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Losing Face

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When you present yourself in an interview, there’s a strong incentive to stretch your material as far as possible. In fact, in general, in life, you’re encouraged to stretch the truth about yourself as far as it can go, whether it’s professional, romantic, business, or anything else. As the cliche goes, put your best foot forward. The emphasis is on presentation, to amplify the positive side of your gems as many X as you can without tiptoeing into the technical definition of a lie.

This has consequences.

For instance, there’s a kind of arms race that develops between employers and employees as a result, where employees learn to place a gauzy screen over their work, employers try to pierce it, employees parry, employers strike from below, etc.

At some point, everyone has to compromise with the truth, and reality. This can be as easy as acknowledging, in your 30’s, that your professional sports dreams will never come to pass. Or, it can be harder.

For instance, for employees: this is the work you’ll be doing, as this is what needs to be done, as opposed to what you might prefer to do, given full liberty and an unlimited budget.

For employers: this is the kind of candidate you can field for this position, assuming you want the person to stay, have to fit the work within these limiting parameters, and are offering something less than a million annually and 100% equity. But it creates a kind of screen of distortion around the whole process, that people, once in the habit of throwing up, have a hard time dismantling down.

Look at the way we ‘learn’ things. For something that is so critical to what we define as an education and information-based meritocracy (at least in its rhetorical and ideal forms), we spend remarkably little time examining this. When we say we ‘learn’ something, there are several modes for learning swirled up together in this one word, which we contextualize from (what else?) the context.

They are:

1. High school and college learning: the dominant mode. Read something; do an exercise set on it; sprint to the next chapter.

This is the kind of learning which is typically failure-tested by a quiz and a test, and very little else. This tends to be a ‘one-time’ only event, and lends itself to the ‘on sale now!’ language of opportunity (‘you only have one chance to learn this material, take this course, ace this test.’)

Very binary.

2. A musical instrument, a language (human or computer): a more nuanced meaning.

Less binary.

It’s often not clear what the line is here, what it means to have ‘learned’ this thing. It could mean anything from running a ‘hello world’ program (total time to completion: under 4 hours) to writing a book in a foreign language without outside assistance (a year at the minimum for a dedicated adult, I’d guess).

Because the meaning of ‘learning’ is ambiguous, people often feel the need to qualify what they mean by ‘learn’ here (‘I only speak conversationally…’); the fear that ‘learning’ in its early stages will be confused by ‘learning’ in its advanced-to-Ph.D. stages means that every statement of learning comes loaded down with qualifications and provisos.

It’s important to note here that this may only seem to be true (that it’s more like 1 above). This ‘learning’ time here can stretch out seemingly forever, when the underlying subject matter isn’t all that difficult, in situations where the block is ultimately psychological, not mental.

3. Martial arts, meditation, a sport like running: an essentially endless form of learning, the diametric opposite of a ‘one-time only’ opportunity, where each repetition is a tiny, basically unnoticeable addition to a years-long body of learning.

Not binary.

There is no test, no quiz; or if there is, it’s very easily passable, while the real test, so subtle as to be almost intangible, isn’t easily quantifiable. This isn’t the same as saying it’s not quantifiable, just that the kind of test that might be required (‘do this once every day at this time for a year…’) isn’t one that lends itself to our mass-produced testing schedules.

Subtracting one or two sessions means nothing, in the long run (compare this to learning in 1 where that often means the difference between ‘learned’ and ‘failed’ as we conventionally understand it). This it the kind of learning that lends itself to stories of masters who practice repeating a form for 10 years, daily, only to say at the end of it that they’ve just started to explore its depths.

In the book Heat, for instance, a food writer for the NYTimes talks about traveling to Italy to learn to cook pasta, and being given an egg, a roller, water, flour, and told me to make pasta by hand… thousands of times. And by the end of this process that lasted at least 6 months, he was still pretty bad at it, despite having only a few ingredients and very small set of motions to master.

