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Circle of Competence: Avoid Ambiguity Traps (models.substack.com)
170 points by remotists 11 days ago | hide | past | web | 80 comments | favorite





A piano teacher my junior year of high school had me do exercises I didn't understand. A teacher in my college audition heard the result of those lessons and started me down another path of exercises. Essentially, the one teacher had communicated certain skills through me to the next teacher without my knowledge.

During one particular lesson my junior year of college, everything clicked and I began to play a melody with more control and direction. It was only at that moment that I could hear and feel the result of those exercises.

Furthermore, that teacher later speculated about the lessons my previous teacher had taught me. That speculation lined up pretty well with what I remembered of the exercises she gave me. And it was only then that I understood the efficacy of those lessons toward connecting a melodic line on the piano.

That's about 4 1/2 years and two mentors setting me toward developing a skill (in addition to others, granted), the process of which I didn't really understand for another half year after that.

And that's the best case of someone willing to do what seems like arbitrary work, and lacking the skills at the time to rationalize persuasive reasons to avoid doing that work. In my experience adult students are experts at talking themselves into the skills they think they already have, and talking themselves out of the will to learn new ones.

So without a decent mentor I'd speculate most people are hopelessly incompetent at assessing their circle of competence. Or at least they are if we widen the circle from "getting ahead in business" to "life."


There's a lot of this in mathematics education. Unfortunately, a lot of math teachers don't realize themselves the importance of the things that they're setting up in students' education. Having been through the educational process for getting a secondary math education certification, it felt like too much of this was left implicit. Worse still, there were cases like in abstract algebra where students would do exercises on the group a+b\sqrt(-2) without any indication of the significance that this would play later in the algebra course. Heck, high school algebra, I think students learning that being able to solve for x in ax+b=c equations turns into a goal or transforming more complex problems into that simpler problem.

My advisor for my math degree told me straight-up "You don't really understand a math course until you take the next class in the series." I'm really glad he told me that, because it sharpened my perception of how well I understood different subjects. It also shaped which classes I took for the rest of college, tending towards depth over breadth.

Too many students think that math is just an arbitrary collection of arbitrary steps. It all makes sense, but you have to have at least one teacher contextualize it for you in order for all of it to click.


Hell, I don't think anyone really understands fractions until they've taken Elementary Set Theory and constructed the reals, and I don't think anyone really understands high-school trig until they've taken real analysis, etc.

It's a great feeling to come back to the "simple" topics from early in school, and to realize how much rich knowledge they communicate, and the level of detail that really sits underneath them.


There's also cases where we have students spend a long time on truly useless stuff because none of the teachers involved understand that it's essentially useless. The example I'm seeing with my kids right now is "mixed fractions". They bang on and on about them... but they're just a special case that is basically used by cookbooks, and not much else. You don't need to know what 37 8/17s + 98 3/24s is, because the only mixed fractions you're likely to see are ones you'd see in recipes. 3½ is pretty large as mixed fractions come in the real world. I don't think I've ever seen in my entire life a mixed fraction as large as 12 4/5. They're always written some other way; 64/5, 12 + 4/5, 12.8, but never a mixed fraction.

In high school, I remember spending endless hours on trig identities. They are useful only in a similarly small situation. (And I actually think they're a fun target to fire Taylor polynomial expansions at, as a good exercise for using them and understanding infinite series, but even then, rather than "memorize this pile of identities" it becomes "prove or disprove this statement:", which is different.) There's a dozen things that time could be better spent on, by purely pragmatic or purely academic standards. But nobody responsible for the curriculum realizes this.

I also recall some really abortive graph theory introductions and set theory... I'm not even sure I see the value in the terrible "15 minutes in high school" types of introductions of those topics. Nobody comes away with anything of either (again) academic or practical value, despite the huge value of the topics themselves.


> "mixed fractions"

I strongly disagree. Being able to bring two quotients to the same denominator, so that you can compare apples and oranges on the fruit scale, is a essential skill at not getting screwed by The Man. This is a core life numeracy skill.


Imitation before Understanding before Innovation

There is a problem I can think of in music that fits that cliche-- pianists who imitate the interpretation of others. There are some who are amazingly adept at imitation, and often the downside is a difficulty in coming up with their own interpretation.

The problem I'm describing is different. By college I already had a set of skills that I made my own. I also already had an idea about how I wanted the music to sound. The problem was mainly that I had no idea that the skills I had already learned got me part of the way toward playing a melody with greater lyricism. Worse, I had no idea to what extent I could execute that better, or what it would feel like to execute it.

It took a few years of trusting that someone wiser might know things I don't to put those things together.


As someone with a toddler that really resonated. Thanks.

With a toddler, you don't have much of a choice. Explaining won't work, and immitation is an instinct.

Question is whether this remains true in older age. Curious people are going to think about things anyway, so the choice is not between explanation and mindless repetition, but between correct explanation and random misunderstandings. Seems better to provide the correct one (and of course then do as much repetition as necessary).


I read a post recently talking about people learning to be artists. The point they were making was that the 'taste' to judge good from bad is inherent in a good artist, but the ability to produce good art develops over a long time.

That means that artists spend a lot of time producing work that their taste declares as below standard. It's not until you've been working for a while that your ability catches up with your judgement. This lag, causes a lot of people to give up concluding that they're not that good.


Perhaps you were referring to this Ira Glass quote [0], maybe not. Either way, this is a good thought to share, so I'll link it here.

[0] https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/the-gap-by-ira-glass-9651...


That is exactly the quote I was looking for, thank you. I promise to bookmark it this time!

> The point they were making was that the 'taste' to judge good from bad is inherent in a good artist, but the ability to produce good art develops over a long time.

Taste develops as a function of accumulating knowledge, preferably from making art.

> It's not until you've been working for a while that your ability catches up with your judgement.

So if you grant for the moment what I wrote above, you'll see there's an alternate way of thinking. That is, if an artist is comfortable making art at an introductory level, their taste will be refined the more art they make. That refined taste feeds back into a virtuous cycle of making more and better art which further refines the test.

Alternatively, the artists you describe are reinforcing frustration at nearly every level (my own experience being such artists eventually are unable to break out of that frustrated, self-critical mindset).


One might realize that you only need to grow your circle of competence so far before you're able to function reasonably well in the world, but you miss that in order to live meaningful life you have to live on the circle even as it grows.

What's fascinating to me is the amount of knowledge and teaching experience that has to go into designing those exercises. How long and how many teachers and students did it take to come up with a good set of exercises to develop towards a certain skillset?

It's difficult to say.

On the one hand I thing such lessons can be so effective because they are generally one-on-one. That already goes a long way to disseminating knowledge, especially when compared to the "knowledge dissemination theater" that is the large lecture hall.

On the other, musicians construct these insane pedagogical family trees. So-and-so's teacher was a student of so-and-so, who was a student of so-and-so, and now we're already back in the 19th century. My personal opinion is that a lot of that is more inspirational than practical. But it certainly has an effect.

There's also the easter egg that teaching can accelerate one's own mastery. It's basically forcing one to do rubber-duck debugging as a full-time job. Add to that an ever-expanding knowledge about the physical aspect of playing instruments (how to avoid injury, how to maximize practice time), and I think that's where a lot of the knowledge comes from.


I have to say I find the way of thinking presented in this article to be wrong in a fundamental way.

I realize that this is (more or less) how we're all brought up to think about our place in the world, but I have come to see it as a very destructive way of self-development.

> The idea behind this model is to focus on your strengths that you are either born with or something you have developed over the years instead of investing time and resources on trying to do anything and everything for the sake of it.

Why should my life be centered on the 'thing I'm good at'? What does that even mean? Is it the thing I like to do and that makes me happy, or the thing that can bring me money? Since the common understanding (I think) points more towards the latter interpretation, is this a desirable way to live your life, or to expect others to live their lives? Should we all be efficient production machines where our efficiency is dictated by whatever the economic needs of the moment are?

> Focussing [sic] on your strengths does not imply that you need to avoid exploring other areas, but it is rather about not letting those other areas take away too much time and resources that could be better utilised on your strengths.

How does such self-optimization relate to the aspiration of living a free life?

> Focussing [sic] will help you accumulate experience and knowledge in a particular domain giving you an almost unfair advantage over others who are much more scattered in their approach in the field.

Why should you aim to have an unfair advantage over anybody? More so, what happens if industry trends shift and it turns out you specialized on the 'wrong' thing (e.g. you're the best mainframe programmer, but the PC revolution has come)?


The article to me seems to be saying that if you pour your heart and soul into a skill, let's say playing guitar, and after several years despite your best efforts you are still not very good, you probably should not depend on it to support yourself financially. This doesn't preclude you doing it for fun on your own terms.

