Moneyballing Homeschool

My first encounter with moneyball was in high school. The boy I had a crush on was playing fantasy baseball so I played too. I had four months to teach myself everything about baseball before the draft.

I had no preconceived notions of which players are valuable so I was able to look at the draft dispassionately. I realized that base stealers and relief pitchers had a much higher value in our fantasy game than they did in real life. So I drafted all the highly rated players in those two categories.

Even as my fantasy team was leading week after week, the guys who were knowledgeable about baseball continued to undervalue those two positions. I came in second place that year knowing nothing about baseball except relievers and base stealers.

Ever since then I’ve looked for the unseen part of the path to success. In everything. Because the moneyball mentality works for so much.

When I played beach volleyball, I realized that the players were spending all their time on the beach and in the gym. No one was courting sponsors. So I had amazing sponsors during my pro-beach tenure, even though the highest rank I ever got to was 25.

When I was job hunting at the beginning of my career, I saw that no one was filling the Internet jobs. So instead of trying to get a job with my English degree, I made myself an expert in HTML. To do well in your career, you need to be able to jettison a bad decision like graduate school in order to look like a go-getter to employers.

Now I see people doing this with their kids.  For example, kids playing baseball have a much better chance of going pro if they can pitch super fast. Kids used to throw a wide range of pitches, but you have the best odds with an obsessive, early focus on speed.

In basketball, there’s an emphasis on kids being stars, so they can be recognized early by scouts. So kids play on lots of different teams, and then don’t have allegiance to any particular team. The effect of this system is that kids don’t learn the unglamorous skills required to win a game. And the UAA system is not training kids to want to win as a team. I saw that with my own son. He was on three basketball teams, but the games he cared most about winning were one-on-one against his brother.

Another example is musicians. Most musicians who have a job as a performer work in an orchestra. But the way to get an orchestra job is to play soloist music really well. So kids who spend the least time playing with an orchestra are best positioned to win orchestra jobs.

And college. Of course you can moneyball college admissions. For example Harvard accepts almost all applicants from Juilliard because Harvard wants people who are the best at something. I noticed that some kids would work like mad to get into Juilliard by the time they are 15. And then they cut way back on practicing so they can get high grades and high test scores in high school. That works. That gets you into a great college.

What about careers? The hardest worker is rarely the most successful in the workplace. Work is a popularity contest; the people who are most well-liked get promoted. This means that teaching kids to be likable is more important than teaching kids to work hard. (Suggested lesson plan: teach your kid to nod their head and eschew status symbols.)

Once I write this list it’s so clear to me why it took losing teams so long to try moneyball. Most teams saw the new way of doing things was winning games, but it was so hard to believe. Each of these examples are similar in that a new way of thinking feels too risky; even when we see the data for what works, it’s hard to bank on it when we had so many years of thinking something else is true.

There’s always a long list of things you have to do to be super successful at something. Commitment, money, time, passion, focus. And now I see it’s bravery as well. You need to figure out an opening where you can fit – some new way of seeing that increases your chances in a crowded field. This is a great skill to teach kids, and if you’re brave enough you’ll teach by setting an example.


11 replies
  1. Terri T.
    Terri T. says:

    The message here seems to be to game the system to achieve maximum success. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that if it’s what drives you. But it seems like it runs counter to a passion-driven approach. We’re not unschoolers and my son has Harvard and MIT on his short list. We’ll certainly do what we can to maximize his chances but not at the expense of learning and doing the things that make him happy. This actually came up with AP US History this year. We could work from prep books and maximize his time to get a 5. But we (as a family) believe that US History is both important and interesting. A 5 is still part of the goal but it’s not the whole andcwe’re willing to invest more time and effort, and maybe even risk, to make that happen.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I have to think about the idea of passion driven. Because you can’t get a job if you focus on your passion. It’s pretty terrible advice, actually, to tell people to follow their passion. People don’t get paid to do their passion. They get paid to do something that’s difficult or unpleasant.

      I don’t know what I think about this. I just know that adults who can’t figure out how to make money are people who are told “just follow your passion”. So maybe the issue is, do the thing you want to work really hard at.

      I don’t know. Passion is tricky. And I’m not sure it’s useful.


    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      Family members at MIT told me that they “know what they are looking for” and don’t like candidates who are too focused on getting in. They want top students who are not too nerdy who have personal interests and who want to be at MIT but who aren’t desperate. How they can ascertain that is another question….but I guess MIT has its own idea of “cool” and what it takes to be in the “in” crowd. I think they miss out on some terrific students with this mentality. But you can see that they claim that they can’t be gamed.

