Wednesday, November 30, 2011



I ran into my sister-in-law, then my brother, at indoor lacrosse this week.  We don’t see them much but it is always a pleasure. Yet at nearly every encounter something is said which highlights for me how different that side of the family is from mine. No recitation of the words and description of facial expressions would reveal to an outsider what I mean by that.  Yet many of you will recognise the phenomenon from your own families.

I became a cat in a dog family when my mother remarried. (I hate cats and would like to stick them with that side of the description, but they are dog people and very good ones, so it would be unfair.) Such introductions are usually a prelude to criticising relatives, however subtly, in the manner of a 19thC novelist gaining revenge on those who did him wrong.  20th C too, come to think of it.  If anything, this is the opposite.  Twenty years ago, I would have made an effort to show that my microculture, my tribe, had superior qualities, illustrated by anecdotes that put them in a bad light, however subtly.  My review is more mixed now.

Describing one microculture versus another lends itself to phrasing that sounds critical.  If I say “they don’t tend to be a reflective people,” that sounds just a touch disdainful in my culture.  Yet I am increasingly convinced that much of the reflectiveness in my A& H culture is a waste of time.  Only in the minds of a few does reflection actually produce much of value.  For the rest, it is mostly dreaminess, rationalisation, rumination.  That trait is essential to the survival of all tribes, but like most traits, a lot of it lies around in the population without visible positive effect.  Thus, not being “reflective,” means one has energy left over to do other things.  Which my stepfamily does, and very well.

I should note that I consider such qualities to be largely hardwired, though both the reflectives and the actives believe the others could be like them if they “just tried.”


Steve Sailer notes that we have excellent and numerous ways of measuring intelligence, but none for “energy,” which is perhaps equally important;
My father is 94. He never smoked, drank only moderately, and comes from a high energy family that needs to be moving all the time. His nephew, my hippie cousin, for example, was an organic farmer for decades, and now that he has a desk job, he spends about 25 hours a week at the gym. When my cousin came for a visit to his parents in Arcadia, CA, at the age of 51, he hiked to the top of Mt. Wilson, a 5,000 foot ascent, every day for two weeks. It's unfortunate that social scientists don't seem to have a reliable quick test of energy the way they have tests of intelligence, since it's obvious that energy differs widely among individuals and is important in influencing life outcomes.
I have said “adaptability, switching sets” will be the ability that will knock intelligence off its perch as most important going forward; most self-help business strategies have ideas of focus and discipline at their core.  Those who succeed often credit hard work, and there is certainly a great deal of truth in that, however much data that overlooks and self-congratulating it sounds.  I think there is a strong relatedness to these described qualities, and I agree we do not measure them well.  They don’t present similarly.  The manic hustle of the entrepreneur looks nothing like the more linear focus of my stepfamily (they never dabble in anything, they either do or don’t do) but I think there is some commonality.  There is a personal energy in them that is not merely cultural and trained, but seems present from birth.  Culture and values reinforce this and refine it, but it is simply visble in them from the start.

Nor is it a single, off-on quality among even those who have it, but a continuum.

My mother used to say that my stepfather was unable to do nothing. Mind and body were always working.  Not plodding – he was too sharp for that word to apply – but dogged, certainly. He had few activities outside of work, but those few received due focus and attention in their time.  He acquired more activities the longer he was married to my mother and our culture.  He was Connecticut Yankee, whose many family lines had come to Hartford and New Haven in the 17th C and generally prospered – none spectacularly, but many significantly. They seek prosperity and security, but great wealth doesn’t seem to hold much temptation for them.

They are the heart of the Business Tribe, certainly.  All traits need to be found in all tribes for anyone to produce anything of value, but there are skill sets more common in one group than another.  I am quite puzzled over the whole issue of focus and direction for this energy.  The Arts & Humanities Tribe*, whatever my criticism of us, displays far more focus over short bursts than the Business Tribe – a laser intensity for hours in rehearsal, editing, and performance.  At the other end of the spectrum, the Science & Technology Tribe is simply legendary for ability to put in 100-hour weeks for weeks or months to bring a project to fruition.

Perhaps that is its own answer – those who can switch their focus, not in distraction but by design, are the ones who use their energy most efficiently.  Again, I’m not sure one can change oneself by simply deciding to.  We can bend ourselves somewhat at need, but I doubt not permanently. Dei Gratia Sumus Quod Sumus By the grace of God, we are what we are. (motto of the prior borough of Barking, in London.)

