Invisible Competence

Invisible Competence — Or, why success looks like failure until the end,
and why most people can’t plaster a wall (but think they can)

I was watching “This Old House” some years ago–some plasterers were coming in to finish up a new room. They slid some mud on their trowels, pressed it up against the wall, and skimmed the plaster on there. Easy peasey, like painting with a roller. In my usual arrogant way, I thought, “Gosh, I can do that. Perhaps I’ll plaster up the big gap in the basement, and bill the landlord.”

But then I remembered back to a bad experience I had trying to plaster a ceiling with my dad, perhaps 20 years ago, and did another assessment of how hard it is to plaster. It’s hard. The danger is that it looks easy.

There are two effects at work here which you may be familiar with. The first one is obvious; the second, less so.

First is the Dunning-Kruger effect; it states that people who aren’t skilled at something have a hard time estimating their own skill at something. People who are bad at something paradoxically claim to be very good at it, whereas people who have more knowledge can see their own short-comings. There was an IgNobel awarded here, so I’ll assume you’re passing familiar.

A related effect is that Learning Increases Resolution. Knowledge about a thing enriches experiences of that thing. Though the inexperienced can definitely have strong and complex emotional reactions to a design or a craft, they may not be able to articulate why, nor even recognize the elements that made them react. In fact there’s a drive in the other direction–to leave the engagement inexplicable, to resist understanding that it’s the symmetry in faces that makes them beautiful, or that using a very specific ratio of height to width (known by every snail) makes buildings have a particular aesthetic.

When it comes to skilled behavior, these things collide. Generally, skilled work produces something which is easier to appreciate than it is to create. Because a superficial or moderate appreciation of the endeavor is accessible to even unskilled observers, it is a common mistake to think that the creation is also accessible.

To put it bluntly, most of the time when you look at something pleasing and it seems simple, your gut reaction of “oh, I can do that” is wrong. You can probably learn to do that; but unless you’re understanding the details of making it, you aren’t able to right now.

You don’t know how hard it is until you try.

And why is that?

Seeing in High Resolution[1]

One of the side-effects of skillful work is making the tricky parts look easy. Sure, we often say, “he made that look easy” for things we know are hard; but we forget, for things that really *do* look easy.

Plastering a wall is a good example. On its surface (ha), a plastered wall looks like the simplest thing: a flat, featureless plane. When I watched the plasterer, it seemed like all he did was put some goop on the trowel and run it along the wall, and–tada! Flat wall. The trowel’s flat, the wall’s flat, should be easy enough to apply a flat layer of plaster between two flat things, right?

And then you try it, and the plaster falls off the hawk onto your carpet, the trowel stutters and sticks where you press it, you end up with one crumbly edge and one goopy edge. And even when you manage to get the plaster to stick to the wall, it comes out wavy, with trowel marks all over, and looks awful. Then, the next day, it’s got sag marks and cracks all through it, and you have to start over. What happened?

Well, what happened was the hard part. And you missed it, because you were looking without comprehension. You were seeing it in low res.

Let’s Go To The Instant Replay

So you watch again. And armed with your own experience, you see that the plasterer actually spends a fair amount of time, a few seconds, loading up his hawk with plaster in a particular way. He spent a lot of time making sure it was the right consistency, and testing it beforehand. He holds his trowel just so, and lets his wrist float as the trowel hits the imperfect wall and imperfections in the mix. He flattens the trowel against the wall in a gradual, steady fashion as the plaster leaves the trowel. He pushes it in against the wall in a particular scraping fashion. He moves his elbow and shoulder and body to smooth out the body’s natural tendency toward arcs instead of lines, and he works in a particular direction along the wall and around obstacles. He has a plan for undercoats and overcoats, and he knows exactly how thick to make each layer so it doesn’t crack as it dries.

All this richness, hiding in “put some goop on a flat metal thing, and run it along the wall”.

But the second time you watched–second if you’re lucky, as sometimes it takes many repeats–you knew where you had trouble. You paid more attention there, and you compared what you saw and felt with what was happening as you tried it. A good teacher will highlight these, helping the student learn, but you can also do it yourself. Eventually you learn to see in high-res–if you’re willing to take an earnest look at your own work.

But I’m Already Perfect!

One thing that can prevent learning is overweening pride in one’s accomplishments. We all have a story in our heads, the story of who we are. If we’ve taken the time to try to plaster a wall, chances are our story includes elements like “I am handy” and “I get things done” and “I can be good (enough) at anything”. (There are people whose story includes things like “I suck at everything”, but that’s a topic for another essay. See also “I’m OK, You’re OK“.)

So, when you try, and you achieve some sort of partial success, there’s a strong temptation to call it full success. You may try to redefine what you did as a complete success, in a few ways. You can move the goal posts; that’s a common one. (“Those grapes were sour anyway.” “Well, with a wall as uneven as that, I’m just glad I got plaster on it.”)

You can claim it’s amazing, and fight anyone who doesn’t agree. You can explain how it’s a work-in-progress, with no real plan to ever redo it. And you can call a spade a spade, and be satisfied with owning what you created, even if you are not satisfied with how it came out.

Learning from your work–that’s the hardest part. It is a crucial lesson to learn for aspiring artists: the workpieces along the way, the imperfect mutant wobblies that didn’t come out the way you wanted, are part of the art. When you try and create something flawed, in addition to giving you opportunity to practice your craft, you learn about the places that are hard.

Honest Appraisal

The trick is to look at it honestly, celebrate its charm, understand its faults, and own it. Learn so that the next time around, you can pay more attention to how others do those parts and to how you did those parts, to what works there and what doesn’t. Learn from your failures–but even moreso, learn from your successes. What went right? Why? How can you do that again?

Then, some day, your art will look flawless, and while you’re sweating away, straining every nerve to keep it perfect, some sot will come along and say, “Gosh, you make that look so easy.”

And you’ll say, “look deeper.”

I originally posted this essay in another context in May 2010. It engendered a great conversation about competence, so I re-edited it for reposting here.

[1] Or, these days, “In full 1080p HD!” Or, for the previous generation, “high fidelity stereo”.

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