Monday, October 16, 2017

A Bad Letter On Time is Better Than A Good Letter Late

“A bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.”  This is an idea I have long used as a quotation from the letters of Laurence Sterne, the 18th century English author.  It is, I find, a mis-quote of a letter Sterne wrote on August 3, 1760, which includes the following lines:
“thinking that a bad letter in season— to be better than a good one, out of it — this scrawl is the consequence, which, if you will burn the moment you get it—I promise to send you a fine set essay.”

The principle is one that I have used so many times, that I am quite surprised that I have only used it in one previous blog post, and never as the subject of one itself.

I was thinking of this quotation today for a couple of reasons, but then trying to find a subject for a blog post added another: I didn’t have a clear subject to discuss that I felt capable of discussing in a relatively constrained format.  I’m thinking a lot about the intersection of knowledge and politics, but there are a lot of separate threads that I’m having trouble untangling to put into any form that suits for a short piece.

I was thinking about the quotation with respect to a client who is sure he can’t write. My response is that the only way to resolve that is to practice writing—to be willing to produce something—anything—that can be critiqued. Good writers practice. I don’t think there’s any way around practicing.  I was also thinking how being willing to write bad drafts allows the practice that is crucial for generating good drafts.  The more you practice, the better your writing gets. Ironically, the willingness to be wrong allows the practice that allows growth, learning and the development of improved writing skills.

I was also thinking about it in terms of another client who has a number of different places to submit material, and I think a bad letter in season is better. If you have something to show to other people, they have an opportunity to appreciate it and learn from it, and/or to give you feedback so that you learn from the process. Sharing something bad creates the possibility of working with other people. By contrast, insisting on writing a good letter means missing opportunities—especially if your standard for a good letter is so high that you struggle to reach it.

In one episode of the Great British Baking Show, one of the participants ends up throwing his cake into the trash. As a result, he was sent home from the show. Unlike the others, he had nothing to show, and that was the deciding factor. Had he even shown any cake, he might well have survived for another week. For him, a bad cake in season would definitely have been superior.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Whose Responsibility is Communication?

My two previous posts were concerned with getting feedback and dealing with feedback, and this is following up on those ideas. I’m still thinking from the perspective of the writer concerned with the response, and particularly thinking about dealing with difficult feedback—complaints about the quality of work. I’m also thinking about a conversation I had with a friend about the purpose of music and of performing music.  The question in conversation was about the relationship between [author/performer/presenter] and audience, and where responsibility lies.

What burden lies on the performer to reach the audience? And is there any burden on the audience? In the previous post, I was writing about some comments that were difficult, and a lot of my response lies in my sense that the comments don’t reflect a sufficient attempt to understand the writer’s point of view.  But that idea requires believing that the reader has some responsibility in his or her approach to the work.

Different relationships between author/performer and audience bear different burdens of responsibility.  A professor definitely has different responsibility to the author of a dissertation than a bar patron does to no-cover charge musician. But still the question of where responsibility lies is one to consider, especially in the context of receiving feedback.

The bar patron hearing a no-cover musician bears little or no responsibility to the performer.  Certainly there is some normal standard of decorum—the bar patron can’t start yelling and trying to drown out the musician—but the bar patron certainly has the right to ignore the musician and to laugh out loud in conversation with a friend, even if that does interfere with the musician’s  performance.  If the audience for the musician has to pay for admission, then the expectations shift: having an audience paying to listen to music creates a greater responsibility for members of the audience. Of course, asking patrons to pay also means that they have a greater interest in fulfilling that general responsibility of listening. As anyone who has attended an expensive arena concert knows, there always seem to be plenty of people in the audience who have bought tickets whose primary interest is in the social event, not the concert itself, and thus talk through the music, but when people have paid for the music, this kind of behavior is less polite than identical behavior in a no-cover charge bar—it’s a matter of degree.

This was the conversation that I was having with my friend, who was talking about the difference in the behavior of audiences who paid vs. audiences at a free event.  That focuses on audience behavior.  The flip side is to wonder about the desires and purposes of the author or the performer. How the author/performer views the audience’s responses depends on what the author wants from the audience.

For my friend, the heart of the matter was in the music: the musician, he believed, should not compromise the integrity of the music, and it was important to have people who were coming to respect the music.  For me, the audience matters, too: if the music is really only about the music, then what’s the need for an audience? Once you bring the audience into the picture, the music in itself is not the only concern.  

