better than i should be

I used to play the violin pretty seriously. I don’t play much at all anymore, in part because of time, and in part because of my vision. But recently I agreed to help a friend play through a piece he had to learn for an upcoming concert. As usual, I was swamped and put off learning my part until I basically had to learn it during a plane ride. That was an experience. But an even greater experience was when we actually played through the piece (Brahms piano quintet).  Our pianist was sick and so subbing in was none other than Richard Goode. For those of you who don’t follow classical music, Goode is a truly phenomenal musician, one of the best pianists in the world. It was an experience I’ll never forget — getting to play though a bunch of repertoire with him. And as we played through things, I was better than I should be. Much better. It got me thinking about the social scenarios wherein you’re better than you should be. “The Goode effect” (ha!) was, in this case, due to raised expectations, excitement, and at times mimicry (he played something beautifully, and I would echo). But there are other scenarios where I’ve been better than on average, and not because I was interacting with a true virtuoso.

The orgheads likely know more about this. And some readers might know research on this. I’d be curious to hear about it. But in music, I can think of other times when I’ve played with people who are actually much worse than I am, and yet they help make me better (a parallel might be my students, who are not as “skilled” as I am in sociology — which is not to say they are dumb — but who help me be better at my own work). One of my long-term chamber music partners is someone who, from the first time we played together, I felt made me much better than I normally am.

It’s not that we played the same way. In fact, we often have different sensibilities (our bows moving in different directions, our articulations inconsistent, our phrasing jumbled). But we settle in together quickly. And I don’t know why.

This got me thinking about departments, and the kinds of interactions and people who make others better than they normally are. I have witnessed this at different places. Sometimes it is the Richard Goode’s of the world who do this — those who are both outstanding performers themselves and somehow similarly well suited to help others be better. But the Richard Goodes of this world are rare, and rarer still is it the case that outstanding producers are also social improvers of the quality others. More often, I think, it is the less virtuosic who play this additive role to the lives of social communities.

So I wonder, who are these people? Or perhaps in a less individualist framing, what are the structural arrangements that improve performance? A team of superstars is not always the answer (though it might be a good one if you can afford it). Just ask the Yankees (on the “if you can afford it” model that doesn’t always work, but has been pretty reliable), or recently, the SF Giants (who give us something different). What are the social contexts wherein we’re better than we should be (or normally are)? I’d like to know, because I can’t hope to play with Richard Goode every day. But I would like to be able to perform in way I managed to when we played together. And obviously, this means even more for my sociological life.

One thought on “better than i should be”

  1. Interesting post and amazing story.

    There is a lot of work on team composition around these kinds of issues. Keith Sawyer, for example, has done a lot of work recently looking at the foundations of group creativity. An example of research that came to mind as I read your post was an ASQ article by Keith Murnighan and Donald Conlon, “The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets.” The paper argues that successful quartets have to overcome various paradoxes in order to achieve optimum performance. One of the paradoxes is the second violin paradox – the second violin must be a consummate performer yet coordinate her performance with the first violin. The second violin must be the ultimate team player, while also being uniquely talented to meet the demands set by the first violinist.

    Here’s a quote from the article:
    “Second violinists in successful string quartets accepted their secondary role more than their counterparts in less successful groups. At the same time, they were openly appreciated by their fellow group members, even if they were underappreciated
    by their audiences. Successful group members attributed their two violinists’ positions to personality rather
    than ability. They seem to have acknowledged that (1) they were good enough to have done well and (2) their weakest link was critical to their success. Less successful quartets, who had more doubts about their own competence, gave much less credit to their second fiddle. Like leader-democracy, this paradox required constant managing, as the second violinists in the successful groups were just as likely to aspire to be first violinists as those in the less successful groups. The paradox, then, did not disappear: it was also managed but was not acknowledged within the group.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: