Why Being Stupid is Close to Being Smart

Okay, so I did a pretty stupid thing the other day.  Let me set the scene:

INTERIOR: HOTEL BALLROOM — AN ATTENTIVE CROWD OF SEVERAL HUNDRED EDUCATORS AND SCIENTISTS. I AM ONSTAGE, HAVING JUST FINISHED A SPEECH ABOUT TALENT, NEURAL CIRCUITS, AND PRACTICE. A YOUNG MAN IN FRONT ROW RAISES HAND.

“Okay, this theory sounds great,” he says. “But how does it help us teach kids how to read?”

CAMERA ZOOMS IN ON MY FACE.  IT’S BLANK.

‘Uhhh, well,” I begin. “The thing is…”

I BEGIN TO TALK, BUT DON’T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION. THE TRUTH GRADUALLY BECOMES CLEAR: I’M FISHING AROUND. AUDIENCE GETS RESTLESS. I END UP MUMBLING A FEW THINGS ABOUT MOTIVATION THEN SITTING DOWN. FADE TO BLACK.

Those kind of moments happen pretty often in our lives, moments where a trusted ability or piece of knowledge we thought we had suddenly deserts us without warning. I knew the answer to the question, but for some reason I couldn’t deliver it. I don’t know why.

I don’t think there’s an essential difference between my screwup and a tennis player fluffing an easy volley, or a software designer botching a routine piece of coding. We usually call it choking — but I don’t think that’s quite right. “Choking” implies that it’s a response to emotional pressure, like a golfer missing a six-inch putt on the final hole of the Masters — and this isn’t really a response to pressure. It’s far more like a short-circuit. Things are working fine, and suddenly — bzzzzzzzt! — they’re not.

But here’s the thing — we never short-circuit when it comes to simple actions. We never go to brush our teeth and suddenly forget how to do it. We never short-circuit when it comes to walking down the sidewalk, or knowing how to unfold the newspaper, or how to eat chocolate cake. It’s usually complexity that causes it. So the real question is, what is complexity? And why is it so often connected with short-circuits?

Complexity is another way of saying that there’s a lot of stuff going on at a lot of different levels. One way to approach it is to divide skills into two basic types: hard skills and soft skills.

1. “Hard” skills are where there is a single right way to do something. Precision counts for everything. They’re skills where you want a tiny Swiss watchmaker inside you, performing the task with absolute control, doing it the same every time. Some examples:

  • a swimming stroke
  • music fundamentals: how to hold an instrument; play a certain chord
  • basic math procedures

2. “Soft” skills, where there are lots of equally good ways to accomplish a goal. Soft skills are about flexibility; having a lot of options to get past an infinitely varying set of obstacles. They’re skills where you want a tiny skateboarder inside you, making the moves in response to whatever obstacle comes next. Examples of soft skills include:

  • communication skills — writing, speaking
  • the improvisatory parts of sports/music/business
  • art

Complex activities — which of course are really neural circuits in your brain — have hard and soft skills woven together. Picture it as complex forest of circuits, with redwoods (the hard, high-precision skills) mixed with kudzu vines (the soft, high-flexibility skills). Or, to pick another analogy, performing a complex action is like building a Swiss watch at the same time you’re pulling double ollies at a skateboard park.

Think of what you’re doing right now, for instance. To read this sentence, you have to 1) instantly and perfectly translate these black squiggles into letters, combine those letters into words and then translate those words into meaning — a.k.a. the hard, high-precision skill; 2) scan ahead, connect ideas, and build an unfolding prediction what might happen next — a.k.a. the soft, high-flexibility skills. And you have to do it in microseconds, simultaneously.  It’s pretty dazzling.

Here’s the thing with complexity: when things go wrong, they really go wrong. When a single key element of our skateboarding watchmaker fails to function, everything grinds to a halt, and it’s not pretty. The lights go out; we’re rendered mute. Just as when a kid is struggling to read or, say, a person on stage is fumbling with an answer. In other words, Homer Simpson moments of stupidity are an inevitable outcome of every complex system. The price of dazzlement is occasional shame.

In the end, I think a few things come out of this.

  • 1. Don’t be fooled by short-circuits. They’re not verdicts on ability or potential. It only seems as if the wheels have come off, but in fact it’s a smaller problem. When it comes to complex skills, being stupid is often pretty close to being smart.
  • 2. To build complex talents, first analyze them to figure out the hard skills and soft skills. What elements have to be precise, 100 percent of the time? What elements change depending on the obstacle?
  • 3. Practice hard and soft skill separately — the hard skill first and the soft skill second

I think the biggest takeaway here is that the shape of the practice must match the shape of the skill you want to build. For hard skills, the practice space should resemble a watchmaker’s shop — with lots of slowness, precision, and a keen attention to errors. Think of the way a master music teacher works with a beginner, often spending an entire lesson on how to hold the instrument. Get it right the first time, build that precision. Don’t move forward until you’ve got it wired.

For flexible skills, on the other hand, the practice space should resemble a really fun skateboard park: lots of self-directed action at an endless variety of obstacles where you make lots of errors and learn a little something from each of them. Most flexible skills ideally don’t require a coach, but rather an addictive space to “play.”

This is one of those areas where we can “steal” a lot from others — especially regarding practice strategies for hard and soft skills. What strategies work best for you?

(PS — Speaking of fun and useful places to play: if you’re interested in music, you should check out master teacher Hans Jensen’s new website, Ovation Press String Visions. Check it out.)

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