*Upon further review.  Only Arts, not Humanites, for that manic intensity.


Some thoughts about athletics.

People will claim that sports develop disciplined effort – Benjamin Spock states definitely that “Crew made me,” giving him the discipline he needed to make it through med school.  Others will say that sports simply reveal it.  Let us grant that there are different sports requiring different skills, and that most or all virtues that sports teach could be learned elsewhere – in scouts, in music, in part-time jobs.

Nonetheless, there is correlation between athletics and energy, fairly obviously, and the further connection to the Business Tribe may not be simply a case of Old Boys’ Network in play. Athletics does not create the energy, and may not be uniquely good at developing discipline.  But teenage participation in athletics may be an indicator that the person has the requisite energy.  This connection between adolescent sports and adult status seems stronger in the white, black, and native communities, less pronounced in the hispanic, Asian, and Jewish communities. These latter groups may in the past have participated largely to obtain status in majority-white communities.

All sorts of people participate in youth athletics, and there are many ways to succeed.  I don’t think there has ever been much of an automatic ticket that youth sports punches for later success.  Rather, they may both result from the same quality of disciplined energy.  I wonder if reflexes and hand-eye coordination are even more specific correlates. Successful adults get together for all manner of activities – it was clubs, bowling, and bridge in the 50’s,  – but in business, golf predominates with racquet sports second. Skiing, far more of a suburban upwardly-mobile pursuit than skating or snowmachines, is a reflex, controlled aggression sport, and foot-eye coordination may be identical to hand-eye. (What other sports do business gravitate toward in non-snow areas?)


The mention of athletics comes in because my stepfamily excels at them – sorry I didn’t make that explicit.  Multisport, All-State, several were DII or DIII All-Americans.  They largely drop those after college and switch to golf, with some tendency for women to ski.  Their sports of choice were lacrosse, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer – all team, all hand-eye.  But though it was their pattern which spurred this line of thought, I was specifically excluding them while writing the last section, not wanting a dozen individuals to be my sample set.  I am casting about in my mind among the people I remember from school, those my boys went to school with (and their parents), folks I work with or go to church with now, folks I have read about.  I would greatly appreciate all of you doing the same, reflecting – hey, that’s our culture, right? – on your own families and coworkers.  I’m trying to build a theory here. I am operating from the traditional view that this energy - this gumption, this pep, this moxie, vim & vigor, dynamism, get-up-and-go, animal spirits – is more pronounced in America than elsewhere, and one of our defining traits. 

These sorts tend to marry each other, correct?  A man from the Business Tribe may take a Science & Technology or Arts & Humanities wife, yet is she ever one of the driven obsessive or dreamy reflective ones?

Socially, are they all over the map in tendency?  Do we see the same percentage of the garrulous, the standoffish? How does the energy play out socially?


jaed said...

These sorts tend to marry each other, correct?

Questionable. I tend to think of the energetic husband and the dreamy, sensitive, artist wife, or the contemplative, absent-minded inventor husband and the practical, tough-minded wife. This seems like an area where assortive mating would pay big dividends, both in sanity and productivity of the couple.

(Assuming both are smart enough to realize that not everyone is or should be just like them, that is. Otherwise you get frequent fights over who was supposed to do the dishes.)

karrde said...


Among my family (parents' generation), most of the males played sports in high school or college.

However, only one plays now, to my memory. He transitioned to golf. (In-law, married into my mother's side of the family.)

High energy guy, businessman and sales. Runs his own company now. Not academically gifted, but can quote monthly costs, interest rates, return-on-investment, and other financial data without blinking an eye. Great story-teller also...probably what makes him such a good salesman.

Most of the guys I'm thinking of married women who were nurses. One married a musician.

Among people my own age, I know a few men and women who played sports(basketball, volleyball, competitive swimming, track). They tend to be high-energy.

How do non-team sports compare to team sports?

Der Hahn said...

There can be a certain amount of intra-familial variation. Of the three of us, only my brother played sports in high school. He followed in my father's footsteps fairly closely while my sister and I were probably more like my mother. My father's family were definitely Business Tribe (farming actually) though I don't know how you would classify my mother's (her father was a minister .. the Humanities portion of A&H group?)

Of the cousins I'm aware of marriages have tended to be of equal energy levels. My brother's wife was also Business Tribe (she became a CPA though hasn't been active for awhile) and they match energy level and sports affiliations pretty well. My newphews are continuing the tradition of sports activity though I see a tendency to choose individual competition sports (swimming and running) over team sports with the exception of baseball.