To what extent is it a sell-out to shape the performance to meet the audience?

And to what extent is purity lost, if it reaches no audience?

Writers need audiences, and that means convincing audiences that the reading is worth the effort. If you have the choice to just write whatever you want and can then hope that someone will pick it up, that’s great—it will serve you well, if, like many writers, you have to submit it to many publishers before you find one that will take the work. On the other hand, if your audience is fixed—if you know that it’s a certain person—is it a sell-out to change what you do so that your audience will accept the work?

For writing more than for music, there is an underlying story or idea that could be transmitted in many different ways. To me, it’s that story that matters, and the form in which it is delivered is not fixed by the underlying purpose.

The Tao Te Ching opens by saying that the Tao that can be spoken (written) is not the absolute Tao.  But the book still continues to tell of the Tao. I think that writers need to think in those terms: the story that you tell is not the absolute version of the story, but you need to tell a story, anyway. Research (and therefore writing about research) delves into realms of uncertainty—but that can’t stop scholars, or the entire scholarly community would collapse. Research writing does its best to assert confidence, while still acknowledging the myriad limitations that any works of research faces.

Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with the statement that if one cannot speak accurately, one should remain silent (I’m paraphrasing slightly), and he never published another significant work in his life—his Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously from his notebooks.  Modeling your work as a scholar on the pattern of Wittgenstein—refusing to say anything unless it’s exactly right and certain—is not a path to scholarly success. 

If you are a writer, it’s useful to think about the gap between the ideas that you espouse and want to share and the many different ways in which those ideas can be expressed so as to reach different audiences. Reaching the audience is the writer’s responsibility. Although the reader may bear some burden of responsibility, it’s usually beneficial to simply accept the burden of reaching the audience: what does my reader want?  

(As a practical aside, understanding how to identify and write for an audience is extremely useful in getting published, because publishers want to sell books, and that means they want to know who you think your book will sell to.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

On receiving difficult feedback

In my last post, I was writing about how getting feedback is good, even when it’s bad feedback.  And I still believe that, even though I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes fuming over the quality of the feedback from the dissertation chair of the pseudonymous RSP (really smart person). 

To me, much of it seems petty and unnecessary. It angers me to see, for example, general statements that are obvious—beyond obvious—taken to task. But I look again, and I wonder, is it really obvious?

RSP and I share some fundamental views about the very nature of philosophy, especially with respect to the indeterminacy/indefinite nature of structures of knowledge (that’s not necessarily how RSP would phrase it, though), which leads to my accepting ideas that others are not so ready to accept. And that’s the issue: I’m not the person that RSP has to satisfy, and getting angry at the chair doesn’t actually help me find a route to satisfy the chair.

It’s a challenge to work through feedback like that. It’s the death of a thousand pinpricks. I read one comment, and I’m slightly annoyed. I read two, I’m a little more annoyed. I read four or ten or a dozen, and I’m fuming. It’s not even my work and I’m still more than annoyed at the feedback. There are comments that I agree with and comments that complimentary. But those are respites in a sea of brambles, picking at my skin. 

Is this bad feedback?  That depends on the standards by which I judge it. By the standards that come most easily—the emotional response shaped by by immediate intellectual judgements about the feedback (e.g., being annoyed that the chair asks for a citation on a claim that I don’t think ought to be cited)—yes, it’s bad feedback.  Bad in two ways: 1. doesn’t give sufficient guidance on how to fix it (e.g., “I don’t like the way you do this” vs. “you need to take steps X, Y, and Z to resolve this problem”), and, 2. emotionally loaded, at times (e.g., not only saying “this is a problem” but also “I don’t know why you refuse to fix this problem”).  The thing about those judgements is that they’re entirely based on my own perspective. What about the professor’s perspective?

I don’t know the professor’s perspective, of course, so I’m left to guess. And given that there is not enough clear guidance on how to fix it to be confident, my guess is a little bit of a shot in the dark. But it’s the best I can do…

In this situation, it’s interesting to try to imagine what the person who gave feedback is thinking. What is it that the chair needs or wants that is not being delivered? Is the resistance a matter of resistance to the general project? Or is it a resistance to a specific absence?  These questions are speculative, of course, but exploring them can be useful at least in defusing some of the emotion. Is the chair unable to understand some points? Or unwilling? Is the problem that the chair disagrees with something or that the chair thinks something is unclear?

