There are many kinds of highly successful people. For some, success is yet another milestone in a great plan, while for others it is an unexpected gift. We put a lot of focus on learning, yet there is another side in nature vs nurture discussion. Today I was inspired by old articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The current consensus states that we can grow and evolve as long as we invest some effort. It is instrumental to believe that we can learn anything.
- If we decided that we want to learn something, probably it is very good for us. Otherwise, why prefer a given skill over the alternatives?
- If we can learn for sure master a skill but doubt ourselves, the learning speed is reduced.
- When there is a way to acquire a skill, we should be open to finding it.
- If we do not acquire the skill we wanted we might acquire some other useful skill.
- If for some reason we failed, at least we can learn from the failure, maybe even leverage the resulting understandings
In the 20th century, scientists and practitioners got convinced that the growth mindset is more helpful than the alternatives. This does not mean that throughout history this was the dominant mindset,
- ‘That’s life’ was probably the initial approach. Good or bad, people took from life whatever they could.
- Genius or a gift which we are born with was the Roman consensus. Etymology: attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination’, from the root of gignere ‘beget’
- Miracles or the god’s intervention was the main medieval concept. You had to be virtuous, and the god would provide for your success.
- Task mindset was the main position during the industrial revolution. The skills were believed to be as tasks or functions. The more we would focus on a specific task, the better we would do that particular task.
The alternative mindsets declined due to the scientific and technological revolution. We no longer believe in miracles and need to adapt quickly to the ever-changing environment. Fixed mindsets simply do not prioritize change and adaptation.
To adapt the growth mindset to reality, inborn inclinations are often used. If we would gamify the life, that would be some sort of development bonus. We can develop all the skills we need, however, some skills are easier to develop. For example, for me math is easy and sports are very hard, yet for most people sports are easier than math.
In a developed economy, we can trade something we can easily develop for something that others could easily provide. For example, I can trade my math work for manual labor of say sanitation worker. In this case, to maximize profit, we can maximize the production potential of our strengths. So if I have an inclination to math, it makes sense to invest a lot of resources into math.
Is there something that is simply impossible for us? Suppose I do not have feet. Does that mean that I cannot run? Possibly. On the other hand, there could be some mechanical solution that would allow me to run at least as fast as a person with legs. And if the problem is in my memory, I can offload some processing to the computers. These extensions do not always work and often require a high level of technology. Our technology is not yet sufficient to support the growth mindset in all cases, say for paralyzed or very old people. We do hope to reduce the number and severity of such limitation in years to come.
Science and technology work fine as long as there is enough statistics. With billions of people doing all sorts of things, there are outliers. Occasionally people appear to have some skills beyond anything postulated by science. For example, if a person has a rare mutation, is he still considered to be homo sapience? People with incredible skills are incredibly rare. How often do we find a person who can swim like Michael Phelps?
If a person has an inclination towards something, he will progress faster in that area. Then it will make sense to invest more effort in the strong area to be economically competitive. With hard and smart work, people gain access to the best gadgets, mentors, and facilities for that specific skill. The final product is an expert: someone extremely skilled in some task that was chosen by him as a focus of his development.
Now suppose we have two strengths. One with medium inclination but huge market value, and the other with a huge inclination and very small market value. We would try to invest in the marketable skill, but fail to become a great expert. At the same time, the small investment to the skill where we have a very high inclination will make us an expert. Mavericks are experts not because they decide to be, but because something incredible happened. That could be an inborn skill, access to rare opportunities or plain luck.
Acquired savant syndrome
To make things more complex, certain freak coincidence may make us predisposed to something we never expected. Some people damage the brain in a way that makes them predisposed to certain skillset. Others, get unique experiences and learning opportunities. For example, if I did not marry Anna I would probably never become an expert on accelerated learning. Anna can probably marry only once, so I have a unique advantage due to access to a unique resource.
Experts typically understand their career path. They can probably teach it, formulate thoughts accurately and acquire additional related capabilities if needed. Mavericks rarely understand what makes them special and seldom can explain it. Maverick mathematicians simply see the answer to the complex problems, and then work hard to explain everybody else how they could also get to the same result. Experts simply do not understand how this could happen.
