Friday, March 23, 2012

Follow the leader

Every now and then, publications like ESPN publish a self-indulgent piece of pseudo-journalism called "Power Rankings," which allege to rank teams from best to worst. Today I saw that ESPN had issued Power Rankings for the NFL, which is even more pointless and self-indulgent than normal because the NFL is currently in its offseason, free agency is ongoing, the draft is still a month away, and so these sportswriters are ranking teams that a) are not playing, and b) have incomplete rosters. But no matter, there are bored sports fans like me who click through to this sort of thing, and so I did.

The best team in the NFL, according to this chart, is the NY Giants. In fact, four of the five reporters voted them first. That might seem only fair, since the Giants just won the Super Bowl, if it weren't for the fact that the Giants were generally considered the fourth or fifth best team in the NFC, looked for a while like they might miss the playoffs entirely, and then went on a hot streak at the end. The Giants were a good football team, no doubt about it, but they were also very lucky.

By any objective standard the Giants were quite obviously not the best team in the league last year, and they are unlikely to be the best team next year, so how do they end up at the top of power rankings? Because they won the big game. This is something we see in tech journalism as well: whoever wins is the best, by definition. Steve Jobs was the worst, so bad that he was thrown out of his own company, and then he was the best. Sergey Brin was the best, until Mark Zuckerberg became the best. According to the pundits, there is no such thing as luck in Silicon Valley, only talent, skill, and dedication. The cream rises to the top, and shows that it's the cream by virtue of rising.

It's a satisfying story, more so than "they were in the right place at the right time." That narrative is far more inspiring to would-be entrepreneurs than the alternative, that they might have a great idea and solid skills and work really, really hard and still fail in the marketplace. Unfortunately, it's a fairy tale. The universe doesn't hand out ribbons to the best, it hands out ribbons to the ones who win. And sometimes they win by luck.