A dissertation writer is obviously a student who is n many ways at the mercy of the dissertation chair. But it still can be useful to think as a teacher: suppose, as a teacher, you have trouble reaching a student? Do you say that the student is too stupid? Or do you try to explain the same ideas from a different angle?
Getting feedback can be difficult to deal with, but to try to think through the eyes of the person who gave the feedback can help at least defuse some of the emotional charge.

Once you’re past the emotional charge (at least for a while): What is the plan to persuade that person of the value of your work? What steps can you take? In this case, and in many others, my next step is to look for the feedback that seems the best: there are dozens of comments in this draft—which ones do I think make good points that I want to address?  It’s with these that I will start, and the rest, I’ll look at later—maybe I’ll figure something out for them by trying to respond to the feedback that asks good questions.

None of this eliminates the emotional sting of a complaint, or the frustration of wading through pages filled with comments, but it does help me step back from the work to ask whether the same ideas could be conveyed in a different form. And what form would be suitable to satisfy the specific individual of significance (the chair)? The written work is not an abstract sharing of some idealized truth, but rather a lesson that teaches your reader the value of the work. If your reader doesn’t get it the first time, how can you do it differently to resolve the difficulties that appeared?


Monday, September 25, 2017

Getting Feedback is Good, Even When It's Bad Feedback

Feedback can be hard to take, but it’s necessary.  Simplistically, if your project is a total stinker, you need to know that. Of course, someone saying your work is a total stinker doesn’t mean that it is. Different things work for different people.
We all are limited in our perspectives: we know what we think, but we don’t know what other people think.  And when we’re trying to produce something that is intended to communicate with other people (if we’re writing or using other communicative media), what other people think is crucial.

Sometimes I think the feedback I would most like to get is someone saying they liked my work, and also echoing back my message in their own words. If someone says “I think you’re saying X,” and “X” is the message I was hoping to share, that’s a successful piece of writing.

If I have nerved myself up to give something to someone, getting no response can be painful in itself, so I’d rather get something terse. It can be frustrating if someone gives very terse comments—good or bad—because the comments may not give guidance on how to move forward.  But that’s a personal frustration: if someone likes or dislikes your work and doesn’t give you any more information than that, it’s still valuable feedback.
If they like it, you can rest on your laurels. Or you can work on things that you want to work on.  You can try to guess the reasons they liked it.  And you can at least feel good that you got positive feedback.
If someone says they don’t like your work, and nothing more, it doesn’t help you figure out how you can get that person to like a new draft, but it does give you some indication of the strength of the work in someone else’s eyes. It’s no good to have someone worrying overmuch about hurting my feelings. If the feedback I get is a sense that they’re unwilling to say what they really feel, I’m only left to imagine the worst, so I’d rather actually get feedback, even if it is “your work sucks.”

Whether your work is awesome or it stinks, having a sense of what other people think of it can help you decide how to proceed.  I’m trying to get a friend of mine to give me some feedback right now, and I want to assure him that telling me that my work sucks is better than him saying he hasn’t looked at it. Even if all he tells me is: “I gave it two minutes, and it sucked so much I didn’t want to deal with it any more.”

There is toxic feedback, of course: if someone writes that your work proves that you’re an imbecile who is a waste of food, air, and water, that’s not good. But such a personal attack hardly shows the maturity of the source of feedback. For the most part, you can always ignore personal attacks inspired by your work—only if they’re coming from someone on whom you depend (a dissertation advisor, for example), should you do anything more with personal attacks than ignore them (I mean, assuming they’re limited to mean responses to your writing, obviously if someone is slandering/libelling you to many, you might want to take action, but that’s not really in the realm of getting feedback on your work.)




Monday, September 18, 2017

Expressive writing and mental state

I regularly tout the benefits of writing and of practicing writing (or at least it has been a common theme in my writing over years, if not in recent blog posts).  A recent study at Michigan State University associated specific benefits associated with expressive writing—writing about feelings and thoughts. (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-09/msu-fwe091417.php)

The authors of the study compared two groups of students who were set to perform the same main task—a test, and also a secondary task, either writing about what they did the previous day (not expressive) or writing about their feelings about the upcoming test (expressive). Their basic finding was that those doing the expressive writing were calmer (actually, they described it in terms of brain activation states because they were measuring the students with electroencephalography).  The lead author used a automotive fuel-efficiency metaphor, saying the difference between the brains performing the expressive writing task and those performing the control (non-expressive) task was like the difference between a Prius and a gas guzzler from the 1970s.  The students in the two groups performed the same on the main task (the test), so there was no direct impact on performance on the test itself. I am unsure from what I have read whether the higher-efficiency brain activity induced by the expressive writing task lasted into the main task.  In any event, this is good evidence that there is a real benefit to writing about your own feelings about a task.

