Are we playing basketball or soccer?

By Conor Sanchez

In a recent episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell offers an analogy for how we should think about society. Basically, he says there are two kinds of people in this world: those who think we’re playing soccer and those who think we’re playing basketball.

In basketball, a winning strategy is to focus on one or two superstars instead of the weakest players. The reason being that one awesome player can conceivably carry the ball across the entire court to deliver more baskets for the team. In soccer, a better strategy is to focus on the weakest players to ensure the best player occasionally gets the ball and scores a goal. Even if your team has the greatest soccer player in the world, his or her success depends on the other players much more than it would if they were playing basketball.

Gladwell uses this analogy to criticize a trend in philanthropy that started when a man named Hank Rowan gave $100 million to a little-known university called Glassboro State College, which at the time was almost broke with just a little over $700,000 in its endowment. His actions inspired a wave of donations. From July 1992 until 2000, 20 gifts of $100 million were given out and as of spring 2016, 87 gifts of $100 million or more have been given to higher education. Sounds pretty great, right? The problem is that almost all of the other gifts after Rowan’s actions went to wealthy prestigious schools.

Gladwell’s viewpoint can be summed in his tweeted response to a billionaire’s decision to donate $400 million to Harvard University: “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!”

As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think of my own experience here in rural Nicaragua, where I have worked in grassroots development for two years. Upon arrival I was given assignments to work at two different schools (a secondary school and a university). Although I was obligated to devote a a minimum number of hours to each school, I was left with ample time to allocate as I saw fit.


My students in La Esperanza, a tiny community 15 kilometers from Nueva Guinea.

This was tough. How was I supposed to know where my extra time would be the most valuable? To borrow from economics theory, I wanted to avoid reaching the point of diminishing returns, where my increased presence yielded lower incremental per-unit returns, particularly if I could be devoting myself to areas where my increased presence would lead to higher incremental returns. In other words, where would I be most impactful?

For a while, I simply devoted my time to those that expected it most. My small rural school, located about 15 kilometers outside the city, practically rolled out the red carpet for me on the days I taught. I was the first foreigner to ever teach there and they seemed, frankly, grateful that I even showed up.

The university, on the other hand, always gave me the impression that I wasn’t there enough. At first, I thought, well, I understand; they have the strongest English department in the city. They have access to incredible resources, like the internet, computers, and books in English. The brightest and most motivated students attend their school. Why wouldn’t I devote all my free time here?

Overtime, the answer to that question became increasingly apparent. The school had more than enough to work with and improve upon. I was the third Peace Corps volunteer to work there in four years. They had over ten fluent, full-time English teachers. I was definitely helping, but again, the question of how much and relative to what kept coming up. With only so much free time to spare, one day I realized my time would be much better spent lending additional support to the places that don’t have access to as many resources as the university.

Gradually, I began to peel myself away. I started an after-school English Club at my rural school, where students asked permission from their parents to miss a few hours working on their family farm to learn a second language. At the same school, I developed and received a grant to build a library equipped with computers, a printer, and books in English and Spanish. I picked up a new teacher to work with at a different secondary school in the city. I helped my co-teachers find professional development opportunities and the resources necessary to afford them.

In time, I felt my level of productivity begin to rise. Looking back, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish these things if I had devoted all my spare time to the university. Undoubtedly, I would have other accomplishments to reflect on, however, I am not sure they would have been as impactful. I pivoted to begin working with teachers who, on the whole, taught a larger segment of the population, thereby amplifying the impact of my added presence in the classroom. There was also a huge disparity in the resources available to students who lived just 15 kilometers apart. Adding a library to their school will give them skills they wouldn’t otherwise get unless they could afford to go to college in the city.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a perfect example of what Gladwell was talking about in his podcast. The university in my city isn’t exactly comparable to a wealthy university in the United States. But there is a lesson learned here that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. That is, in philanthropic efforts, we shouldn’t ignore the weakest players on the team. Or another way to put it, we should find the least best player and help them get better.

We naturally gravitate towards our superstars, whether it’s in a classroom, a company, or a nation. And sometimes this works. Nurturing and empowering a leader with unique abilities and talents can have a trickle-down effect that helps the whole team succeed.

However, more often than not we tend to underestimate the effectiveness of the opposite strategy. That by giving additional attention and support to weaker players , whether it’s in the form of donations, tax dollars, tax breaks, or our time, we can help increase the competitiveness of the team as a whole. And what it comes down to, I believe, is whether you think we’re playing soccer or basketball.

I have to agree with Gladwell’s conclusion that, for the most part, we are playing a good old-fashioned game of soccer.


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