Madison Keys, Francis Scott Key, the “Prevent Defense” and giving away the Keys to the Kingdom.
Madison Keys, for those who don’t know, is an up-and-coming American tennis player. In this Friday’s Wimbledon match, Madison sprinted to an early 4-1 lead. She accomplished this through a combination of ace serves and torrid ground strokes. Then, in an attempt to consolidate, or protect her lead, or play the (in)famous “prevent defense” imported from losing football coaches, she managed to stop hitting through the ball – guiding it carefully instead — into the net or well long or just inches wide.
Please understand that Madison Keys is a wonderful tennis player. And, her “retreat” to being “careful” and playing the “prevent defense” is a common error that many professional and amateur players fall prey to. It should also be pointed out that what appears to be overly conservative play to me, as an outside observer, could easily be due to some other cause such as a slight injury or, even more likely, because her opponent adjusted to Madison’s game. Whether or not she lost because of using the “prevent defense” no-one can say for sure. But I can say with certainty that many people in many sports have lost precisely because they stopped trying to “win” and instead tried to protect their lead by being overly conservative; changing the approach that got them ahead.
Francis Scott Key, of course, wrote the words to the American National Anthem which ends on the phrase, “…the home of the brave.” Of course, every nation has stories of people behaving bravely and the United States of America is no exception. For the American colonies to rebel against the far superior naval and land forces (to say nothing of sheer wealth) of the British Empire certainly qualifies as “brave.”
In my reading of American history, one of our strengths has always been taking risks in doing things in new and different ways. In other words, one of our strengths has been being brave. Until now. Now, we seem in full retreat. We are plunging headlong into the losing “prevent defense” borrowed from American football.
American football can hardly be called a “gentle sport” – the risk of injury is ever present and now we know that even those who manage to escape broken legs and torn ligaments may suffer internal brain damage. But there is still the tendency of many coaches to play the “prevent defense.” In case you’re unfamiliar with American football, here is an illustration of the effect of the “prevent defense” on the score. A team plays a particular way for 3 quarters of the game and is ahead 42-21. If you’re a fan of linear extrapolation, you might expect that the final score might be something like 56-28. But coaches sometimes want to “make sure” they win so they play the “prevent defense” which basically means you let the other team make first down after first down and therefore keep possession of the ball and score, though somewhat slowly. The coach suddenly loses confidence in the method which has worked for 3/4 of the game. It is not at all unusual for the team who employs this “prevent defense” to lose; in this example, perhaps, 42-48. They “let” the other team get one first down after another.
America has apparently decided, now, to play a “prevent defense.” Rather than being innovative and bold and embrace the challenges of new inventions and international competition, we instead want to “hold on to our lead” and introduce protective tariffs just as we did right before the Great Depression. Rather than accepting immigrants with different foods, customs, dress, languages, and religions — we are now going to “hold on to what we have” and try to prevent any further evolution. In the case of American football, the prevent defense sometimes works. In the case of past civilizations that tried to isolate themselves, it hasn’t and it won’t.
This is not to say that America (or any other country) should right now have “open borders” and let everyone in for every purpose. Nor should a tennis player hit every shot with all their might. Nor should a football team try the riskiest possible plays at every turn. All systems need to strike a balance among replication of what works, providing defense of what one has and exploring what is new and different. That is what nature does. Every generation “replicates” aspects of the previous generation but every generation must also explore new directions. Life does this through sexual selection, mutation, and cross over.
This balance plays out in career as well. You need to decide for yourself how much and what kinds of risks to take. When I obtained my doctorate in experimental psychology, for example, it would have been relatively un-risky in many ways to get a tenure-track faculty position. Instead, I chose managing a research project on the psychology of aging at Harvard Med School. To be sure, this is far less than the risk that some people take when; e.g., joining “Doctors without borders” or sinking all their life savings (along with all the life savings of their friends and relatives) into a start-up.
At the time, I was married and had three small children. Under these circumstances, I would not have felt comfortable having no guaranteed income. On the other hand, I was quite confident that I could write a grant proposal to continue to get funded by “soft money.” Indeed, I did write such a proposal along with James Fozard and Nancy Waugh who were at once my colleagues, my bosses, and my mentors. Our grant proposal was not funded or rejected but “deferred” and then it was deferred again. At that point, only one month of funding remained before I would be out of a job. I began to look elsewhere. In retrospect, we all realized it would have been much wiser to have a series of overlapping grants so that all of our “funding eggs” were never in one “funding agency’s basket.”
