Should We Consider Preparation Time When Evaluating Someone’s Performance?

Who’s the better competitor — the person who won the championship after spending hours each day practicing or the person who won the championship with very little practice leading up to it? Or are their achievements equal?

How about completion time? Should a student who spends only 20 minutes on a test and gets an A+ be thought of more highly than the student who spends 60 minutes on the same test and gets an A+? Students with learning disabilities sometimes get significantly more time on a test than others, and yet if they get the same final score on a test we treat the outcomes identically.

Would you think more of this blog post if I told you I spent only a minute writing it, versus two hours? Unlike other aspects of performance — such as the NBA, where exceptions notwithstanding players spend around equal amounts of time preparing for games — the blogosphere has a great deal of variance on this front. Some bloggers spend hours on posts; others not much at all. This is one reason why I think it’s difficult to infer too much about someone’s intelligence from a blog. You just don’t know how much time they’re spending. Then again, maybe this doesn’t matter.

Bottom Line: Almost two years ago I advocated for “certainty scales” to be put next to answers spaces on school tests, forcing students to indicate their level of certainty about their answer. I think a similar type of additional label, perhaps around input time required to obtain the output, would give a more holistic perspective on a person’s performance, and not just in school settings.

17 comments on “Should We Consider Preparation Time When Evaluating Someone’s Performance?
  • I guess the equation roughly is something like:

    Talent+Time Worked = Productivity

    (Not sure how you’d quantify talent)

    If you have a lot of one, you don’t need as much of the other. But if you have both, you have the potential to be extraordinary.

  • I think that this is something that is hard to measure. If two people reach the same conclusion, one in 20 minutes and one in 60 minutes, they are both equally correct. The only thing is that the person who took 20 minutes – perhaps they are not operating at their full potential level. You know, the guy who skims the material 20 minutes before class and aces the test. Unfortunately, that cannot be measured, nor can you force someone to fully exert themselves. I feel it remains an intangible.

  • Ben:

    Very thought provoking blog post. This leads into some broader topics about effort and result. You are probably familiar with some recent ideas around ‘Growth Mindset’ primarily put forward by Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck.
    I am wondering if this premise of judging the result by its effort rather than the result on its own merit, is fraught with pitfalls in my humble opinion. This kind of score keeping in my mind encourages ‘fixed mind-set’.

    This post brought to mind, one of Malcolm Gladwell’s memorable quote on effort

    Here is the link

    I am including the text from the link above, for an easier read.


    ” Gladwell: This is actually a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?

    The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection.
    The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder. ”


    So, in summary my point is that, using the effort as one of the metric in measuring someone’s performance is probably not a worthwhile exercise.

    I confess, it probably took me longer to write this response than what it took you to write the blog post 🙂

  • The whole testing thing is full of holes. Take testing for employment – what inadvertently becomes credentialism. How many employers “test” an applicant one way if they want to hire them, but test another applicant differently if they don’t want to hire them (for who-knows-what kind of personal crap reason). Too many companies resemble clubs which you are allowed to join (hired), and not producers. But all the time they appear to be testing. Consider teachers that give some students the answers.

    Testing in education is another piece of lunacy. Most of elementary and middle school testing is just a black box with dials on the outside a teacher turns to advance the kids they like. Even at the University level there is a lot of crap testing going on. So many of the tests are so poorly designed if you know a lot about the subject (like in computer science) you may actually score worse than if you just blindly rattled off whatever the instructor had said. That’s because you know too much and none of the choices seem correct. Then they tell you “oh, you’re stupid, you can’t be like us”. What a zoo. Or, the instructor will introduce some flaky section in the course that is so subjective only the people they choose are allowed to “join their club”.

  • Quite honestly I would rather score well after working harder than everyone else. There are a LOT of extremely smart losers in the World and I think I have met most of them. I mean these people are stunning, they are so smart. I am thinking of one particularly disfunctional professor I know, put him in a room with a hundred people and in ten minutes he can make them all feel dumb. But check back in twenty years and see where this wacko is. I really treasure my drive and love of hard work. That’s because it keeps going and going and going, long after smart runs out. I do know one person who is very smart, but humble and works hard and likes to help others. Now that guy has really gone places and I admire him.

  • Ever got into a mess and dealt with a lawyer?

    Preparation time is of consequence only when the billing is `by-the-hour’ than by the result – the reason why lawyers are so well off even as litigants bite the dust 😉

  • Its more impressive to pull off a great performance with little preparation, but that may just be an indicator of talent. And why would the time spent writing indicate intelligence, I feel like there are significant differences in writing style with every author.

  • Tests are one thing, but I would hate to have my ‘performance’ measured by how long it takes to write a comment– I might go off on many tangents in a Wikipedia search or just checking other tabs in passing.

    S would have more time to work hard if he quit spending so much of it meeting all those extremely smart losers.;-)

  • Like Kevin said, it’s more impressive to pull it off with little preparation, but the further you go in life, the stakes get higher, and if you’re used to just winging it, you put yourself at a disadvantage.