> Why should you aim to have an unfair advantage over anybody?

Cynical: This makes life easier. Exploiting an unfair advantage over others ensures you don't have to spend a large percentage of your life fighting for the basic elements of survival. It's selfish, but the number of people you are is 1 and not more or less, which also matches the number of people who truly care about your quality of life.

Your mainframe example is bad because those people are still making a lot of money maintaining legacy systems somewhere.


> The article to me seems to be saying that if you pour your heart and soul into a skill, let's say playing guitar, and after several years despite your best efforts you are still not very good, you probably should not depend on it to support yourself financially. This doesn't preclude you doing it for fun on your own terms.

This is a perfectly sensible point, but it's basically a trivial bit of insight. Indeed, if you can't make a decent living from something then you have to find something different to do. It seemed to me that the article made the point that you should hyper-specialize on the thing that you're 'best' at (from an economic perspective, I guess).

Incidentally I think that if you like smth enough to stick with it for a few years then you'll end up being pretty good at it (although, if the thing itself is not lucrative, you may not be able to make a living from it).


I would oppose even stronger against "unfair advantage", author in the article wrote "almost unfair". If you worked harder than others to achieve some level of understanding or mastery it is not something I would ever call "unfair advantage".

The "unfair" part is that people have different personality traits and thus enjoy different things. Working hard to become great at something you enjoy is relatively easier than working hard to become great at something you hate.

For example, my programming skills are a result of time and effort I spent learning programming, and the fact that even in my free time I learned new things and worked on my personal projects. Thus I "deserve" to be better than someone who doesn't care, doesn't learn, and doesn't practice.

But the "undeserved" part is that enjoy exploring technical details and working alone; those are traits I was born with. If a person without these traits would try to spend the same time and effort doing the same things, it would be much harder for them, because they would suffer along the way, and they wouldn't get the emotional rewards along the way that I did. In that sense I have an advantage, because the same amount of hard work is less of a sacrifice for me.

The opposite situation for me is social skills. I also spent a lot of work here, read various books, and practiced various techniques. First, the results are mediocre, simply because unless I force myself, I ignore many opportunities to practice. (Because, unlike with programming, this practice is not intrinsically pleasant to me.) Second, sometimes I focus and do a good job, but from inside it feels like hard work, even if from outside it seems "natural". I can seem like I enjoy it, but it actually makes me very tired and I need a break afterwards. This whole coronavirus situation feels like a wonderful vacation to me. The only way to excel in this area would be to torture myself (just like other people need to torture themselves to solve a simple math problem).

So it makes sense, when you choose your career, to consider not just how well it pays and how much work is needed, but also how much suffering that work brings to you. If you are lucky, there is a profitable career where you have the unfair advantage that the same amount of work causes you less suffering than to your potential competitors. So you can work harder than them and still have more enjoyable life.


For me this is something that has more of an application in buisness than in life in general.

A good example is I recently started doing Affiliate Marketing. Specifically I market webhosting products. I chose to do Affiliate Marketing and write about webhosting specifically because I already had a bunch of the core competencies.

The way I think about it, to start an Affiliate Marketing site (at this point I'm using it purely as an example), I have to have several competencies including:

- Knowledge of my Niche - Web development skills - Writing skills - Marketing / SEO

While I am was not the best writer and knew little about SEO. I also knew I had a significant advantage over my competition because I already had a very good understanding of how to run a website and when learning SEO things came much easier because I could connect the technical dots that much faster.

I would characterize my decision to start this business is based largely in the fact that a good chunk of the skills required were already in my circle of competence. So I would never want to base my entire life on this theory, it works well when you are trying to work on something new and maximize your chance of success.


Yes, if you only focus on your one skill which you already have a high degree of competence in, you have a very low probablility to succeed; you would have to become the very top person in the world on that specific thing to actually succeed. Instead, you should probably try to combine your existing skill with other skills which complement the existing skill very well, as well as some other unusual but useful skills. That way, you have a large change of having a unique set of skills, which you can combine in ways which nobody else can do; this is highly probable to succeed, since you are then highly likely to be useful to many people.

This concept is usually called having a “Talent stack”; described, for instance, here:

https://www.stedavies.com/talent-stack/


You seem to be incorrectly applying this article as advice on self development and then making an argument against that.