I began looking for other jobs and had a variety of offers from colleges, universities, and large companies. I chose IBM Research. As it turned out, by the way, our grant proposal was ultimately funded for three years, but we only found out after I had already committed to go to IBM. During this job search, I was struck by something else. My dissertation had been on problem solving but my “post-doc” was in the psychology of aging. So far as I could tell, this didn’t bother any of the interviewers in industry in the slightest. But it really freaked out some people in academia. It became clear that one was “expected” in academia, at least by many, that you would choose a specialty and stick with it. Perhaps, you need not do that during your entire academic career, but anything less than a decade smacked of dilettantism. At least, that was how it felt to me as an interviewee. By contrast, it didn’t bother the people who interviewed me at Ford or GM that I knew nothing more than the average person about cars and had never really thought about the human factors of automobiles.
The industrial jobs paid more than the academic jobs and that played some part in my decision. The job at GM sounded particularly interesting. I would be “the” experimental psychologist in a small inter-disciplinary group of about ten people who were essentially tasked with trying to predict the future. The “team” included an economist, a mathematician, a social psychologist, and someone who looked for trends in word frequencies in newspapers. The year was 1973 and US auto companies were shocked and surprised to learn that their customers suddenly cared about gas mileage! These companies didn’t want to be shocked and surprised like that again. The assignment reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s fictional character in the Foundation Trilogy — Harry Seldon — who founded “psychohistory.” We had the chance to do it in “real life.” It sounded pretty exciting!
On the other hand, cars seemed to me to be fundamentally an “old” technology while computers were the wave of the future. It also occurred to me that a group of ten people from quite different disciplines trying to predict the future might sound very cool to me and apparently to the current head of research at GM, but it might seem far more dispensable to the next head of research. The IBM problem that I was to solve was much more fundamental. IBM saw that the difficulty of using computers could be a limiting factor in their future growth. I had had enough experience with people — and with computers — to see this as a genuine and enduring problem for IBM (and other computer companies); not as a problem that was temporary (such as the “oil crisis” appeared to be in the early 70’s).
There were a number of additional reasons I chose IBM. IBM Research’s population at the time showed far more diverse than that of the auto companies. None of them were very diverse when it came to male/female ratios. At least IBM Research did have people from many different countries working there and it probably helped their case that an IBM Researcher had just been awarded a Nobel Prize. Furthermore, the car company research buildings bored me; they were the typical rectangular prisms that characterize most of corporate America. In other words, they were nothing special. Aero Saarinen however, had designed the IBM Watson Research Lab. It sat like an alien black spaceship ready to launch humanity into a conceptual future. It was set like an onyx jewel atop the jade hills of Westchester.
I had mistakenly thought that because New York City was such a giant metropolis, everything north of “The City” (as locals call it) would be concrete and steel for a hundred miles. But no! Westchester was full of cut granite, rolling hills, public parks of forests marbled with stone walls and cooled by clear blue lakes. My commute turned out to be a twenty minute, trafficless drive through a magical countryside. By contrast, since Detroit car companies at that time held a lot of political power, there was no public transportation to speak of in the area. Everyone who worked at the car company headquarters spent at least an hour in bumper to bumper traffic going to work and another hour in bumper to bumper traffic heading back home. In terms of natural beauty, Warren Michigan just doesn’t compare with Yorktown Heights, NY. Yorktown Heights even smelled better. I came for my interview just as the leaves began painting their autumn rainbow palette. Westchester roads even seemed more creative. They wandered through the land as though illustrative of Brownian motion, while Detroit area roads were as imaginative as graph paper. Northern Westchester county sports many more houses now than it did when I moved there in late 1973, but you can still see the essential difference from these aerial photos.
The IBM company itself struck me as classy. It wasn’t only the Research Center. Everything about the company stated “first class.” Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a trivial decision. After grad school in Ann Arbor, a job in Warren kept me in the neighborhood I was familiar with. A job at Ford or GM meant I could visit my family and friends in northern Ohio much more easily as well as my colleagues, friends and professors at the U of M. The offer from IBM felt to me like an offer from the New York Yankees. Of course, going to a top-notch team also meant more difficult competition from my peers. I was, in effect, setting myself up to go head to head with extremely well-educated and smart people from around the world.
