The Power of Being Able to Do a Good Job at Tedious, Detail-Oriented Work

 

There is a growing body of research on the importance of determination, of grit, of stick-to-itiveness in kids becoming successful adults. In German, they call this staying-power quality “sitzfleisch.”  The etymology, according to the St. Louis Fed, alludes to the ability to stay seated for a long time in order to perfectly complete a task. And possessing a healthy portion of sitzfleisch can mean higher wages. From“What Sitzfleisch Has To Do with Wages” by economist David Wiczer:

How can we measure this advantage of persevering at a task, at staying seated until the task’s conclusion? It turns out that the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) includes a measure. The U.S. military designed this series of tests to help place new soldiers into jobs in the armed forces. Many of the tests cover straightforward topics such as “Word Knowledge.” However, one test stands out as peculiar: “Coding Speed.” Test-takers match words with numbers from a list in accordance with another separate key. This is a tedious exercise to do over and again, and returning and checking one’s answers is a true test of stamina.

The 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth provides a way for measuring potential connections between performance on the ASVAB and future earnings, as this group’s test scores, subsequent earnings and labor force status are reported. … On average, someone with a coding speed score ranked 10 percentage points higher than another had a 1 percent wage advantage every year of his life. Compare this to a 10 percentage point advantage in the AFQT, which corresponds to a 3.3 percent increase. In fact, the effect is about one-quarter of the strength of a college degree.

The figure below shows the same effect, but via a semi-parametric method: The horizontal axis displays the percentage deviation from the expected wage, given all of these previously mentioned determinants except for coding speed. Quite clearly, respondents in the survey with higher ranks in coding speed made more than would otherwise be expected. Sitzfleisch has its rewards.

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  1. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    I finally got around to reading the book Horse Soldiers, by Doug Stanton, about the special forces guys fighting in Afghanistan shortly after the attack on Manhattan and Washington in 2001.  Toward the end of the book, they call an airstrike down on the enemy, but it lands really close to some of their guys, severely injuring them.  They later find out that an airman transposed two digits in the coordinates.  (The book is a great read, by the way.)

    Very often, getting stuff right matters.

    • #1
  2. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Eh, the premise seems reasonable but the survey being used to support it may be too old to be terribly relevant.

    The code speed test shows a persons ability to work hard, not smart.  you can brute force your way through many problems, but should you?

    We run into this all the time in my line of work.  Someone with limited sql knowledge will brute force a problem, taking up their whole day, when someone with the proper knowledge could have done it in a couple of minutes.

    Not sure the ability to do repetitive tasks for hours on end remains as useful a trait as it once was.

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  3. user_357321 Inactive
    user_357321
    @Jordan

    Frank Soto:Eh, the premise seems reasonable but the survey being used to support it may be too old to be terribly relevant.

    The code speed test shows a persons ability to work hard, not smart. you can brute force your way through many problems, but should you?

    We run into this all the time in my line of work. Someone with limited sql knowledge will brute force a problem, taking up their whole day, when someone with the proper knowledge could have done it in a couple of minutes.

    Not sure the ability to do repetitive tasks for hours on end remains as useful a trait as it once was.

    This is a good point, but brute force is always useful, even if it is not the most graceful solution.  It is very easy to get caught in the analysis-paralysis, always trying to think of a better way to do something when you could have just done the thing simply and directly.

    I spend a lot of time fixing sql queries, and and while most problems are clearly wrong and represent ignorance, e.g. “SELECT * FROM everything;” that kind of stuff works.  The worst problems come from excessive cleverness.

    Smarts matter more than they used to, but I still think the diligent dimwit has the edge on the lazy genius, even today (and even in the high tech fields).  But ideally, you are the diligent smart one.

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  4. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Jordan Wiegand:

    But ideally, you are the diligent smart one.

    I envision this entity called a “corporation” in which we have diligent dimwits and lazy geniuses working together under the supervision of a “human resources manager.”

    Wait, no. That’s odious, isn’t it? Why didn’t the people who came up with the idea of a “human resources manager” realize how inherently disgusting that phrase was? Ix-nay on that.

    I reckon I just need to be in charge of everything. Otherwise we’ll get people thinking you can “manage” humans and view them as “resources.” The next step will be thinking you can harvest them and store them in a silo. I’m completely against any form of cooperation with others. Obviously, that’s the slippery slope to cannibalism.

    I say it’s best to be diligent, smart, and uncompromising on cannibalism.

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  5. user_357321 Inactive
    user_357321
    @Jordan

    Claire Berlinski:

    I say it’s best to be diligent, smart, and uncompromising on cannibalism.

    Agreed, if you want cannibalism done right you just have to do it yourself.  It’s a slippery slope to poorly executed soylent green.

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  6. user_740328 Inactive
    user_740328
    @SEnkey

    The finding ring true to me. I watch many of the students who struggle in my school lack any degree of perseverance. If prompted by a teacher or retained from a desired activity they can eventually work through a problem, but wont look at it long enough to do so on their own. To put it clearly, they are intelligent enough to solve the problem but lack the discipline to do so.

    A related anecdote: My office manager is in charge of entering newly enrolled students’ information packets into our campus system. This is where I retrieve emails and phone numbers for parent contact. I’ve learned this year to trust none of the information. When the phone number or email doesn’t work, it is almost always a data-entry error. They happen far more frequently than I am willing to admit. Almost always the numbers/letters are correct, just mis-ordered. She doesn’t check her work. My time is wasted.

    • #6

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