The author isn't suggesting that this is the way to achieve true happiness. They are suggesting that this is a good strategy to become the best at something, regardless of why you want to be the best at it (financial benefit, personal fulfillment, etc.).

> More so, what happens if industry trends shift and it turns out you specialized on the 'wrong' thing

What's the alternative to this? Remain mediocre at a number of skills just in case one of them go out of style? If you want to be the best at something, specialize in that thing but keep a pulse on the direction the field is moving and adapt as needed. The world's best mainframe developer probably won't immediately be the world's best PC developer upon switching, but they will be far from starting from square one.


That last line depends. There's a lot more to the environment, team, management structure, business goals, financing, and much more that would place them effectively at square one.

I agree with your other points. But as an example, I worked previously with some 20+ year executives with huge products... 15 years before the market I was working with them in. So, it's great they knew a lot about launching product in 2005. But I need expertise for 2020. If their ideas cost more than a more modern, more efficient method, I don't need to have to teach them the method uphill against their stubbornness to stick to what they know. This issue played a role in me releasing an entire sales team two months into my role. I don't care that they had the most experienced people. The debate about what they knew and where the company was going was driving up costs and lowering productivity for other teams.


> You seem to be incorrectly applying this article as advice on self development and then making an argument against that.

From the article:

> In our personal lives, it would help to focus on being that person in the community who could be depended on for a particular task/skillset required for a task. [...] Focussing will ensure that you are not distracted and the increases likelihood of you doing a good job.

I think the whole article is supposed to be more general life advice, not just career advice.

> They are suggesting that this is a good strategy to become the best at something

If this is the case then the advice is absolutely trivial. More so, it doesn't address the question of what it means to be the 'best' at something.


Yes, it's life advice, but no assertion is made that this advice should be applied by everyone. It's more "If you want to do X, here is some advice" not "You should do X".

I don't think it's possible to define "best" for everything. Being the best tennis player and being the best cook involve optimizing for two completely different objectives. What's more, you can define what best means to you and work towards that. The author's opinion on what best means is irrelevant IMO.

Maybe the advice is trivial, but it provoked me to reflect on how I am using my skills. I am going to keep this in mind as I choose how to spend my time. In hindsight it's obvious, but I still think it's a constructive article.


You need to eat. You want some other things in life that are not needs. You won't get good at something that makes you miserable while learning to do it (not to be confused with getting bored once you are good at it). Work really hard on whatever it is you do well because that leaves you with the money to do other things you enjoy that makes money.

The important part is to choose well. Magnus Carlson makes overa million dollars per year playing chess. I play chess, but it is highly unlikely I will ever make that much. Thus even though study could make me better, I don't study chess hard enough to become best in the world. I enjoy programming computers, and I get paid great for doing that. I could probably make more money than either of the previous if I was going for CEO, but I would hate the job so I let someone else do it (the competition is stiff too, but even if I never make CEO I'd be earning a lot more money in upper management)

The point is to choose what you become good at for money, and study as hard as needed, and then work as hard as needed to make the rest of your life work. In today's world you probably can't work less than 40 hours a week, so you need to choose that 40 hours well (note, chess world champion and CEO wannabes work more than 40 hours a week, one more reason to love it if you are doing it). You can choose to save and retire early if you want. Many people choose not to retire because they love their job, others retire early: both are valid life choices.

There is nothing wrong with switching courses. My dad switched from mainframes to PCs, and then back to mainframes. I know someone who quit programming to sell real estate. When to switch is a hard question because you have to accept that you are not the best for at least a while.


> Why should my life be centered on the 'thing I'm good at'?

I have a conspiracy theory: I wonder if this is the sort of thing the ultra wealthy want the rest of us to believe. That way we are more easily commodified as labor. We can be put into a spreadsheet or Big Data app to make the 99.9% of us more manageable. We are more manageable if we are more predictable.

It's the flip side to "you are not your job" from Fight Club which ultimately must have got it from the general idea of identification, in a spiritual sense.


This is a growing affirmation from all around to tell you do what you are good at, while you are actually just mediocre and trying to figure out what you want to do.

What's life when we don't try new things and live like flowing water. Competence is a sham.


Bingo, they're trying to model their ideal investment targets, not happy people.

> Why should my life be centered on the 'thing I'm good at'? What does that even mean? Is it the thing I like to do and that makes me happy, or the thing that can bring me money?