You also need to understand that in 1973, I would be only the fourth Ph.D. psychologist in a building filled with physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, and materials scientists. In other words, nearly all the researchers considered themselves to be “hard scientists” who delved in quantitative realms. This did not particularly bother me. At the time, I wanted very much to help evolve psychology to be more quantitative in its approach. And yet, there were some nagging doubts that perhaps I should have picked a less risky job in a psychology department.
The first week at IBM, my manager, John Gould introduced me yet another guy named “John” — a physicist whose office was near mine on aisle 19. This guy had something like 100 patents. A few days later, I overheard one of John’s younger colleagues in the hallway excitedly describing some new findings. Something like the following transpired:
“John! John! You can’t believe it! I just got these results! We’re at 6.2 x 10 ** 15th!”
His older colleague replied, “Really? Are you sure? 6.2 x 10 ** 15th?”
John’s younger colleague, still bubbling with enthusiasm: “Yes! Yes! That’s right. You know. Within three orders of magnitude one way or the other!”
I thought to myself, “three orders of magnitude one way or the other? I can manage that! Even in psychology!” I no longer suffered from “physics envy.” I felt a bit more confident in the correctness of my decision to jump into these waters which were awash with sharp-witted experts in the ‘hard’ sciences. It might be risky, but not absurdly risky.
Of course, your mileage may differ. You might be quite willing to take a much riskier path or a less risky one. Or, maybe the physical location or how much of a commute is of less interest to you than picking the job that most advances your career or pays the most salary. There’s nothing wrong with those choices. But note what you actually feel. Don’t optimize in a sequence of boxes. That is, you might decide that your career is more important than how long your commute is. Fair enough. But there are limits. Imagine two jobs that are extremely similar and one is most likely a little better for your career but you have to commute two hours each way versus 5 minutes for the one that’s not quite so good for your career. Which one would you pick?
In life beyond tennis and beyond football, one also has to realize that your assessment of risk is not necessarily your actual risk. Many people have chosen “sure” careers or “sure” work at an “old, reliable” company only to discover that the “sure thing” actually turned out to be a big risk. I recall, for example, reading an article in INC., magazine that two “sure fire” small businesses were videotape rental stores and video game arcades. Within a few years of that article, they were almost sure-fire losers. Remember Woolworths? Montgomery Ward?
At the time I joined IBM it was a dominant force in the computer industry. But there are no guarantees — not in career choices, not in tennis strategy, not in football strategy, not in playing the “prevent defense” when it comes to America. The irony of trying too hard to “play it safe” is illustrated this short story about my neighbor from Akron:
Wilbur’s dead. Died in Nam. And, the question I keep wanting to ask him is: “Did it help you face the real dangers? All those hours together we played soldier?”
Wilbur’s family moved next door from West Virginia when I was eleven. They were stupendously uneducated. Wilbur was my buddy though. We were rock-fighting the oaks of the forest when he tried to heave a huge toaster-oven sized rock over my head. Endless waiting in the Emergency Room. Stitches. My hair still doesn’t grow straight there. “Friendly fire.”
More often, we used wooden swords to slash our way through the blackberry and wild rose jungle of The Enemy; parry the blows of the wildly swinging grapevines; hide out in the hollow tree; launch the sudden ambush.
We matched strategy wits on the RISK board, on the chess board, plastic soldier set-ups. I always won. Still, Wilbur made me think — more than school ever did.
One day, for some stupid reason, he insisted on fighting me. I punched him once (truly lightly) on the nose. He bled. He fled crying home to mama. Wilbur couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
I guess you got your fill of that in Nam, Wilbur.
After two tours of dangerous jungle combat, he was finally to ship home, safe and sound, tour over — thank God!
He slipped on a bar of soap in the shower and smashed the back of his head on the cement floor.
Wilbur finally answers me across the years and miles: “So much for Danger, buddy,” he laughs, “Go for it!”
And, no, I will not be giving away the keys to the kingdom. Your days of fighting for freedom may be over. Mine have barely begun.
Lilian Wu said:
John, this piece is wonderful. I both enjoyed reading it and it made me think — one of my favorite type of essays. Your words, to “strike a balance among replication of what works, providing defense of what one has and exploring what is new and different.” is so true and hard to do.
Your description of how you decided to join IBM is very touching. It brought up memories of my decision to join IBM Research in the mid 70’s. The place felt wide open — smart and thoughtful people open to discussing just about everything and we experimented with exciting new ways to understand and simulate the real world using more complex and powerful mathematical models and computers. It was full of Yo Yo Ma’s Edge Effects!
Thank you for writing this blog. Lilian