Brian, a long-time friend, collaborator, housemate, and provoker of many interesting ideas and crazy schemes, with whom I have unfortunately lost touch recently, has started a blog.
Today he raises the question about whether a Jack-of-all-Trades is forever doomed to be master of none.
Brian places the issue squarely at the door of ‘drive’:
I’m a great teacher … but it bores me now.
Most people just aren’t driven to be great at the things they do. Many aren’t even driven to be anything more than adequate. Once you reach an acceptable level of something, the rewards for getting better start diminishing. As Brian goes on to say, this time about programming:
I’m sitting comfortably at the top of the steep part of the learning curve, with no desire to go further.
In many ways however, how you view this curve depends on where you set your sights. When I was at school, I played a lot of chess. Within the school, I was the best: I captained the chess team, and ran the chess club. I also played at BB level, where, again I became the number 1 player on the team, and for several years in a row we were the best team in Ireland. I also won the individual tournament three years in a row.
In both these circles I would have been seen as ‘great’. It didn’t take me to venture too far outside these though to start losing on a regular basis. Our school chess team didn’t usually fare to well in the league, and whilst I won a reasonable percentage of my games, I was far from invincible. When the BB team travelled to the UK finals as Irish champions, we always lost.
I started playing tournament and league chess in Belfast, and again lost frequently. Over time I got better, and got to the point where even in these circles I could be considered ‘good’. But I lost the drive to get better. I used to think it was down to the fact that I had finally beaten both my mentors after years of trying, and had no immediate achievable goals left. But this couldn’t be true. There was much further I could have gone, with obvious feedback as to whether or not I was succeeding. I now think it was because I had realised that I had gone about as far as I could go on natural talent. My mentors had been trying to get me to read chess books for years, but I never liked them (other than the excellent How To Cheat At Chess and its sequel Soft Pawn).
As far as I could see, it was precisely because I didn’t know all the standard openings that I was able to beat the players who thought that all they had to do was learn them off, and didn’t know how to play against all my unorthodox openings.
I had worked out that I was better than most of my peers because I understood how chess worked. Most players at school level tried to work out who was leading in a game by counting the value of the pieces on the board (pawn = 1 point, knight = 3, rook = 5 etc.) The better ones knew that you had to score passed pawns differently than doubled pawns, or that in the endgame bishops of the same colour were different from bishops of opposite colour. But they never really knew why. Or how to tell who had the better position in general, regardless of the numerical strength of the pieces.
It took me years to realise that although my understanding usually trumped someone’s rote learning, someone else’s understanding plus learning would usually trump my understanding.
My teachers at school had tried to point this out to me in an academic setting: my school reports were full of comments like “Tony could do much better at this subject if he stopped relying so heavily on natural ability”. But I never understood this. Most of the time this sort of comment was beside an ‘A’ grade. If I could get an A with virtually no work, why would I ever want to actually put effort in?!
These teachers failed to demonstrate what the payback would be for that effort. I read their statements as saying I would get better marks – but I was already getting good enough marks, so I couldn’t see the point. They missed the chance to teach me about the joys of mastery of a craft. They failed to imbue me with the desire to always set my sights higher, to realise that good enough is never good enough.
It has often been said that the more you know of something, the more you realise how much you don’t know. True mastery is always that next step further away. But you don’t even need to actively pursue that mastery. It has also been said that whilst there is always an excuse for not coming up with a great idea, there is no excuse for not copying it as quickly as possible. In practice my chess experience rarely holds. Basic competence coupled with the ability to learn from, and steal from, as many sources as possible, will usually trump basic understanding. In the age of the Internet, this ability is available to us more than ever before.
And in computer programming, this is probably even truer than most areas. A Perl programmer, for example, who has a deep knowledge of what’s available on the CPAN and who has the basic competence to write the glue code that ties together 5 or 6 different modules will, for 90% of the projects in which Perl is used, be at least 10 times more productive, and produce much more maintainable and accurate code, than an ‘expert’ Perl programmer who knows enough to write all this himself (and so does so).
I’d always be wary now of hiring someone who doesn’t read widely in their field. I read somewhere recently that 80% of computer programming professionals haven’t read a related book since they graduated. Even more scarily, I believe this was including reference books. That probably only leaves about 5% who actively read books with the abstract notion of “getting better at my trade”. I think I’d rather hire those people, and work with them on collectively always getting better, than hire someone with outstanding natural talent, who’s probably going to reach a pinnacle, and find it difficult to get any further.
Brian finishes by querying whether he is able to “build the discipline, patience or ambition to become really good at something”. I’d challenge him to go pick one of the areas in which he’s “good enough” and explore that next part of the learning curve. It only looks flat. And whilst the immediate rewards aren’t as obvious, looking back they’re always worthwhile.