For people who are stuck, I have often recommended writing about their feelings about the project—which has sometimes worked. One reason I like having people write about ow they feel about a project is that it can help reveal crucial theoretical assumptions. Another reason is that once someone has started writing about their feelings about the project, that can often transition into writing about the project itself. This study suggests that writing about how you feel about a project can help calm you down.


The many who have suggested that writing has therapeutic benefit—and there are many such in the self-help shelves—seem to have evidence to back up at least some claim to therapeutic benefit.


Generally speaking, writing is an important practice for people who will need to express ideas in their lives—both professionals and academics.  No matter how difficult writing may seem, it gets easier when you practice, and that allows you to work more efficiently because you communicate with others more efficiently.  This recent study suggests yet another reason to practice writing—or at least expressive writing: it helps improve your mental state.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Colleges and Universities are Good (revisited)

An article in the Washington Post this morning discussed the gap between how people in the U.S. see themselves and how people around the world see the U.S. and its residents. (Trump is Making Americans See the U.S. the Way the Rest of the World Already Did.)

While I think the author is a little careless in her generalizations, I generally agree with her main points that far too many residents of the U.S. are frightfully out of touch with the rest of the world. Certainly the U.S. public educational system does not dedicate great resources to understanding people from around the world.  I would not write a blog post just to agree with her, nor to take her to task for being a little careless in generalizing.  But towards the end of the article, the author makes a statement that just makes me angry for its basic acceptance of the anti-intellectual trend that is polluting public discourse in the U.S. at present:
many other average Americans with dangerously naive ideas about themselves and their country grow up to become teachers, foreign correspondents, presidents. What they did not learn as children will not be cured by what they learn at elite universities, in self-regarding metropolitan centers or in graduate schools that for the most part tell them that the United States is the center of the planet and that they are the smartest on it. 
Do I think there are many Americans (U.S. residents) who have dangerously naive views of themselves and their countries? Absolutely, I do.  But do I agree that such dangerously naive views cannot be cured by universities or graduate schools or metropolitan centers? Absolutely not.  The view that colleges and universities are part of the problem, or at least are no help in dealing with it, is pernicious anti-intellectual propaganda that serves conservative and Anglo-centric perspectives.

Firstly, let’s just stipulate that arrogance or hubris are not good. It’s good to believe in oneself, to feel proud of who and what you are, but it’s not good to be arrogant about it. It’s one thing to believe in oneself, and it’s quite another to believe oneself superior to another. And yet another thing to let that self-regard keep you from learning new things because you think you know better.

Secondly, I’m going to assert that the general idea of American Exceptionalism is either trite or inappropriate arrogance.  If we say that Americans are different from the rest of the world in that they are American and everyone else is not American, it is trite and tautological (the band Camper Van Beethoven sang “If you didn’t live here in America, you’d probably live somewhere else” in the song “Good Guys and Bad Guys”).  If Americans are different in some other way, then that characteristic should be something real that we can identify and define. We could then see if Americans are actually different (and potentially superior) in that way. The “American Exceptionalism” generally posited by the political right in the US is little more than an arrogant “Americans are better because we’re American,” without any clarifying or signifying characteristic that makes Americans better. If American exceptionalism said “Americans are better because they’re richer” (or smarter, or prettier, etc.), then we could discuss whether that was true using empirical evidence. And we could discuss whether being richer/smarter/prettier/etc. really translated to being better in any significant sense (what makes people “better” or “worse”, anyway?). If American Exceptionalism means “Americans make the best widgets,” well, if there is some way of proving that America makes the best widgets, then I’m all for American Exceptionalism. If American exceptionalism just means “we’re better because we’re American,” then that’s unfounded arrogance.  To the extent that American Exceptionalism is tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny (which depends on in the idea of the superiority of whites and Christians, and is a version of the “white man’s burden” myth), I reject it utterly.