My guess, reading this, is that everyone identifies with 1 as being the ‘correct’ one, and 2) and 3) as being either semantic tricks, or some extremely rarefied definition of learning that isn’t really relevant to our day to day life.

So, consider this.

While 2 and 3 may be somewhat extreme, they are not without merit. In my case, as a runner, it took well over a decade to really develop the determination to run across all conditions, to grapple with all possible day to day objections and build an immunity to them all.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s our very inability to talk and quantify these other kinds of learning – our reluctance to really take them seriously – that means so much senior-level experience (say, to invoke the cliche advisedly, Steve Jobs) so hand-wavey and all but new-agey in its descriptors.

Because we don’t really have a mental model or think very deeply about learning subjects more rigorously than 1 test and a few quizzes, we have to invoke this mystical language of ‘genius’ and ‘grit’ and so forth in areas where they don’t properly fit. We’re using those words as ‘fill-in-the-blank’ canvasses for ‘someone who does something we don’t really know to conceptualize, much better than all the other people who are doing it at the same time, judging by their output and relative success.’ We still don’t have a serious way to discuss in-depth knowledge.

I noticed this in the context of running through an exercise set called learnyounode. If asked, I would’ve described myself as being fairly competent with Node, a stretch of the truth, but a not completely ridiculous one, by the 1) definition we commonly use. I’d written a server to listen for webhooks and email them out, another simple server to ping other websites, and could muscle through various other exercises, with a little StackOverflow help. But in doing the learnyounode exercises, I got stuck writing an asynchronous script (problem 5 in the 10-problem set).

It dawned on me that if I struggled to implement this asynchronous example, I couldn’t say I knew Node well.

This wasn’t the revelation, for me; the revelation was how strongly I resisted this, like a student arguing before a teacher who scored a 89 on a test when he needed a 90 to pass. Except there was no student, no teacher, no one grading my exercises, and no one (outside of myself) even aware that I was doing it; I’d just internalized my need To Be Smart About Things that I couldn’t even admit to myself, easily, that I didn’t know.

It amounts to this, then. Normally, in terms of tests, grading and metrics, I’m running a gauntlet, trying to jump and leap and dodge my way to get dinged as little as possible. If possible, I want that 100%, or that high-marks certificate, and to note lose face. That works, quite well, for long stretches of time; it’s also useful if I’m being called upon to defend my work, my professionalism, or my general standing. You can’t go through life without learning proficiency in this mode, on some level.

However.

In other cases, as when learning a new subject, it’s better to strip this down as much as possible. This protective carapace, when the skin is still tender, just gets in the way.

Instead of saying ‘why yes, I can do this: I passed the test,’ there are contexts where it’s more useful to say, ‘this won’t be learned until I’ve implemented it 5 different times, with a week’s break before each reimplementation.’ And even then, rather than rushing to claim the high ground, it would make sense to continue on from there to say, ‘this concept won’t be learned until I’ve had another week to go back to the earlier exercises, and reimplement them in light of this.’

Going back and redoing past exercises is exactly the kind of weakness you see with 1 – if it’s pass/fail and you passed, it’s over, move on. But in a more expansive, less egotistical definition of learning (one which doesn’t need to be presented and defended before other people imminently), it makes more sense to switch to another mode, and then return to 1 if you need it. And if you don’t? Keep implementing, and reimplementing, and reimplementing, with tweaks each time so you are actually learning (not rote repeating), but in a subtle, practical way.

That struck me as an emotionally surprising but interesting result, a kind of hidden damaging side-effect of this self-presentation we’re doing all the time, and while I can’t say I’ve completely overcome or ‘learned’ to beat it by making this one-time observation, being aware of the problem does at least give you the chance to address it before you sink into unawareness, and the same reflexive behaviors, over and over again.

I’ve come to believe that real change is genuinely difficult, but it starts often with getting your hook in the ground and noticing here, this piece – this needs work – and working on that until you’re ready for the next piece, until the mountain, in time, is climbed.

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