Those are supposed to be the same thing, insofar as enjoying something lowers the bar to practicing it, and practicing something is—regardless of "talent"—the way to become good-enough at that thing to make money.

How does a professional athlete, or musician, or artist, get their start? Certainly not by looking at the field and thinking "there's money in that!" Instead, they get their start by just being really, really into that thing as a hobby, usually from the time they're young. By the time they're an adult, they're better at it than the average professional in the field, regardless of whether they did sought out any "professional" training. Thus, they can very easily just decide to become a professional at that point. (Or not; nobody's forcing them to! But it's a way to keep doing what they love—so they usually do!)

Personally, I was an 11-year-old kid who really enjoyed learning programming concepts and playing around with compilers/interpreters/etc. Now, because I spent so much time indulging my passion, it's become my circle of competence. And so now it's how I make money.

> Should we all be efficient production machines where our efficiency is dictated by whatever the economic needs of the moment are?

I mean, comparative advantage. Assume for a moment that we're not in a post-work utopia, and some things need to get done by humans rather than robots, despite nobody wanting to do them. Who better to do those things, than the person who can do them "most" efficiently (probably because they practiced, probably because they liked it), and thus waste the fewest man-years of Global Aggregate Human Lifespan in solving that problem?

(Where by "most", I mean some optimum between "more-efficiently than that person can do any other thing they can do", and "more-efficiently than any other person can do that thing." There's a real formal definiton of comparative advantage but it's too finicky to lay out here.)

For your hobbies, do whatever you want. You're not optimizing your hobbies. But in terms of whether you e.g. spend five work hours (that you could have spent on work) doing your own books as a freelancer, vs. handing it those books to a professional accountant who finishes them in one hour, and who then charges you only the amount of money you make in one hour? I think the choice is pretty clear.

You will never be a better accountant than you are a [whatever], so you hire the accountant. If you want to be a better accountant than you are a [whatever]—then, upon achieving that goal, you'll be a person who is an accountant, and now someone who pays for [whatever] instead of paying for accounting!


I find that an interesting take-away from the article.

There are two underlying assumptions in the original author's piece; first that you find value in working and second that you need to work to support yourself. It also equates "less effort" with "easier to do" which implies more success at doing. But the questions posted are useful ones, to wit:

Why should my life be centered on the 'thing I'm good at'?

I'm going to stipulate here that most people split their life into three parts, the part where they work (someone else tells them what to do), the part where they sleep, and the part where they do what they want to do. And that the ratio of those three parts to one week can be called their "work life balance."

If you can agree to that stipulation, then I'm going to add the observation that the balance ratio is a significant, and perhaps dominant, contributor to a person's over all feeling of happiness, restfulness, and well being.

If you agree with that observation, then I'm going to add that the dominant force acting on the balance is the amount of wealth your work generates per unit time.

Basically, if you're paid more you can work fewer hours while still meeting all of your financial obligations. Further, you can reduce the portion of your life dedicated to work and distribute those hours over things you want to do or sleep. This allows you to adjust the life balance such that you can maximize your own feelings of happiness and well being.

The final piece is the assumption that "work" is a competitive marketplace. There are more people able to work than there are opportunities too work, so selection pressure will reduce wages on opportunities that anyone can do, and raise wages on opportunities that fewer people can do.

I believe this is the context in which the article is written.

If that is correct, then to "win" (defined by maximizing your happiness and well being for the longest possible time), one needs to find the opportunities that pay the highest wages per unit time and out compete other candidates for those opportunities.

So what I took away from the article is that if you start with the skillss that come easily to you, and focus on those, you can quickly become very competitive for opportunities requiring that skill. That will maximize the available wages to you at any given point of time.

Personally, I always suggest to people they continue to explore other skills. That way you can discover still more things that come easily to you and open up still more opportunities. More choices here are always preferable to fewer choices.

And to this last point, (e.g. you're the best mainframe programmer, but the PC revolution has come)? I believe the skill here is "programming", not the platform (PC or Mainframe). If programming comes easily to you then switching platforms will also be easy.

Contrast that with "struggling to learn programming" where once you have mastered exactly one system you don't have any idea how to generalize those skills to another system. This article suggests, and I concur, that you're time would be better off on finding a skill that comes easily rather than trying to develop one that doesn't.


> Basically, if you're paid more you can work fewer hours while still meeting all of your financial obligations.