It is possible to find arrogance everywhere, and maybe you do find it more often in elite universities and in “self-regarding metropolitan centers.” But what I would ask is: where are U.S. residents likely to find out about what people around the world think of the U.S.? You certainly could move to a foreign country, as the author of the article did (though living in a foreign country is no cure for arrogance, as colonial occupiers have demonstrated for centuries). Or, you could go to one of the places in America where you can meet people who aren’t from America.  You don’t have to leave America to meet people from around the world. You can learn from a Turk while living in Istanbul, but you can also learn from a Turk living in Berkeley, California while attending university. (One of the sloppy generalizations in the article is the notion that everyone in the U.S. is oblivious to what people in the rest of the world think. There are lots of people living in the U.S. who immigrated from other lands, or whose parents immigrated from other lands. Such people, by virtue of both personal experience and social connections, have a damn good idea of what people outside the US think of people inside the US. I get that the constraints of the article size limit the attention that an author can give to saying “I want to talk about something common in the US, but certainly not universal,” but the generalization is still sloppy: lots of Americans know what the rest of the world thinks of the US.)

Metropolitan centers are known for diversity of population, and this diversity is reflected in political realities. Who voted for Trump and blindness to the outside world? Not metropolitan centers. Metropolitan centers voted for the person who had served as Secretary of State for Barack Obama, who was widely admired outside the U.S. Metropolitan centers voted for the politician who believed in climate change, like the rest of the world believes in climate change. Metropolitan centers also voted for the politician who supported immigration, which reveals an inherent openness to new peoples with different ideas about the U.S. (An aside: to call the metropolitan centers “self-regarding” is to accuse them of arrogance. It’s an unjustified insult and a silly generalization. Where ever you go, some people will hold arrogant and unjustified pride in their homes. But in most places, there are justified grounds for pride. And in some cases—New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and several other major U.S. cities—a certain self-regard is not out of place. The great cities of the U.S. rival the great cities of the rest of the world. Sure, Istanbul has thousands of years of history, and New York only a few centuries, but New York was a world cultural center of power rivaled by only a short list of other cities in the history of the world. In the middle of the twentieth century, New York was quite arguably the greatest city in the world. Washington, D.C. wielded military might unrivaled perhaps in history. Los Angeles and Hollywood influenced people around the world.)

Colleges and universities are also good places to meet people from around the world and to learn how they see the world.  If you go to college or university with an unshakeable belief in the inherent superiority of Americans (or white Christian Americans), well, college and university may not change you.  But such views are hardly common on university campuses (and not surprisingly, the GOP and conservative media often complain about the views that are expressed on U.S. university campuses).  University campuses try to harbor diverse views because an underlying view of research is that diversity of views helps develop debate. Universities almost always have foreign students and often foreign professors.  And again, the voting record clearly demonstrates that college and universities hold views that are more interested in understanding the outside world, and more focused on interacting with people in the outside world as equal partners, rather that as inferiors lacking whatever it is that is supposed to make Americans exceptional.  Is American Exceptionalism espoused by many on U.S. campuses? Well, generally professors and students both vote Democratic far more often than Republican, suggesting that the Republican appeal to American Exceptionalism isn’t generating enthusiasm on campuses. It should be noted that researchers—most professors at universities—are almost always working with scholars around the world, and they are trying to understand the ideas of the people with whom they work. Scholars may focus on their scholarship, but they’re not completely cut off from the rest of the world. Colleges often send students abroad in addition to bringing in students from overseas.

The metropolitan centers and colleges/universities voted for the candidate with the less insular views; they voted in favor of more interaction in the world, and less of an idea of “American Exceptionalism.”  Who did vote for the insular candidate? Who voted for American Exceptionalism? Not the metropolitan areas or colleges/universities.


So, Ms. Hansen, if your concern is for throwing off the American-centric views that disturb you, then metropolitan centers and colleges are the most likely places where someone will be cured of those views, short of going and living abroad. Since the rest of the world probably won’t let 300 million U.S. residents come live for a year or a decade, those colleges and universities and metropolitan centers are the best hope for curing Americans of their self-centered views. In the long run, sure, it would be great to change elementary and secondary education in the U.S. for more awareness of the wider world. But at present, colleges and universities and metropolitan areas are the best hopes for the cure you seek to American blindness. Colleges and universities are good.

