In this post I’d like to touch on a topic that has been floating around in my head for several years now. It’s perhaps a little abstract but I hope to give you some interesting ideas to think about.
Most of my reading life has been focused on fiction, but once in a while I’ll pick up a non-fiction book, for example one on investing or cooking. Over a decade ago I came across the book “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which has been one of the most memorable non-fiction books I’ve read so far in my lifetime.
As is evident from the title, this book is about how we are often tricked by processes that are random by thinking there is some pattern or logic to them. Taleb uses several different occupations as examples of this phenomena, for example those in the financial industry who spend their time picking stocks. He points out that there is evidence that people who are considered “experts” in some fields have been shown to not actually be able to demonstrate their expertise in a controlled environment.
As a side note I want to make it clear I am not saying that there is anything wrong with any jobs that may be in this category, nor do I agree that there is literally zero skill required to become a renowned “expert” in fields related to investment. Luck certainly plays a role, but there are also soft skills such as people skills and communication skills, and other less tangible things such as motivation. In addition, raw experience can inform ones behavior in ways that are not easy to test. In the financial industry especially, there are so many sub-fields (stocks, mutual funds, retirement, real estate, etc.) and I don’t believe this argument applies equally to all of them. Nevertheless, I think some people will agree that the stock market is, to a large degree, random, especially considering that if a certain strategy was found that consistently made money, the market would eventually adjust and it would become less profitable.
In any case, the two biggest takeaways I got from reading “Fooled by Randomness” was first that randomness plays a larger role in our lives than I previously thought, and second––more relevant to this article––that the degree raw skill factors into the end result depends heavily on the industry and the endeavor in question. This can apply at the career level, or even at the hobby level. In Japanese there is the word 実力 (jitsuryoku), which means real skill, or skill that can actually be exhibited in a certain scenario (in particular, combat situations).
I haven’t been able to find a perfect term to describe this in English, so let’s use the word “expertability”, which I’ll define as the degree that a person can be a true, testable expert in some field. Looking back, this concept of expertability was a mini eureka moment for me, and for years it has sat in the back of my mind, influencing my everyday thought processes.
As a result, I have gradually gotten to the point where I am attracted to fields with a high level of expertability, for example calligraphy, but especially the Japanese language itself.
I feel languages have a high degree of expertability since, for example, if you are speaking to someone it’s almost immediately clear that they are fluent or not. Viewed from another perspective, it’s hard, if not impossible to fake language fluency. This matters to me greatly, since it boosts my level of satisfaction and achievement when I have shown my “jitsuryoku” in a real conversation.
Reading fiction is a bit trickier, since often the goal is just to enjoy oneself, and even if you only understand half of the content you can still call it a success. Furthermore, often there is no way to double check your understanding unless you happen to have an involved conversation with someone else about the events of the book. Translation, on the other hand, seems to have a relatively high level of expertability––though perhaps not as much as everyday conversation. The tricky part with translation, though, is that to really know if a translation is good you have to compare to the original text, and most people aren’t ever going to spend the time required for a thorough evaluation, assuming they even are fluent enough in both languages. And even if you do compare, there is some subjectivity as to what is the “best” translation. I feel that a bad translation is generally easy to spot, but ranking good translations in an objective way is an altogether different matter.
For me, expertability affects more than just satisfaction in achieving a degree of expertise; it also influences how I interact with experts of that domain. For example, martial arts (for example, Aikido) is another area where I feel experience and skill really matters. Once I find a teacher who has exhibited real skill in a variety of situations, I will give more weight to what they say, as opposed to hearing the same thing said from a random person on the street. On the other hand, if a wealthy financial adviser says “this is how I got rich” while describing a stock picking strategy to me, there is no guarantee that is how he or she became wealthy, and even if that strategy did work at one point it may be no longer valid in the current market.
But even for high-expertability domains, like Aikido and Japanese, it’s not all-or-nothing. One person can be expert in hundreds of martial art techniques and know all the mechanical details about how the body moves in each, but another person may have seemingly superhuman reaction time and an observable “sense” for martial interactions. Similarly, one can be perfectly fluent in the everyday conversation of a language, but have a weak knowledge of kanji and grammar structures used in literature.
One of my hobbies is the game Starcraft 2, a real time strategy (RTS) computer game, although giving priority to blogging and translation projects means I haven’t had much time for this in the last few months. But I still like to watch professional Youtubers now and then to try to learn from them. The Dutch pro-gamer “Harstem” (Kevin de Koning) is an excellent example of someone who is a proven expert, and he also has the rare ability to clearly explain exactly what he doing, live as he plays a game. Being able to do something and being able to explain it clearly are separate (though related) skills. Seeing how a pro thinks (and trains) helps me to see competitive E-sports like Starcraft 2 in an entirely new light.
As I study masters in various fields, I have also learned that just because they excel in one area doesn’t mean everything they do is related to their success or ability. For example, famous musicians generally have some observable skill, but that doesn’t mean they have nice personalities or their other behaviors are necessarily something of merit. Also, many of that person’s traits may be compatible with becoming an expert (like persistence), but those things alone don’t necessarily lead to mastery.
Finally, the concept of expertability also influences how I think about myself, especially in terms of what I am truly skilled at (and what I’m not). This factors in to how I interact with others when giving advice, or trying to teach about some topic. In other words, I like to be sure I know what I don’t know. I’m pretty comfortable talking about Japanese grammar, but when it comes to the intonation of specific Japanese words my confidence drops significantly.
Language learning, while it can be considered a hobby by some, is often a pretty serious affair that involves a great deal of studying and can even have a positive affect on one’s career. Some hobbies (like stamp collecting), may be enjoyable but not likely lead to any career changes, and furthermore may have a low degree of expertability. This doesn’t mean these hobbies aren’t rewarding or worthwhile, and I think everyone needs their share of less productive activities so they don’t burn out.
I challenge to you think of your hobbies, studies, and other activities in terms of “expertability” and see how this will change your life.
Thanks for reading!