I think that this is trivially correct while being fundamentally wrong.

Most people work many many more hours and value their free time at relatively zero. Our social incentives are usually aligned with working longer and achieving consumer outcomes that are low “quality” (a bigger house with more debt is happiness?).

Even worse, we are encouraged to risk all our time during our work lives to obtain a relatively uncertain outcome: retirement funds are easy to lose and it is easy to fail to achieve retirement pleasure (poor health or early death, lost identity, missing joy).

We are all given fairly equal amounts of time, yet many fail to apportion their time in ways that give them lasting pleasure.

Edit: > This article suggests, and I concur, that you're time would be better off on finding a skill that comes easily rather than trying to develop one that doesn't.

I strongly disagree. Our success is often defined by our weaknesses, not our strengths. Watch the engineer fail because they can’t work with others; see the financial wizard fail due to addictions; see a friend fail due to a personality flaw that they ignore; watch an entrepreneur fail because they are deaf to valid criticism. These are hard issues to recognise and deal with within ourselves, and they need serious investment of time and effort. Working on our flaws gives good value even if all one manages to achieve is to learn to change a failing into a mediocre skill.


There are several diverse viewpoints on this.

One aspect is that being excellent at one thing is hard. Be really good at two things. And thats how you will stand out because it is the fusion of two skils that makes you unique.

First: Some advice on this by Scott Adams. https://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/car... I love this one.

Also a book that pretty much centers around the same point. I think the book itself is a great read. And I recommend it. https://www.amazon.com/Medici-Effect-Elephants-Epidemics-Inn...

And then there is a quote by Robert Anson Heinlein, if you want to take it to heart and live on other extreme. By no means it is a career advice but surely an interesting take.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”


>"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

That's a brilliant quote


As I got older, it started to sound dumber and dumber.

I think there is a way in which that idea appeals to someone young, because until a certain age, you can imagine being anything, knowing everything, your future is unlimited.

And then somewhere around middle age, you realize that whether you are the best specialist in a field or not, whatever you've achieved, your life is inevitably going to be a tiny fraction of the scope of possible human experience and far from the extremes of what is possible.


It's from Starship Troopers the book. I really liked it, but it might not be for some.

No it's not. It's Lazarus Long from Time Enough for Love.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Competent_man


Good catch! Have read both books and mixed up the source...

> One aspect is that being excellent at one thing is hard. Be really good at two things. And thats how you will stand out because it is the fusion of two skils that makes you unique.

This is a difference of semantics. "Do a thing you are especially good at" vs. "Do two things you're really good at ... to create a unique result" is another way of saying "find a thing you're uniquely good at."


Well if you assume the basis set of things you can be good at is arbitrarily chosen. But I think the point was to define things" based on how skills are broken up in society. It's certainly much easier to learn them this way. You probably can't find many books or college classes in "public speaking in Mathematics", to help you become the best at this specialized focus, but it's easy to independently study these two specializations.

> This is a difference of semantics. "Do a thing you are especially good at" vs. "Do two things you're really good at ... to create a unique result" is another way of saying "find a thing you're uniquely good at."

This is like in accounting/economics when someone says, "Everything is a variable cost... if you wait long enough!" Sure, the payments you make on a 10-year contract are variable if you're thinking in time periods of 100 years (in years 11-100 you can decide whether or not to keep paying for the item), but that's rarely the case.

Similarly, when people talk about specialization and "finding something you're good at", I would assert that the norm is that people think in terms of one specific area/skill. Hence, it's important to talk in these terms and point out to people that they should consider that they might actually get the most benefit from being good at two skills.


I think the distinction is more than semantic. The point of the exercise (and Adams' self help advice generally) is to promote entrepreneurial thinking. The combination of skills is seen as "added value" or differentiation. Whereas pursuing a single skill may have a clear path of training & advancement, this is encouraging people to create a new path.

I think even the author's own example can be criticized this way. He describes himself as a top-25% artist and humorist, but not among "the best" at either of those. But you could just as easily re-frame that as him being among the best cartoonists.

> First: Some advice on this by Scott Adams

Why would you follow advice from a certified nutcase?


Why the immediate ad hominem? Do you have specific grievances with the referenced blog post?

Ad hominems are terrible in logical discourse, but with life advice, it's important to know who is dispensing the advice.

