Commentary: Baseball or Soccer?
Is life more like baseball, or is it more like soccer?
Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.
Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.
As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. Brazil got slaughtered because its players did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.
Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.
This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold. As Nicholas Christakis and others have shown, if your friends are obese, you’re likely to be obese. If your neighbors play fair, you are likely to play fair. We all live within distinct moral ecologies. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without you being much aware of it.
Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.
Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery. Broadway was incredibly creative in the 1940s and 1950s because it was a fluid industry in which casual acquaintances ended up collaborating.
Since then, studies show, theater social networks have rigidified, and, even if you collaborate with an ideal partner, you are not as likely to be creative as you would have been when the global environment was more fertile.
Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend but are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.
Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.
Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.
Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.