My ex-wife was definitely A&H and we matched energy levels pretty well. Son seems to be carrying forward the tradition also .. he's not active in sports but he's starting to exhibit a certain focus and self-disipline towards his work.

Gringo said...

I once looked at the post-college lives of some members of a college basketball team I had followed when I was in high school. They were not All-Americans who could barely read, but students who also had some athletic talent. They were neither geniuses nor Olympic caliber atheletes. They graduated from college, because they did not have the talent to make it in the NBA.

I was surprised at the number of them who had become successful business executives. I speculated that there were certain behaviors and atrributes associated with athletics which translated to success in the business world.

1) Prioritizing. Student athletes need to prioritize their time. Because they have limited time, this also involves accepting less than perfect results to get something done. Because they do not have 10 hours to write a paper, they need to write an acceptable one in four hours. It isn’t perfect, but it is acceptable. Better to have a less than perfect paper in four hours than a perfect paper in ten hours, because the time isn’t there. Some perfectionists cannot write a paper in four hours, but need ten to get a perfect paper out. Student atheletes learn to not get bogged down in details. As my process design professor said, “good enough is best.” As the ad says, “Do it.”

2) Teamwork.
3) Training in making fast decisions, both on the athletic field, and in getting academic work done.
4) As you mention, high energy.

I am a member of the S&T tribe. I was on teams in high school, and in college ran 3-5 miles a day and also played soccer on the weekends. I was just average as an athelete. In college, I could not have spent the 60+ hours a week on class time + studying for my engineering degree without exercise. After running or playing soccer, my brain was cleared out, and I was re-energized to study some more.

Mr Tall said...

I'm tall and have decent hand-eye coordination, but was an indifferent athlete in high school. I just couldn't work myself up to the levels of commitment and enthusiasm that seemed to come naturally to many of my peers.

I'm also a member of the A&H tribe by temperament, but have married a high-energy S&T wife who's now transitioned to the Business Tribe (although it's interesting that her temperament does still not quite mesh with true Business types). This seems to work out well for us.

I agree that 'energy', for lack of a better term, is genetically transmitted and is vastly underestimated/ignored in life outcomes. Perhaps 'gumption' is an old-fashioned word that describes the phenomenon even better; it's 'getting things done' rather than procrastinating and seeking a dreamy perfection, just as Gringo has said. I wish on many occasions I had more of it!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Keep 'em coming. Exactly the sort of observations that make me think and revise.

bs king said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bs king said...

As I was reading your post, I couldn't help but think that what you're calling energy, I would call "the thrill of getting something DONE".

I put it this way because while I wouldn't call myself a high energy person, I have happily put in 70 hour work weeks when my projects at work were in their final stages. Why? Because I had the opportunity to change things! The more work I put in the more tangible and impressive the result! At this point my job is a cross between business and science, and it strikes me that everyone you mention (sports, business, tech, artists of all kinds) would have the same carrot.

I think tying a sense of satisfaction to getting something done and repeating often probably is very fulfilling for people.

For those whose professions do not lend themselves to this, they need to find it from a hobby. Otherwise, I think they get whiny.

Der Hahn said...

@bs king .. that hits the mark.

I work as a computer system admin so a lot of my work is drone-ish paperwork and fairly mundane. The bright spots are almost always either sucessfully diagnosing and correcting a problem, or implementing a system change. They keep me going. I've also come to realize that growing up on a farm helped create a tempermant suited to this kind of work (or maybe I've molded the work to suit my energy level). The daily chores and cyclical nature of planting and harvesting match the rythyms of daily processing and periodic system maintenance.

I pondered a little bit on energy levels in relationships and began to wonder if matching or complementing levels might be more important than other traits. My more successful relationships have had similar energy levels. My current female friend definitely has a higher energy level, and it creates some tension.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hmm - bsking is a semi-farm girl also. Though as I recall, her siblings liked that better than she did.

There is certainly drive for mastery, drive for completion, drive for closure, and these do provide energy.

Texan99 said...

Is there a drive for completion? I may be missing that. I do best with jobs that are valuable even if you do only part of them before you get bored and want to switch to something else, like extending pathways or adding a few square feet of new bed.

Like the William Hurt character in "The Big Chill" who interviews himself about the degree he never finished, and says, "I'm not hung up on this completion thing."

Finishing a job often feels like kind of a death to me.