How Hard That Must Be!


Dimitar Berbatov scored a goal for Monaco a few years ago - you know the one I'm talking about - that perfectly encapsulated his outrageous talent. The goal itself is glorious, but there's something special about how unsurprised Berbatov looks, in contrast to his awe-struck teammates and the befuddled opposition goalkeeper.

Berbatov, of course, was far from universally loved as a Manchester United player. When things weren't going well, "languid" and "composed" became "lazy" and "uninterested." The same qualities that marked him as a unique player quickly became fodder for critical fans. In comparison, supporters lionize players with gung-ho attitudes - the Park Ji-Sungs, Darren Fletchers and Wayne Rooneys of the world, if you will. As United's form has waned, I've even started hearing grumbles about the "lack of effort" shown by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player clearly in the Berbatov mould.

We like it when others show effort. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely tells an anecdote about a locksmith who discovered he was getting fewer tips as he became more skilled, because customers were judging him by how long it took to pick a lock. Ariely's conclusion: "What this reveals is that consumers don't value goods and services solely by their utility... but also a sense of fairness relating to how much effort was exerted." But this is particularly misguided since the very essence of true expertise is the ability to make difficult things look easy. Making this point about physical expertise, Todd Hargrove notes, "Developing movement skill is often more about learning to inhibit the spread of neural excitement rather than extending it. In this sense, learning better movement is more like sculpture than painting. You improve your art by taking things away, not adding them." This is every bit as true for intellectual expertise. Expert investors like Warren Buffett often distill complex views into simple frameworks, rather than relying on elaborate models. As the economist E.F. Schumacher cautioned, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction." Over-elaboration is the tell-tale sign of the amateur; parsimony, the sign of the master.

This is easy enough to accept when things are going well, but a bitter pill when things are going badly. In complex adaptive systems like sports and financial markets, expertise isn't always rewarded immediately with success, so there's a tendency to lose faith in the simplicity of experts. And I'm certainly not denying the importance of effort: it takes endless deliberate practice to achieve that level of skill. But as armchair arbiters of expertise, we'd do well to follow Jason Zweig's advice: "Whenever you see someone make something look easy, remember to tell yourself: How hard that must be!"