Thursday, April 10, 2008

Picasso Versus Cezanne

The keynote at this year's NCTM conference in Salt Lake City was a talk by Malcolm Gladwell who was really good. His big theme was about the dichotomy between explosive genius (as personified by Pablo Picasso) and long-term, patient genius (as personified by Cezanne). Picasso did his most valuable work in his mid-twenties while Cezanne didn't peak until his 50's or 60's. It's not really a matter of being a late bloomer. It's about a different approach. One way is a flash of brilliance that is a great, fully-formed idea (Picasso-esque), while the other is achieved by slow, persistent change over a great deal of time (Cezanne-esque). In this talk, Gladwell has borrowed and expanded a bit on an idea by economist David Galenson (here is a synopsis of Galenson's findings.)

Gladwell has given this talk other times, so has a synopsis and review of an earlier iteration of the talk. Here is the list of Picasso vs. Cezanne types I wrote down during the talk:

  • Melville (wrote Moby Dick in a year when he was 32, then not much else of note)
  • The Eagles (their fifth album was the huge hit Hotel California, after which they only put out one more)
  • GM/Ford/Chrysler (many innovations, but rarely persistent)
  • American math (students give up when answers don't come easily)
  • Mark Twain (wrote Huck Finn when 49. It took him over seven years to write it.)
  • Fleetwood Mac (Rumours was their 16th album!)
  • Japanese automakers (persisted for 20 years in engineering hybrids)
  • Asian math (persistent test takers)
Some things I took from the NCTM version of Gladwell's talk:
  • The folks who give the big international math test on which Western students get crushed by the Asian students (TIMMS) decided to put a questionaire at the beginning. There were a ton of questions and many students simply gave up. When you rank countries by how many questions their students answered in the pre-test (ungraded) questionaire, it turns out to look almost exactly like the list of how the countries did on the actual test. Implication: It's all about persistence. Asian students don't give up, but American and other western students do.
  • The implication with the artists is that they stopped being any good after their popular successes. Rather, I think some of the great ones (e.g., Picasso and Melville) simply became advanced.
Anyway, it was an interesting talk and many of the ideas are worth exploring.

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