Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
If you haven’t heard the term, then I bet you’ve at least seen someone in its grasp. It’s a situation where a person who isn’t good at something thinks they’re good at something. As Dunning himself described, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”
I nod pretty hard at this notion. When I graduated high school, I knew there was a lot about the world I didn’t know. I had never really left my home state of Indiana, I knew it was a relatively conservative part of a large country in a large world, and my best friends and I agreed that we knew nothing. We were almost smug in our assessment. “I want to go places and see things!” we’d declare, often at the All You Can Eat chicken wing deal we would go to every Tuesday. It was the pinnacle of civilization in my 18 year old life.
I’ve craved knowledge my whole life, maybe as a result of this viewpoint, or maybe the viewpoint grew out of this desire. I taught myself C and C++ from books while in high school. I liked acting. I wrote a bit. I was in the school choir as a consistent if not outstanding baritone. When it came time to go to college, I hit a mental block. I couldn’t decide on a major. I changed majors three times in my first year. Then I got tired of doing that, so I just mentally changed majors all summer long. I wound up going to a different school that fall. I think the only majors I never truly considered were biology or chemistry, the two topics I found I truly didn’t like. I ultimately ended up at yet another school where I got a degree in theater. You know, for the money.
This was all going through my head as I read Erik Dietrich’s blog on the Expert Beginner. This was exactly what I was scared of when I was younger – that I would think I was good at something when I wasn’t really good at it after all. I was so prepared to catch myself from falling into this trap, that I wound up being good at not really committing to any one thing. I could see law being interesting, so I would get a book or two, start reading… and then get distracted by something else a month later. Then I’d want to be a fiction writer, get books from the library to read, and barely crack into any of them before I was off to something else.
What I needed to do was either decide if I was truly going to study law or not, and if not, to drop it and stop entertaining the idea. I was proud of being in what Dietrich describes as the Rapid Acquisition phase, where focusing in the right places takes you from zero to a base competence in a short amount of time. I would do that in topic after topic, and get myself into a position of being an Advanced Beginner. At that point though, I could either fall for the Duning-Kruger Effect and go down the route of Expert Beginner, where I thought I was awesome but really wasn’t, or I could really buckle down and learn, and aim for the path of Competence.
I was so scared of being an Expert Beginner that I found it easier to just start over somewhere else.
Nowadays, I still have that desire to learn different things, but I focus up on them. The central theme is programming, my chosen career. Boy, it feels good to say I have a chosen career. I have a list of programming topics that I’d love to get more familiar with, but rather than superficially start all of them, I’ll pick one, get a book or find an open-source sample, and study. My main goal here is to make the study process fun though. I need to guarantee, if I’m going to be spending time outside of my job doing computer stuff, that I’m enjoying it. There are a lot of posts on Reddit and forums in general from people who beat themselves up for not reading more, or programming outside projects more, or eating better, or whatever. I don’t want to fall into that trap anymore.
I find learning fun, and I think all people do. We get better at the things we do in life, and that is a satisfying process. But even writing this worries me a little, because I wouldn’t want anyone to say “You’re right, I’m not learning enough, I’m wasting my time!” and then start to feel stressed about how they choose to spend their time. We have so many factors in life that can cause stress, please don’t let me be one of them. You have much better things to stress about than me.
I just spend five minutes sitting back and thinking about what I could do for an hour that would make me better at something. Here’s what I came up with.
- Go for a run, but gamify it. Maybe always turn right when I have the option, or play like Pac-Man and cover all the roads in my neighborhood. I would get some cardio exercise and could have as much fun as is possible to have when exercising.
- Pick a presidential candidate that I don’t agree with and empathize with one of their points. See if I can get into the minds of their supporters on this particular issue.
- Just grab something off my programming list. At this moment, I’d probably read something on automata, the topic du jour in my head.
- Clean my office. We still haven’t put our Christmas decorations back in storage. The rolls of wrapping paper add some nice color though. Putting them away is a bit of a Tetris-esque puzzle each year, and it’s a small drag to see an office full of stuff whenever I come in here.
- Play around with the Quake source code. I chose my Handmade Quake project for a reason – I love this codebase. Maybe I’d invert the colors on the screen, or try to make the AI harder.
None of these have an ultimate goal behind them in my head. The decorations can stay out. I don’t NEED to learn about automata, nor do I NEED to play with Quake. But just the act of playing around will give me little learning insights that, when added up over time, make me better at what I do. And for me, everything on that list sounds like fun. I would enjoy setting aside an hour to do any of them. You may not think they sound like fun. No problem – just choose something that sounds fun to you. Just make it active and interesting.
Keeping lists of things like this prevents me from becoming an Expert Beginner. It prevents me from falling into that trap of thinking I’ve mastered a topic. There’s no such thing as mastery, really. We all have our unique collections of knowledge that make us stand out. Growing that collection is less a matter of strict discipline (“I NEED to sit down and study”) and more of a focus on fun (“Where do my interests lie? How could I indulge them for an hour?”).
This has helped me enjoy programming even after days where I come home exhausted from the day job, fighting with a bug or a task that I’m having a hard time with. I will figure this problem out, I will move on, and in the meantime, there is so much I enjoy out of programming, I know I will outlast any frustration.
This is much easier than changing majors.