Upon my first arrival in Japan, freshly minted college degree in hand in the summer of 1990, I was highly attentive to what the secret was to that nation's economic growth miracle. I found it before I had finished descending from the aircraft.
First, realize the timing: 1990s Japan was both a great ally of America and also our economic rival. I always found the economic paranoia a puzzle, but I was also fascinated by the mysterious Japanese. So imagine my surprise when the airport had no arrival gate but instead a rickety set of mobile stairs pushed up against the hull of our jet. What's this? No chrome escalator? The whole place looked rough around the edges, a cheap copy of a middle-tier American city airport circa 1964, not LAX 1990.
But there it was. Or he was, rather. Outside the entrance which we would shortly transit was a little man in overalls and a cap, and he was brooming. And it wasn't a nice broom with uniform nylon bristles, more like the broomstick stolen by Dorothy from the Wicked Witch of the West. And this guy was pumping it like an Olympic brooming champ, as if his was the single most important task between civilization and the barbarians. And maybe it was ...
That moment cemented in me an understaning of economic development. Even after two decades, that man symbolizes to me why Japan became a growth miracle. Human capital is more than what we traditionally use to measure it given our data limitations -- health and education. Human capital is ultimately how much effort is made by individuals, given the potential of health and education.
Read more about the relationship between effort and success in this interesting 2006 essay by David Dobbs:
This new discipline - a mix of psychology and cognitive science - has now produced its first large collection of expert reviews, the massive Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 052184097X).
The book essentially tells us to forget the notion that "genius", "talent" or any other innate qualities create the greats we call geniuses. Instead, as the American inventor Thomas Edison said, genius is 99 per cent perspiration - or, to be truer to the data, perhaps 1 per cent inspiration, 29 per cent good instruction and encouragement, and 70 per cent perspiration. Examine closely even the most extreme examples - Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky - and you find more hard-won mastery than gift. Geniuses are made, not born.