      • Terri T
        Terri T says:

        We’re actually hearing this advice from a lot of college admissions officers right now. It used to be the advice was – show that you’re taking the most rigorous classes available. Now kids have more AP and DE options than any human can do without burn out. And colleges are looking at hundreds of kids indistinguishable from each other on their academic record. So they’re now looking for what makes you different. What makes you stand out. And that difference has to be something you really care about or it won’t come through. They’re also looking for a wide variety of “different” to make up each class.

        Honestly, it’s impossible to game the system at MIT because the acceptance rate is so low. But there’s a story on one of their blogs about a student who built a nuclear reactor or something in his garage and still didn’t get in. The message in that story is most of that admissions decision is beyond your control – so you just be yourself. One way or another, if you’re motivated to succeed in something important to you, you will eventually succeed.

  2. Terri T
    Terri T says:

    I disagree that following your passion can’t lead two success – on two counts. 1- I know plenty of people that have, my husband included. He left a big law firm to start his own business which includes law firm + podcast + speaking engagements. No, he doesn’t make as much as he did at the big firm. But he certainly makes an adequate living and he loves what he does. I think a lot of people fall into the fallacy that following your passion means only doing things that are fun. Work is still work. But work that’s deeply meaningful to you is very different than work that’s just punching a timecatd ( or worse, work that you hate). (2) it depends on your measure of success. I met a law student recently who would clearly rather work for a cause than go to a big firm. Yes, she’ll need to make enough to live on but her criteria for an adequate living will clearly be different than a student intent on a top law firm. Her definition of success is entirely different. And in fact, there’s a crisis in the workforce right now as corporate managers are finding it difficult to motivate millennial a with traditional incentives – raises, promotions, corner offices. Our definitions of success are changing. Remote-work, flexible hours and early retirement are becoming more important even to the Gen X.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My husband’s company is initiating a new policy that let’s it’s employees miss work whenever they need to, as long as they get their work done it can be done remotely even. As well as other new policies meant to accommodate millenials. Positive changes for everyone because of what is important to that generation.

      I think we’re starting to see some very important workplace changes happen and that will eventually feed down to the college level.

      Will the best college even matter anymore? What will gaming the system look like for Gen Z?

      Such an interesting discussion here.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I totally agree. I’ve noticed that a lot of my coaching has turned to helping people write a resume so they don’t need to go to college. If you want to work in corporate America, there are ways to show you have great experience without going to college. Then you get a good job, and then you get even better experience without going to college. It’s just a game. Once you get established in a career no one cares if you went to college. They look at your track record.

        I only wish I had a kid who wanted to work in corporate America. I would be so happy. I have so many resume writing skills going to waste in my family.

        I actually tried to show my son who wants to be a scientists how he could just start a business right now. No more AP tests. He was totally not interested. He said, “Why would I want to work in business when I can make a scientific discovery instead?”


        • Terri T
          Terri T says:

          My experience has been that most of corporate America still requires that degree. If a particular department is doing their own hiring you can sometimes get around it but where HR is the gatekeeper, often the hiring manager never even sees resumes that don’t meet that basic requirement. And even in more progressive IT shops, a college degree is still often used as a proxy for a basic level of intelligence and competence. Plus we have a big college intern program. That’s one of the best ways for young people to get in our door.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I liked this post. It made a lot of very unfortunate sense to me. It’s the best Penelope Trunk stock in trade: things one wishes were not true.

    I thought I’d pipe in on the phenomenon of audition bias towards soloists, because I see this happening. My son is working his way up the orchestra ladder at his conservatory prep, and this phenomenon is already present in children. Some kids will spend an entire year on a single piece, and play it flawlessly, but then will have a terrible time taking direction or trying to match speed and dynamic in the orchestra. The same thing happens in the chamber music program.

    This can be frustrating to kids who really love to play in ensembles. I’m not naming any names here. And, as you say, the current audition system for top orchestras tends to produce the same phenomenon.

    I know a lot of readers don’t encounter the world of classical music and classical musicians very often, let alone the phenomenon of auditions, so I’ll offer a good article on the subject, written by a conductor who makes an impassioned plea to scrap the prevailing audition system:

    • Terri T
      Terri T says:

      This makes a lot of sense and applies to a lot of industries. My company hires a lot of top I.T folks but we also turn away a lot too. Not because they can’t do the work we need them to do but because we can’t stand to be in the same room as some of these divas. It doesn’t matter how good your skills are, if you aren’t willing to jump in and do what’s needed and to cooperate with a team, then we’ll find someone else. Of course most IT shops I’ve worked in were *not* this way. But one can dream.

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