While fans are falling over each other trying to jump on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon, writers are likewise stumbling about trying to explain how the NBA phenomenon was overlooked for so long and by so many.
The primary conclusion being drawn, it seems, is that this is an example of ethnic blindness or stereotyping, that the lack of Asian basketball players means there are not sufficient comparisons. That is, that those assessing basketball talent did not have an Asian basketball player to whom Lin could be compared.
I think this conclusion entirely misses what is happening here.
Before I explain, let me provide a parallel example. In my city, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a charter school for gifted children that requires students take an intelligence test, and to reach a certain level (three standard deviations above the mean), before they can enter the admission lottery. Leaving aside concerns about the validity of intelligence testing for four and five year-old children, let’s consider the implication of this mandate: the gifted, capable children who are left out.
An intelligence test is a very narrow measure, yet giftedness comes in many forms. By focusing on only those children with a specific form of achievement at 4-5 years old, the school misses many other children: those who mature a little later, those who have less-developed vocabularies, those whose giftedness is more visual, those whose giftedness has not been nurtured, etc.
With Jeremy Lin, I suggest it’s not at all that he’s Asian. I suggest this has everything to do with the inability of scouts to measure, and therefore to see, certain intangibles that Lin possesses: the fast first step, the ability to see and make the right pass, and — most intangible and difficult to assess — an extraordinary understanding of the game-in-action. The quarterback Tom Brady possesses that last quality in his sport, and he was similarly overlooked. Tom Brady didn’t look like a football player, in just the way that Jeremy Lin didn’t look like a basketball player. Brady is not Asian, and I would be surprised if Lin’s ethnicity actually had anything to do with it.
At the “scholars academy” in Charlotte, kids are being left out because the school is not measuring essential intangibles. In the NBA, the NFL, and everywhere else, people are not being given a proper chance to demonstrate those things we don’t look for or don’t know how to measure.
The question for you is this: in your organization, what are the Lin-like characteristics that you are overlooking? It might be the ability to solve problems creatively, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to inspire loyalty, the ability to get people’s best performance, or any number of qualities that we can’t put our finger on…but might, if we start looking for them.