Update/Addendum: Another place you can find out what people outside the U.S. think of people inside the U.S. is on the web, even on U.S.-based publications, as with this article written by a Mexican. Truth is, it's easy to learn what people think if you want to learn. But you have to go to places where there are different voices to be heard--like metropolitan centers and institutions of higher learning.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Issues in defining research questions: separating distinct but related questions. Sports example: performance vs. potential

Last night I was trying to write about the difficulty of problem definition in research, and how, in particular, I frequently see research proposal drafts that are looking at a big question and combining what are really distinct research projects. The example I was considering was one that I often see in people researching social problems, when people bring together the three basic questions about addressing a social problem: what is the cause? what is the impact? what can be done about it?  This combination of issues makes perfect sense from the perspective of someone who wants to do something about the problem, because they are not separate issues: understanding causes can help understand impacts, and vice versa, and both can inform possible courses of action to address the problem.  But for a researcher, they don’t combine well. I’m not going to talk about that though. I’m going to talk about a similar issue in sports.

I really enjoy reading sports analysis. As a little kid, I loved baseball cards and books about sports. When I discovered Bill James (1988, I think, the year he published his last Baseball Abstract) I really fell in love with reading sports analysis, and especially discussions of which players are better. I particularly enjoy the way that James thinks about stuff: he’s very careful to separate out distinct issues. I don’t always agree, but…  I follow baseball less now, and football and basketball. I enjoy reading Bill Barnwell, Zach Lowe, Neil Paine, and Chase Stuart, who are all well known writers with analytical approaches that I appreciate. I don’t read all that much sports, but I do read sports pretty regularly—several sports related articles a week. When I’m procrastinating, I read sports on the web. I particularly enjoy reading rankings of players.  It doesn’t much matter to me who is ranked where, I’m interested in the ways that they justify the rankings. In such rankings, I often see a lot of slipping between distinct but related research concerns. 
In his Historical Abstract (2nd edition, I think, but I’m not checking sources), Bill James talks about how player rankings—the search for GOAT—have to find some way to negotiate the two distinct concerns of peak performance vs. career totals. Gale Sayers (4956 rushing yards) and Terrell Davis (7607), for example, are two players who had very high peak performance with injury-shortened careers. How do we compare them to Edgerrin James, whose 12,246 rushing yds almost matches the total combined yardage of Sayers and Davis (12,563). (Sayers, of course, was a great returner, but I don’t want to get distracted evaluating Sayers or Davis or E. James.). Anyway, the two questions of peak performance and career performance are distinct issues that often get combined, because they are both important concerns in trying to decide who the “greatest” was.
A related conflation of concerns in player evaluation is the distinction between potential and performance that I don’t see explicitly discussed as often as the peak vs. career debate. (Admittedly, I’m not out scouring the web for sports.). Performance (i.e. what actually happened on the field) is not the same as potential (i.e., inherent talent, skill, or ability).  Performance and potential are related, of course, but they are not identical (and sometimes I think that analytical and statistical approaches go too far in discounting actual performance to valorize potential, especially in cases of small samples. I think I’ll leave that discussion for another post).
Sometimes potential is what is of interest: in trying to predict the upcoming season, we want to know what the underlying ability is. In trying to evaluate who had the best season last year, performance is of interest, not potential. In trying to evaluate “the best,” however, there is no clear guidance as to whether performance is more important, or potential. Who is the best running back in the league right now? There are different answers for who had the best career (Adrian Peterson), who had the best year last year (Ezekiel Elliott, at least in terms of rushing yards), and who will have the best season this year (probably not Peterson, possibly Elliott, but not if he gets suspended for six games). From the point of view of asking a good research question, it helps to separate out the different issues.
Performance is one of the best indications of potential, so attempts to evaluate potential use actual performance. Potential is not perfectly related to performance, however, because any number of other factors influence performance in addition to potential. Actual outcome on the field is shaped by all the players, not to mention the refs/umps and the crowd and environmental conditions.

Being clear about which of the related issues we want to research allows us to actually do research. If we’re not clear, we just slip from one inconclusive argument to another.
Sometimes—in evaluating the GOAT, for example—you might want to try to find a balance between performance and potential. I would want to, at least, because I think that the GOAT should have ability that manifested in different ways. Other times—in evaluating the Hall of Fame, in my opinion—the question of performance seems paramount: the fact that someone did or did not do well matters, even if it is not an accurate reflection of potential.

Your purposes as a researcher (sports evaluator) affect how you deal with the two disparate dimensions, but recognizing that the two different dimensions are separate is important in keeping from slipping into evaluations based on shifting criteria.