Instead of learning to become mediocre
By MARTIN REZNY
Those of you who have been reading my articles for a long time may already know that I’m not exactly a fan of the standard education model. I could go again over the main reasons, like what it does to limit critical thinking and personal development, not to mention how unpleasant it is. I could also go again over the alternatives, like the open education model. In my experience, though, these aren’t particularly persuasive arguments.
The problem seems to be that while most people would of course like to have an enjoyable learning experience and personal growth, they still kinda have to “get a job”, as they say. I believe the main driving factor behind people not abandoning the standard education model in droves is that they believe that they need those good grades, degrees, and certificates to succeed. Given that most people have limited resources, they have to make a choice.
Well, I have been working in HR for the last two years, posting job descriptions for a successful multinational technology company, so allow me to try a different approach. I’m going to argue that you specifically don’t want to learn to get good grades, degrees, and certificates if maximum career success is what you’re after. And no, I’m not saying that this means that you should become a plumber instead of an intellectual, either.
The Trouble with the Standards
There are many possible arguments that one can make against any form of standardization in education, especially as it applies to testing, however, it’s important to understand that grades, degrees, and certificates are all forms of standardization. But again, most of the usual arguments against them may not be very appealing to people whose main goal is to make a living.
And fair enough, maybe you don’t care so much about having fun while learning. Maybe you don’t feel the need to think differently than most people. Maybe you’re okay with being told how to use your time and instructed how to develop your skills. As long as you’ll be rewarded for your effort and suffering in the end. And therein lies the big problem:
If your knowledge and skills are the same as everyone else’s, what advantage do you have on the job market?
Most people whom I’ve seen arguing against the value of college degrees consider them worthless because they don’t guarantee any real knowledge or skills. That may very well be the case for many college degrees, but what I’d argue is that even assuming that all degrees were absolute guarantees of specific levels of knowledge and skill, they would be insufficient guarantees of getting hired to do a job that can be described as rewarding.
It’s all about employer mentality. For what kind of job would you be looking for people only on the basis of the standards that they have achieved, ignoring all their unique qualities? A job that’s routine, obedience-based, heavy on paperwork, personally unfulfilling, with minimal career growth prospects, and likely undervalued. Doesn’t matter if it’s a job in tech, services, media, or academia — chances are, it’s not gonna be a good one.
For good jobs, non-stupid, non-asshole employers look for the best person available, and the one quality that makes a candidate best is that they’re distinct, a cut above the competition. When you’re looking at their CV, something in it needs to make them pop. Standard achievements won’t make you pop, unless there’s at least a highly un-standard amount of them.
I’m saying all this by the way as a proud non-owner of any language degrees or certificates, who was head-hunted by a multinational corporation for a job all about English skills. A job I’ve never specifically done before. For all the non-writers among you — this is absurd. No-name, non-native-speaker, wanna-be English writers don’t get drafted like this.
What I did put into my CV, despite what all people around me have advised me, was all of my unique experience, especially with debating and theater. Apart from this stuff, of which most Czech employers have no idea what it means in terms of my usefulness as an employee, I did claim in my CV that I can write basically anything in Czech or English. Why did it work?
The key detail is that I claimed it eloquently. My CV is a proof of my ability.
Maybe not to employers who have no concept of what good writing or good English are, but the question everyone should be asking is — do I want to be employed by people who can’t appreciate what I can do? Who have no idea what they need of me? The correct answer is no, you don’t, or at least you shouldn’t. Maybe, if I had all the certificates or whatnot, I’d get ten offers instead of one. Ten bad offers. I only need one good job. What about you?
Good jobs, in case it’s unclear, are jobs that are highly valued, that have the potential to be personally fulfilling, that require creative input and initiative from you and offer you the possibility of career growth. In a good job, no one will be telling you what to do and how to do it, in all likelihood because people other than you, including your boss, won’t be able to know that better than you, which is why you were hired as opposed to everyone else.
The Value of Personal Growth
In my scenario, if an employer interviews a dozen people who all claim they have excellent English, they are likely to take note of the one with the best spoken English. Like me, with over a decade of experience debating and acting. The employer would not be able to predict necessarily that they should look for someone with that kind of experience when the job is about writing, but they can recognize the results of this extra experience when they see them firsthand. If they have any understanding of what “good” is.
