when that happens, we are immediately at a disadvantage that could ultimately work against us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.


Here is a telling quote taken from later in Duckworth’s discussion on this subject. In this quote, she is referencing a radio commentator comparing the giftedness of Bill and Hillary Clinton as politicians:

“Hillary has to contort herself into the role. Bill is a natural; Hillary merely a striver. The unsaid but obvious implication is that she’ll never quite be his equal.”


We're not convinced the particular inference Duckworth is making is as obvious as she assumes. But the seriousness with which she views the issue is clear: For your own sake, do what you can to avoid being labelled a striver if being viewed as a natural - and ideally as a Reformed Hare - is an option.


Practitioner Perspective


I’ve had the opportunity to review the Meisterline Team’s analysis, and I agree that lawyers perhaps more than most professionals, instinctively believe that hares perform better than tortoises. It’s also been my experience that most of the hares that get through the hiring and retention filters - including the “up or out” policies - of many law firms and in-house legal departments, are invariably Reformed Hares.


Sure, there are some narcissistic and lazy lawyers with hubristic thinking, and there probably always will be. But these are the minority in my experience. The majority of lawyers I’ve worked with over many years have been smart and worked hard, and many of them were scary smart and unbelievably hardworking.


Regarding a focus on hiring A Players which Dr Duckworth seems to downplay, I’m reminded of a couple or quotes from Steve Jobs which have always rung true to me.

First, he said:

“I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 to 100 to 1.”


And secondly that:

“A small number of A-plus players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”


Dr Duckworth comes down hard on the culture at Enron, and rightly so. It was not a culture that was sustainable and it resulted in a terrible corporate collapse. At the same time, she wants to give greater recognition to strivers like Dr Tsay, Dr Kaufman and herself, whom she implies are just as capable yet face prejudice because they have to work hard to achieve success.


I’m not sure these things necessarily follow as a sequence. I do accept the existence of a deeply seated and spontaneous naturalness bias, and I agree with the Meisterline Team’s discussion of how we’re naturally attracted to the Reformed Hare as the best of all worlds. I just don’t see as much conflict or controversy in these things as Dr Duckworth seems to see.


One of the biggest takeaways from this discussion for me is that the honesty and candour of some lawyers unquestionably works against them. To reveal too much about your struggles and effortful practice can turn others off. You may see that as a failing on the listener’s part. Yet Dr Duckworth’s book, the research of Dr Tsay, McKinsey’s report, the Meisterline Team’s analysis, which references Daniel Kahneman’s thinking systems, and even Steve Jobs, make the case for expecting this to be the reality. So you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.


To make a generalised statement, as lawyers we love super-smart people. We’ll even, at times, put up with their less than admirable personal traits to have them on our teams. When a client is paying for quality work and the best possible results, trying to explain a suboptimal outcome because of our own personal distastes can be difficult. Not that bullying or discrimination should ever be condoned.


The bottom line, as I see it, is this: If you want to be chosen, to be given opportunities over others, and to be viewed with greater respect in an imperfect world, presenting yourself as a reformed hare will do you far more good than being viewed by others as the fabled tortoise.

This will help other people to focus more on your achievements, and - somewhat contrary to Dr Duckworth’s mantra - less on the effort you may need to put in to achieve them. Then, even if you aren’t a natural, you will have minimised the risk of the adverse effects of the naturalness bias working against you. You will also increase your chances of being seen as an A player and receiving all the benefits that come with that.


This may not be the lesson Duckworth wants us to learn. But it is probably good advice.


SELF-REFLECTION


Factual Question

1. What did Malcolm Gladwell identify was being discouraged by the culture at Enron?

A. A narcissistic culture

B. Long-term learning and growth

C. Smug showing-off

D. Deep insecurities

E. Short-term performance


Short Answers

2. During your professional career to date, approximately what percentage of the time have you been considered a natural or a striver?

100% of the time a Natural / 0% of the time a Striver

80% of the time a Natural / 20% of the time a Striver

60% of the time a Natural / 40% of the time a Striver

40% of the time a Natural / 60% of the time a Striver

20% of the time a Natural / 80% of the time a Striver

0% of the time a Natural / 100% of the time a Striver

3. What are your thoughts on the advice not to share too widely about how much effort you’ve had to invest in developing your skills? Is this the kind of advice you might give to someone whom you’re mentoring?

4. How important is it to you for your colleagues to know of the Naturalness Bias and how we all tend to discriminate against strivers?

A. Not important at all

B. Quite important

C. Moderately important

D. Very important

E. They absolutely must be told


Going Deeper


Questions were raised in this post regarding Dr Duckworth’s views on the Naturalness Bias identified by Dr Chia Jung Tsay. These included statements and observations attributed to McKinsey, Steve Jobs and Daniel Kahneman. This is your opportunity to describe what you think of these statements and observations.

PART A - To what extent do you agree with McKinsey’s advice that professional organisations should make it a priority to hire “the best and the brightest”? Do you think this only means Naturals or could it also include Strivers?

PART B - To what extent have you had similar experiences to Steve Jobs, when he talks of “the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 to 100 to 1”? Is Steve Jobs necessarily talking about Naturals only?

PART C - Do you agree, based on Daniel Kahneman’s Systems of Thinking, that all of us spontaneously make assumptions about whether someone is a Natural or a Striver? Is that something you have observed yourself doing? Is that a problem?

TAKE THE NEXT STEP



To get on the list for our next small-group Grit Seminar in Melbourne or another city, email me at pjm@pmaca.com.au.


And, of course, feel free to pick up a copy of our omnibus Grit-Series Seminar Book, though you will get one for free when you attend one of our seminars.


Our next post will be, Think of Yourself as a Reformed Hare.


Until then, feel free to email me your queries and comments.


Stay Gritty!



About the Author


Dr Peter Macmillan began his legal career in 1992 and ultimately became Head of Competition Law at an international law firm in Hong Kong. Today, Peter is the CEO of Meisterline Analytics, an international pioneer in the science of professional expertise and a leading provider of professional expertise metrics for law firms and their clients. He is also the author of 8 books, including the seminal reference book, Unlocking the Secrets of Legal Genius: Measuring Specialist Legal Expertise Through Think-Aloud Verbal Protocol Analysis, The KUJI Handbook and The 21 Secrets Of Gritty Professionals. Peter has a Master’s Degree in Competition Law and a PhD in Cognitive Science.


In 2022, Peter founded his own unique law firm in Melbourne, which specializes in signature witnessing, document certification and the formal authentication of documents for every legal and official use within Australia and internationally. For more information about the unimaginatively named Peter Macmillan & Associates, please visit pmaca.com.au/about.



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