I'm not sure the distinction between logical discourse and life advice is a useful one to draw. The reason that ad hominem is considered harmful is it leads to dismissing ideas without considering their merit.

Dismissing advice out of hand purely based off of the source seems like a dangerous shortcut to espouse, as it's likely to lead to groupthink and echo chambers. I think, when looking for advice, one should go out of ones way to solicit different backgrounds (dare I say, a diverse set of opinions) and then synthesize them into a course of action.

See also, taking the other side to lunch.

https://www.npr.org/transcripts/505588812


For a book-length exposition on this theme, read https://www.amazon.com/First-Break-All-Rules-Differently/dp/....

The book didn't intend to be a book-length exposition. But the common insight that they found among good managers is that people come lop-sided. They have strengths and weaknesses that they aren't going to change. When you try to make people work on their weaknesses, you're virtually guaranteed to fail and make them miserable in the process. But instead figure out how to tailor their jobs to their talents and they will outperform. If you can pair up people with complementary talents, the combination will do much better than either person could on their own.

The book then includes example after example from industry after industry. For everything from housekeeping in a hotel to being a bartender to data entry. For each of these jobs, there are people whose talents will make them ridiculously better at it.

(Side note. That is the only management book that I recommend to non-managers.)


When I first started running outdoors for exercise, I couldn't run a mile. I was in really poor physical condition. 5 days a week, I'd go outside and do whatever I could, stopping as my heart rate demanded. I was really bad at running. My form was poor. I was overweight. Yet, I persisted. I learned how to celebrate small victories. Successes slowly compounded. I persevered. I kept training and improving. A few years passed and I successfully finished my first marathon. I was slow as molasses and stopped a lot after mile 20. I was one of the heavier finishers that day, too. I also raised 3 grand for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society in the process (Team in Training). My colleagues were shocked to find out what I did, and it inspired at least one to sign up and give it a try. What I learned about myself from running is that I had the capacity to go far beyond limits that my mind sets for me. The more familiar I became with physical and mental pain, the more I learned how to manage the urge to quit -- stopping before injury most of the time. I've experienced this process of development in other aspects of my life and career. It never feels easier to do something that I'm not good at, but I know how to deal with a strong urge to quit and do something else.

For a long while, I haven't improved as a runner, running only 3-4 miles a session. Instead, I keep my perseverance reserve for my work, where I've spent years doing work that has been very outside of my comfort zone, compounding one small success at a time. I have been far from the best at what I've done, but boy do I have a long line of accomplishments that I am proud of.

If you want to grow as a person, try moving outside of your circle of competence and grow the circle. It's not about achieving more than everyone else. It's about doing what your former self wouldn't. Do it enough times and you may one day find that moving beyond your comfort zone is a strength.


I'm not seeing his this relates to ambiguity traps. What is the trap?

In general, I think doubling down in success makes sense versus starting over. Even if it is small success. But, most people making drastic changes probably aren't doing so by choice alone. Are they?


It all depends on what you want out of life. If you want to stay in one area and go as far as possible, yes I would follow this advice. You'll probably be more "successful" overall. But I was never that type of person; I've always been pulled in several directions. So I've sequentially focused on each of those, and made shorter careers out of each. Of course I haven't gotten as far in each, because there just isn't time. And I've struggled harder, stepping into new areas and being a beginner over and over. But it can't help but make you stronger and more of a person overall, or at least I like to tell myself that. Every minute Willard sits in that room he gets weaker, while every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger! And there still end up being weird little synergies sometimes, where something unrelated nonetheless applies in an unexpected way, usually on more of a metaphorical or symbolic level, that gives some insight.

I should say I've basically still been honoring my 3 or 4 main circles, plural, of competency, i.e. I still pursued things for which I had aptitude and interest, and not totally random ones!


What if your core competence is fucking around and trying out stuff? I'm uh... asking for a friend.

The article assumes a serious emphasis on specialization is the only way to "succeed", which is also left undefined.

Both of those tell you more about the author than provide any objective advice.


I believe this way of thinking is an (ocidental?) cultural bias - "god gave you talent", "you're the chosen one", "your fate is sealed".

In other cultures (Korea/Japan, at least?) it seems it's more common to attribute success to hard work and mentoring and less on innate abilities. You can't walk into a dojo and just tell the sensei "Mom said I'm very talented - please give me a black belt", you have to put in the work like everybody else.

I wonder how much that shapes people's perception of what they can do, motivation, etc.


