Tuesday, 5 July 2016

What are you bad at?

I have never had to recruit anyone or interview a candidate for a position, and I wonder what it is like. I assume that a recruiter always wants to find out the things the candidate is capable of doing. It would seem natural to do this by asking: What are you good at?

I think I would take a different approach. I would ask: What are you bad at?

It takes some guts to stick your neck out and declare that you are good at something. Take languages. I, for one, would be reluctant to declare that I am good at any language, my native tongue Finnish included. Outside of any particular context, one compares one’s native language competence to the masters of that language. When I think of someone who is good at Finnish, I think of Eino Leino. I am not like that, so am I good at Finnish? Or am I good at English, when I do not have a nearly native-like fluency in it, like some people I know? On the other hand, if I had to list languages I am bad at, the result would basically be the list of language skills in my CV, minus Finnish, and possibly English. It would not occur to me to say that I’m bad at Japanese (because I do not know any Japanese), but, I tell you, I’m really bad in Swedish and in a bunch of other languages. An interviewer would get more out of me by asking what I am bad at. Moreover, if I were in the position of the recruiter, I think I would see more favorably a person who comes up with loads of things she is bad at, compared to one who only can list her strengths.

The reason is a platitude: Becoming good at anything goes through a necessary period of being bad. More specifically, it takes a period of being abysmally bad to even become “just bad” in anything. A person who is bad at many things is just a person who does many things – probably a person who has a passion for doing more things than the hours of a day allow. Saying of oneself that one is bad at X tells that the person implicitly counts X as belonging to her skill set (for me, like Swedish and unlike Japanese), and, moreover, understands X well enough to be able to say that she is not good at it yet. What a sad life it would be if we were forced to always only cultivate our strongest skills, never having time to become bad at anything!

Learning a new thing involves more than being awful at it. It also involves the gradually dawning, embarrassing, gut-wrenching understanding of how awful one actually is. Understanding the nuances of a skill develops faster than the skill itself. It is no wonder that something like the Dunning-Kruger effect exists: the unskilled systematically overestimate their competence, because they have not (yet) reached an understanding of what competence demands.

This way lies a general problem of motivation in learning. In your quest of reaching the blissful gardens of competence, what keeps you wading through the seemingly endless wastelands of ineptitude, where your fate is to first become awful and then increasingly aware of your awfulness?

Here is one answer. Very often, what you count as awful turns out to be, objectively speaking, incredibly useful. It is time to go back to the example of languages, because nowhere is this truer than in the case of languages.

For a long time, languages were taught in schools in terms of grammatical rules and strict translation assignments. The message was: This is what you have to do to speak and write right. It seems that many people claim to “not know” a language they spent years learning at school, just because they cannot produce it perfectly. How could it be otherwise, if perfection is the only point of comparison one ever gets? But generally, the world outside is not interested in whether you go by the rules. It is interested in whether it can communicate with you.

What does it take to be able to communicate in a language? Or rather, let’s be ambitious. What does it take to be able to communicate in a language perfectly? The answer seems to be: A thousand words and a bit of grammar.

The thousand most commonly used words of a language get the job done. A thousand words is not much. Sure, they cannot be learned in a week, but once they have been learned, they are a powerhouse. Even the hundred most common words of a language have an enormous scope. According to polyglot Janne Saarikivi, the hundred most common words comprise 25 percent of spoken language. And with a thousand words – well, it is not possible to translate all that one wishes, but there are enough resources in the thousand words to devise alternative ways of saying anything one may wish to say. If you do not believe, check out the principle in action: xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Spacecraft launch escape system? “Thing to help people to escape really fast if there’s a problem and everything is on fire so they decide not to go to space”. Exactly. I wish we could force politicians and academicians to stick to the thousand most common words for a week.

Man, I feel motivated to learn more Swedish. I’m already bad at it.

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