But even if that wasn’t the case and all of the candidates were somehow equally good in terms of both writing and language skills (determined by a custom job-specific test, ideally), the unique experience beyond what’s required would still decide the outcome. Who would you rather hire for a good job — a person whose life has been singularly focused on schooling, or a person with more varied interests and life experience? As long as the job is good and the candidate wants to do it, you hire the interesting person.
You will have to work with them, after all. That may include trying to build some sort of personal relationship with them, and people tend to want to do that with people they find interesting. Also, unfortunately, people who they like the looks of, which is a part of the so called “halo effect”, but I digress. Working on your personality is therefore at least as important as working on your credentials. Schooling tends to damage personality, producing people who are too submissive, arrogant, or unsocial.
On an even more basic level, schooling robs you of time, and in some cases also money. Time and money you could have spent on becoming an interesting person. Instead of wasting time at school, you could have traveled, participated in competitions, experimented with whatever trade or art you prefer, socialized and networked, worked on your physique and fitness, and so much more. In short, you could have lived and grown.
Growth, unlike schooling, doesn’t need to have any predetermined targets that you need to meet at any particular times. Also, unlike schooling, growth is always valuable and potentially useful. Experiencing new things, even if they’re painful or terrifying and full of failures, is valuable. Especially if they’re full of those things, to be honest. You may not know in the present how any of it will help you in the future, but chances are it will. The more unique your experience gets, the higher those chances will climb.
While schooling does something in its own right to advance knowledge and skills, the problem is that it’s strictly worse than experience, including, most of all, unstructured learning experience. If your resources are limited and you have to choose only one, I’d advise you to never choose schooling. Well, unless all you want in life is one specific highly scholastic job that absolutely requires certification by law, like lawyer, professor, or surgeon, I guess.
There is some justification for enforcing standards when lives are on the line, for example. But this clear line only covers law, tech, and medicine, and even then, relying only on schooling would not produce the most skilled professionals. This is perhaps why such professions are most often successfully pursued by privileged people who have enough resources so that they don’t have to choose either schooling, or life. It’s also why Ivy League schools tend to bother engineers by teaching them humanities.
Speaking of engineering, the certificates there do make more sense than most, as you can exactly define what one needs to know in order to be able to use a piece of software or other technology— a purely artificial and perfectly exact creation. At the same time, though, creativity is the name of the game in good engineering jobs, so experience and personality is what determines whether you can work only on repetitive quality control or maintenance, or on creating new tools. Given the choice, I bet you’d enjoy a creative job more.
Why You Need to Enjoy What You Do
Now, you may be thinking that I’m forgetting to address the most important part — the actual mastery of skills. Experience and personality are nice, sure, but one has to learn how to do a specific thing very well in the first place. You may be thinking that that’s the part that has to be boring, hard work. You’d be wrong. Having fun doing new things is a way to mastery.
To be clear, by “achieving mastery” I mean learning to do something better than everyone else, better than it has been done before, or at least continuously aiming to excel. The main problem of learning through schooling to achieve standards is that that’s how you learn things to be at best competent at them. Why? Achieving set targets is the easy part. Understanding what targets are worthy of achieving is much, much harder.
Assuming you’re not a master of, say, musical composition yet, how could you know before you start learning it what good music or good composition even mean? How can you be sure that any existing composers know that either, let alone people who only teach it (likely because they haven’t found success trying to do it themselves)? You don’t know. Scientifically speaking, it takes being good to know how good you are, or how good anyone else is.
That’s why mastery is something you will be stumbling to. With determination, sure, over a long period of time most likely, while giving it a lot of effort, but not along a predetermined program. Unstructured experimentation and playing at the thing you have ambitions to one day be able to do competently are effective methods of mastering skills.
On the other hand, if you think that practice will help you, practice. If you think that researching existing methods will help you, do that. Try anything you want and then try to evaluate the results. None of that is exclusive to schooling, or best done at school. In fact, it’s important that you are in control, setting the direction and pace. Any predetermined program will at least at some point lead you down the wrong path or run at the wrong speed for you. If it’s schooling, you’d also be a prisoner of it for years.