Suppose we decided to learn some skill and failed miserably learning it. Does it mean that we have an in-born rare deficiency in that area? Maybe we simply did not practice long enough or hard enough? The growth mindset may easily lead to depression or burnout, as we demand from ourselves more than we can manage, or blame ourselves for not demanding enough. Someone in previous generations would blame life or luck or gods, but we blame ourselves. One of the remedies of the growth mindset age is investing effort in learning the forgiveness and gratitude skills, and then turning these skill on ourselves. However, what happens if we failed to master forgiveness and gratitude skills?
Some people have multiple talents, for example, acquiring multiple expertise or combining valuable expertise [say in medicine or finance] with some savant skills [say in music or art]. Now what? Should the person practice both skills, or maximize one knowing that the others will suffer? For example, I am very good at learning stuff. However, applying knowledge is harder than acquiring it. Should I work as a PhD level technological expert or as a learning expert with semi-savant skills? Maybe both? Should I learn yet another expertise, which I could easily master? Whatever I choose, I always feel that I am robbing myself of something important, that I am not good enough because I do not truly focus.
What if we are skilled in a skillset A, but enjoy the skillset B? Whatever choice we make we will live meaningless lives. I used to teach certain mathematical subjects in the University not because I thought anybody needed them, loved to teach or loved the particular subject. Simply there was an opening for teaching a particular subject, and I hated every moment. To have a meaningful career we need a rare coincidence of skill, joy from using the skill, and place to apply it.
Mavericks in science
The scientific method is based on running experiments and building theories that predict the results of other experiments. And then comes a maverick, who simply knows the answer and cannot even properly formulate how he got to the answer. In math, people could spend another 500 years trying to prove the postulate. This is not very good for science. Think of other things these people could achieve, countless lives of obsession and failure. Yet, if the problem appears to be unsolvable, some maverick could happen somehow come up with the answer, and that is great for technological progress. In tech we do not really need to understand how something works, we need to understand how to use it.
Passing value of expertise
Suppose we spend 20 years of our lives becoming experts. Does it guarantee that the expertise will be useful 5 years from now? Not really. Several things could happen:
- Technological evolution. Simply put, a machine would be much better experts than humans. Consider chess. Computers nowadays easy win against the world champion.
- Scientific revolution. We might accidentally become experts in something that nobody needs. Think tube amplifiers vs transistors. How many tube electronics experts does the world need? Or maybe someone would rule that we were experts on a theory that was wrong.
- Social change. What if everybody suddenly mastered the thing that only very few people could do? Several hundreds of years ago being able to read and write were valuable expertise, but now they are a common skill. Alternatively, our expertise could be ruled out by regulation. Do you know any asbestos experts?
- New expectations. Let us face it, a large part of the sciences is not really scientific. I am talking about social sciences and humanities of all sorts. Basically, experts are good in deriving new arguments by analyzing the works of existing authorities and justifying in hindsight intuitive decision. What if someone would ask for a more numerical justification? Which parts of social sciences and humanities would fail? Some say that psychoanalysis is about as scientific as theology. Think about it.
- Controversy. Supposed we are experts in some alternative medicine, and science says that our medicine simply cannot work. We know it works, yet we are not sure what is making it work, possibly suggesting a placebo effect. Now what? Are we cons, scientists, artists?
Age of cognitive dissonance
We live in a period of cognitive dissonance that makes us unhappy. To become an expert on something good, a lot of things need to coincide. If we failed to become experts we blame ourselves. If we become experts in some unexpected area we get confused. When our expertise is no longer relevant we suffer and do not know where to put the blame. There was a simple flow of (1) find your natural inclinations, (2) work hard, (3) become expert, (4) succeed in life – finances, status, meaning, legacy… This flow might have worked for medieval masters, but it does not always work in the 21st century. When it fails, we need to believe that we can learn something new and become experts again, but there are no guarantees.
If we cannot trust or blame a higher power or luck, how can we stay calm and happy and safe? People are stressed about their jobs. Experts are as stressed as everybody else, and have a very good reason to worry. Learn, practice mindfulness or develop multiple expertise – there is no one winning strategy, and we should better accept it.