March 16, 2013
I was at the climbing gym a few weeks ago with a friend of mine. We were just messing around, making up with bouldering problems for ourselves to do. One of the problems my friend came up with was a nice, muscular traverse moving through the overhanging wall, with pretty good hands but not much for feet. For whatever reason, our attempts on this problem started getting a lot of attention from the other climbers at the gym, and pretty soon we had a sizeable group watching us and asking about which holds were on. As these other people started trying the problem, I felt that strong climber's desire to bag the first ascent, especially before the others started learning the beta, (tricks for how to do it).
So I chalked up my hands again and hopped on. I easily moved through the first part of the traverse, as I had tried it several times, and then got to the harder part on the overhanging wall. I nailed the left-hand bump, the swing, and the right-hand cross, but when it came time for the reach out to the left-hand crimp, I slipped off. Disappointed, I went to the back of the line. A little later, a much better climber than me easily sent the problem, even skipping holds he wasn't aware of. In fact, when he finished he didn't realize it, and asked us where the next holds were.
This episode got me thinking about why I had wanted to make the first ascent. Even if I had gotten it, I realized, I still would have been a much worse climber than the guy who easily sent the problem after me. If I had managed to climb it first it would not have been because I was a better climber, but rather because I had the advantages of practicing on it before the other people tried it.
This phenomenon is much more general: I think a lot of times in our society we idolize or reward people who have done something for the first time, sometimes regardless of whether doing something first is really an accomplishment or just the result of luck or an uneven playing field. For example, in high school and college I read a lot of early and classic literature, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and Beowulf. These books were held up to me as "Great Literature", but after reading them I was distinctly unimpressed. Frankly, I found them to be inferior both in meaningfulness and in entertainment value to more modern books, even those, like Harry Potter, that are not "Great Literature".
Why are these ancient books a major part of the Western Canon? I think it's because they were written first. Homer's epics aren't "Great Literature" because Homer was an especially talented author; they're "Great Literature" because he was an early author. Homer's works are held up as a great achievement, but in the competition for literary immortality Homer had the advantage of living thousands of years before modern authors like J.K. Rowling, when there were fewer writers to compete with. Had J.K. Rowling written thousands of years ago, I think, Literature professors would be publishing academic articles on the her work rather than snobbishly dismissing it.
As another example, consider the major problem of frivolous patents. Companies and individuals have obtained patents on so-called "inventions", just by virtue of being the first to file a patent for what everybody else considered an obvious idea. Who would have thought that you could patent the idea of making a hand-held device in the shape of a rectangle with rounded edges, as Apple did? And who would have thought that you could patent the idea of using WiFi? These companies are being rewarded for being the first to patent these things, but the fact that they were first is not at all an accomplishment worthy of those rewards.
My point here is that being first is not always the substantial accomplishment it is often made out to be, and that we as a society should be more careful when rewarding it.