August 4, 2018 — 23 Av 5778
Imagine that you had 50 billion dollars to invest in improving America’s airports. Where would you invest that money?
In his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell posits this hypothetical as an example of what he calls the problem of weak link vs. strong link. Would we invest that money in our strongest airports, like Denver International Airport, which is relatively new, making them even stronger? Or would we invest that money in our weakest airports, the New York airports, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark? How do we achieve the biggest repair of a system, by focusing on what is already working well, the strong link, or what is not working well, the weak link?
Gladwell cites two economists, David Sally and Chris Anderson, who wrote a book called The Numbers Game, in which they argue for two paradigms that bear on this question: soccer and basketball. If you are a sports team owner, do you invest your money in your best player, or in your worst players? Which will yield the better performing team—a team with a great superstar, or a team with a great bench? Using charts and graphs, applying rigorous numbers analysis to basketball and soccer teams over time—what was the payroll, how was the payroll allocated amongst stars and average players, how did all of this affect team performance—these economists came out with clear conclusions.
Basketball, they argue, is a strong link game. If you are an owner, you want to invest in getting the next Michael Jordan or the next LeBron James, because a true superstar in basketball can take over the game and have an outsized impact on the team’s success. There is just no stopping Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Bench players seldom determine games. Invest in stars.
By contrast, they show that soccer is a weak link game. A soccer team owner is better advised to invest their money in four okay bench players rather than one superstar, because given the nature of soccer, it takes a lot of ordinary players to set up the star to have an impact. Invest in your bench.
Using this prism, Gladwell argues that better air travel is like soccer, not basketball. Invest in the worst airports. If we invested 50 billion dollars in our worst airports, that would materially improve the system because chronic delays emanating from Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark ripple out into rest of American air travel.
In the Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell cites this learning in praise of an obscure philanthropist named Hank Rowan. Rowan was a very successful businessman who had led a modest life. As he got older and richer, he wanted to give a major gift to advance higher education. The question was: which paradigm was better for higher education philanthropy, basketball or soccer? Should he give his mega gift to prestigious institutions that were already strong, or would his money have a greater impact if he gave it to an institution that was barely hanging on, lacking glamour, not thriving?
MIT solicited him for a big gift, but he said no.
Instead, he did two things that were utterly path-breaking at the time. One of them has not been replicated since.
Hank Rowan gave a 100 million dollar gift to an educational institution. Gladwell claims that this was the first gift of this size in American higher education. Here Rowan began a trend. In the decade after his gift, inspired by his gift, there were 20 more gifts of 100 million dollars or more to higher education.
But there was another thing Rowan did that has not been done since. Rowan chose to give his gift to a community college nobody had heard of, which resided in an obscure town in rural New Jersey that nobody but the town’s residents had heard of. Glassboro State in Glassboro, New Jersey. In the years since Rowan’s big gift, all the other mega gifts went to institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and so forth. There has not been a second mega gift to a community college like Glassboro State.
Rowan was playing soccer, not basketball addressing his philanthropy not to the wealthiest institutions but to the poorest. Why give money to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, he reasoned, when they all have endowments worth billions that spin off prodigious revenue? Instead, he chose to give money to an institution that had, at the time of his gift, virtually no endowment. That gift led to the creation of an engineering school in rural New Jersey that had not existed before; that school led to the education of local students that had not been possible before. Gladwell asked the President of Rowan University, as it is now called, Ali Houshmand, to describe a typical student.
the father is a fireman, mom is a teacher, the kid has been going to public school. He’s 40 miles from here and he’s just a brilliant young man or woman, gone through public school and got great scores, and very much focused…it’s a blue collar university.
Gladwell argues that given the economic inequality in our country, Rowan’s weak link approach to philanthropy, helping blue collar kids from rural Jersey who otherwise would not have received this education, is just what our nation needs right now.
Why am I telling you all of this? What does soccer vs. basketball, LaGuardia vs. fancy airports, Glassboro Community College in rural Jersey vs. MIT, have to do with us now?
We just recited birkat hachodesh, blessing the new Hebrew month, announcing that Elul is around the corner. The High Holidays are in a little over a month. That means we are entering the period of cheshbon hanefesh, soul searching, in which we wonder how can we become better versions of ourselves?
What should we work on? Should our teshuvah focus on where we are already strong, or should it focus on where we are weak? If we are already a devoted spouse, do we try to become even more devoted? If we are already a loving father, do we try to become even more loving? If we are already a supportive child to our elderly parents, do we work on becoming even more supportive? That would be strong link teshuvah. Or, should we focus our teshuvah on areas where we are underperforming or struggling. That would be weak link teshuvah. What light does our liturgy shed on this question?
The key line we say over and over is al cheit shechatanu lefanekha, for the sin we have committed against you. The word cheit is archer imagery. It means missing the mark. We tried to get here. We only got there. The distance between here and there, where we want to be, and where we are, that distance where we missed the mark, is cheit, is sin.
The High Holiday liturgy asks us to do the hard work of attending to our weakest link; to the places where our moral game is most challenged. To the gossip we engage in. The most recurrent sins involve the sin of speech, the way that our words hurt people. But not just what we say. Also our challenged inner life and how tormented souls do hurtful deeds: licentious thoughts; pettiness and jealousy; negative attitude; lack of gratitude; moral confusion that leads to bad choices and betrayal. The al cheit confessional is soccer, not basketball. Invest in our greatest weakness.
I heard a woman on the radio talk about how she had struggled with her negative energy. She felt herself to be a hot mess. She was always short of money. Her career was shaky. She was off again and on again with her boyfriend. She was curt with loved ones. The negative energy affected how she greeted people. When asked how are you, she would say: How am I? How do you think I am? This negative energy fed off itself. She was feeling negative, she spoke negatively, other people avoided her, she only felt worse about herself. One day she decided to do something about her life, and she decided to start with her biggest problem: her negative attitude. She decided to try a new move. When people asked her how she was, even if she was not feeling it, she would say I am doing great! She discovered a strange thing happened. When she stated saying I am doing great, she started feeling better about herself, this positive vibe generated more connection and relationship, and there was a virtue cycle to her life. I am doing lousy, I am doing great, were each self-fulfilling prophecies. By addressing her negative energy, she improved her life.
The High Holidays ask us to shine the light on uncomfortable questions: Where are you weakest? What do you most need to work on? Where is your LaGuardia?
We all have our own LaGuardia. The good news is that when you fix LaGuardia, all air travel gets better. When we fix where we are weakest, and we can and will fix where we are weakest, we have the power to make our life so much better. Shabbat shalom.