    Michael Jordan may have been the most talented basktball player ever, but that Jordan of 1985 could not have won the championships of the nineties. He had to work long and hard to get to that point.

    Pro sports is littered with people who had great talent but lacked the will to prepare.

    (Though truth be told, I think desire is itself a component of talent. If you don’t want something bad enough — either because of competitive instincts or sheer love for the activity — you probably will not get very good at it. To wit: Barack Obama was reputedly a mediocre speaker in the 90s.)

  • Great post. Very provoking.

    Reminds me of one of Dan Pink’s Six Principles for Success in his new book Johnny Bunko “The Last Career Guide you will ever need”.

    4. Persistence trumps talent.

    His 5th principles is actually relevant as well – re: “psychology of self protection”

    5. Make excellent mistakes

    Which basically means there’s a lot to learn from failure when you put yourself on the line.

    Also, I’ve noticed a tendency for people when looking at a talented person to assume it didn’t take them much effort to get where they are. I hear things like “Well I couldn’t do that, I’m not that talented.” Or “She is lucky she was born with such talent.” The implicit understood here is that these people didn’t work hard to get where they got to be.
    And these kind of people never venture outside of their comfort zone to attempt any new challenge because at the present moment before they’ve put any work in they would look pitiful in comparison to one of those “talented people”.

    During middle school I didn’t have to work very hard and I was able to coast on talent alone. Then when I started a very competitive college prep High School I realized I wasn’t the smartest – I didn’t have the most raw book-smart intelligence. But I realized I was still ahead of my peers in terms of knowing how to get high ROI on my time. And I was way more intrinsically motivated for the pursuit of knowledge rather than extrinsically motivated for the grade.

    I have to say that speed is worth something, especially if the two pieces of work are of identical quality. All you have to do is stretch out the time to see so. If one person studies for 6 hours instead of 60 minutes then that’s a pretty big deal. That’s five hours they could be spending their time and energy on doing something else productive. If they only took 21 minutes as compared with the other student who took 20 then its pretty negligible. None of this would be an issue if we had infinite time, but we don’t, alas, and mastering efficiency is a very important skill in the 21st century as we increasingly get inundated with things that demand our attention.

  • I think that the realization of talent, for example in the case of Michael Jordan, probably drove him to work so hard.

    Many times one needs a motivation to work hard, and there is probably not much better of a motivator than realizing that you have the potential to be the best at whatever it is you are undertaking.

    I assume this holds true with physical ability, intellectual ability, musical ability, etc.

    One probably realizes how good he/she could be, and is then determined to see what it would be like to reach that level.

  • what difference does it make how long someone spent writing a blog post? i don’t think that’s really important.

    no one really thinks any less of michelangelo for spending so long on a single work of art. i think we should just focus on the final product. it doesn’t make sense to run around trying to do everything. it’s better to do something that will be remembered.

  • You’re right David, time doesn’t matter when you’re considering major works of art or revolutionary accomplishments.

    You can’t really criticize someone for taking too long when they push the limits of human accomplishment. Though in my opinion time is still is something to consider. One of the things that is so impressive about Shakespeare is the immensity and sum of his work. If Hamlet was the only play Shakespeare ever wrote he’d still probably be recognized as a genius. But the frequency with which he was able to repeat brilliance is why he’s known has the greatest writer ever.

    If Michelangelo made 10 uniquely different Sistine Chapel’s he’d be that much more esteemed.

    Time definitely makes more of a difference for remedial tasks. Just for argument’s sake what if Michelangelo had to spend most of his time gathering food and did not have time to paint because he was terribly slow at managing his basic needs for survival.

    We have more stuff to do than we could possibly have time for, and for that reason if you can get something done faster it leaves more time for other things.

  • Is anyone here suggesting that Olympic stars should have their performance deducted by the amount of time they practiced? I mean if they worked harder than everyone else, THEN won the Gold Medal, another athlete who practiced a little less yet won the Silver Medal, should be given the Gold Medal after all???

    If you’re going to do that, then why not ALSO take into consideration the personal difficulty each faced, instead of the technical aspects of the competition alone? If a young girl has to babysit her little brother and there’s no heat in the apartment, yet she only received a “C” on a particular exam, she should be given an “A” instead, under the circumstances.

    If you are going to weigh the response by some subjective system as you suggest, then you should also weigh the individual challenges, too. Have you even thought this through? If you’re going to consider how long it took a person to answer the question, whether it was correct or not, then in balance, why not also consider how much sleep they had, if the individual is suffering from illness or overcoming a trauma???

  • This post sucks. The world is competitive: we don’t buy inferior products or services because the provider tried harder than the winner did.

    We buy what works. We judge by end results. No human animal would choose to mate with another overweight person that tried extremely hard to lose weight, versus one that has natural physical beauty. Such gearing would be nonsensical.

    Is the person that works 1000 hours for $1000 richer, or more worthy of wealth, than the person that works 1 hour for the same amount? No. That is fool’s logic.

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