This article promotes fixed mindset, if you follow it and you think you have no natural abilities, you’re set as a failure for the rest of your life.

Is it me, or is this a rather depressing way to view oneself?

> Focussing on your strengths does not imply that you need to avoid exploring other areas, but it is rather about not letting those other areas take away too much time and resources that could be better utilised on your strengths.

I think that there is something especially rewarding in pursuing an activity at which you lack natural talent. It teaches very important lessons about hard work, makes you question yourself, and can help you be less arrogant. I think sometimes, it can actually be far less of a waste of time than pouring more hours into something you already very well.

The best thing I ever did was take classes outside of CS in college - I quickly realized I could not skate by in linguistics or writing classes. My proudest academic achievement is probably a B- in a grad linguistics class I took.

A nice article that explains this better than I can: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/smarter-living/the-case-f...

Of course, these feelings could just be a rationalization for a 'dabbler' complex, it's hard to tell.


Book - Range by David Epstein - covers this topic really well. The book shows how expanding into neighboring areas increases your performance in your chosen field itself.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PHLNR28/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?...


What's the Ambiguity Trap here?

That aside I find this more useful when it comes to organizations where momentum is pretty hard to change. I can't tell you how many initiatives I've seen with "We're going to do this now!" and really that group doesn't do that well, is busy not doing that, and just as an organization isn't built to do ... the new thing. The result is inevitable.


You know, it's a hard pattern to break out of.

For me, I've always worked the hardest on the things I've failed the hardest at. Failing motivates me to try more - even if I only achieve supbar results after not failing.

In my later years, I've become better at being selective about these things. I try not to spend too much resources on things I know will not mater, or bring me any more happiness.


I also read yesterday's post from the same author, but neither article is really a mental model (despite that being the subject of the entire blog), and they aren't particularly informative enough to be on the frontpage for the blog's first two posts?

If you upvoted this one, what am I missing that you liked about it?


I didn't upvote this, as this is just some guys heuristic.

But, I find the exploration vs exploitation mental model useful. There is theory behind it (which is used in reinforcement learning):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-armed_bandit


> Another example could be switching to a career at 30 years old when you do not have the required social skills. You are better off focussing your efforts on a career that you will thrive in as an introvert while at the same time giving some room to improve on your social skills without making it your focus. Trying to put all your chips on a career based on a skill that you have not mastered or you struggle with is not the smartest bet to make.

This could have been written about me. I'm a software engineer who switched careers (from filmmaking) at 30. One of the best decisions I ever made. I love my job. I'm good at it. I have more (hard-earned) people skills than your average developer, but I'm fundamentally an introvert, and love my distraction-free IC time.


One interesting about being in the technology field, is that it can make you better in any sphere, as you can pick up the software quicker or write code to make things better, or simply can technically analyze things as a strength. Also, project planning and dealing with abstract ideas.

Tech is crazy in that it enhances you in a lot of areas that apply in numerous ways in the modern world.


Interesting article. Then I cam across the term "man management" in the article. Is that a real thing, or a typo?

Yeah, that knocked me off balance, too. But it's a thing, if antiquated: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/man-...

Some skills are facilitating skills, and they come back to bite you if you don't sufficiently master them. For me, writing was always massive source of frustration. Not knowing how to write persuasively has limited me in my career. I've hired a writing tutor, which I hope helps me.

This way of thinking presupposes that not being (highly) competent at whatever it is you're doing is losing (or will lead to losing) in some form. Maybe this is true in some environments, but I don't think it's generally true, or particularly valuable life advice.

Reinforcement Learning takes a principled approach to analyzing the exploration/exploitation trade-off.

If you're interested in using this knowledge to manipulate your behavior, I recommend learning a little theory before letting internet wisdom dissuade you from exploring.


And what if said strengths are deemed worthless by the market?

That can change at any moment. Being good at video games was worthless until Twitch and eSports.

Depends on whether you were born an aristocrat or a pleb.

interesting - runs contrary (to the most part) - of The Range which I read recently (https://amzn.to/3dCTqcE). There is something to be said on focussing though, to easy to get distracted.

Is Ambiguity Trap defined somewhere?

author left it ambiguous for effect

This assumes your objective of learning different skills is to be financially successful, no?

Work on what you can't stop thinking about. You'll get good at that.

Sounds about right, also is to notice earlier the better



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