Time is of the essence here, as time is the resource that you’re converting into mastery, and it takes by any estimates at least thousands of hours (= years) to achieve mastery. Any school will cause you to waste years, even if it’s relatively good. Attending school as a facility may have some benefits, but today with the internet, for the vast majority of knowledge, you don’t need to go to a physical location. You don’t need school to socialize, either.
And if for no other reason, schooling would already be a bad path to mastery simply because it makes learning unenjoyable. I have never encountered a research that would say that making learning more boring or less personally meaningful makes it more effective. That’s just not how we’re wired. Enjoyment and personal investment make learning vastly more effective. Being taught something you don’t care about through a one-way lecture, the most common method of schooling, is the least effective learning approach.
Do you know what the most effective learning method appears to be? Trying to teach others. A thing that you’re least likely to be allowed to do at school because you don’t have the proper degrees and certificates as a student yet. Following that are other forms of interactive learning like practice by doing and discussion, then demonstration, then audiovisual learning, then reading, and then lecturing. It’s amazing how schools have managed to get it exactly backwards. Such level of incompetence actually takes a lot of effort.
The Importance of Thinking Differently
So, if you want the shortest possible answer to how to master a skill (that you’ve already learned to at least the most basic level by watching or listening to people doing it well), teach it to others, practice it, and discuss it. As often as you can, while making it as fun and personally meaningful as you can. Even after you do all that, however, I would still advise you to purposely try to find your own different way of learning and doing it.
It doesn’t matter if the skill you’re going for is physical or mental, concrete or abstract, mundane or esoteric. Even if the whole extent of your ambition is to learn to become the best toilet cleaner there is, it’s never as valuable to become the best at it in a completely predictable way, as it would be to become the best at it in an original way. You can always adopt the usual techniques after you’re your own kind of master. It’s much harder to try to do it the other way around — finding new ways after you’re set in the old.
Not to mention that there’s still the comparative advantage issue. I know this only too well, since every school teacher of English that I’ve ever encountered had a tendency to force me to unlearn American English that I’ve learned by doing what I enjoy — playing games. Because of how all of the teachers of English are taught to teach English in the Czech Republic, every single one of them, as well as virtually every textbook in use here, push for British English. They also all require learning from books, and only classical literature at that, not any silly games or speculative fiction.
Guess what, in terms of my future employability, they couldn’t have been more wrong if they tried. Not only is speculative fiction currently the dominant cultural force, which makes any knowledge of it inherently valuable, but most of the biggest and most progressive companies, mainly software-creating tech companies, are American. In a way, the thing that I can thank them for now is that their efforts have in fact maximized my comparative advantage by making American English a rare specialization.
Because of my sadly unusual strategy of pursuing what I enjoy in a way that’s against the norm, but personally meaningful to me, I have now the best version of the type of job that I’m now doing, without even applying for it. I have something to offer in my local job market that barely anyone else has. I’m certain this cannot be exclusive to mastering language skills, or writing skills, or any type of skills in particular, as my additional forays into debating and theater have only multiplied the effectiveness of all my other skills.
Especially if your target is to make a career on your own terms, just being able to do anything well in a unique way is a business model — start a YouTube channel or some other social media thing and show it. That can be all you need to do to make money. You can do this as a cook, a painter, a musician, an artisan, anyone. I’ve seen a lawyer do that very effectively. If your skills are unique, you don’t have to do them for an employer. Even in the most old school of ways, you can always write books about your unique insights and sell those, like Schwarzenegger did with a bodybuilding book early on.
On the other hand, if you can only do your skills competently in a normal way, you will have to rely on employers forever. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any good reasons for that being all you’re aiming for. It’s not any harder to become really good at something than it is to learn to be okay at it, it only takes longer. Not giving up is pretty much enough. You may not be able to become measurably the best person on Earth at any specific skill, but it’s not about that at all. Just be very good at your version of the skill.
You don’t have to be a genius, or talented, or anything like that. Innate traits may give you a head start and determine your absolute physical limits, but as any serious theatrical actor would tell you, everyone will eventually learn everything to at least a workable level, if they persist. In case of theater, this typically includes recitation, singing, dancing, acrobatics, ability to memorize hours of text and choreography, and more. I learned juggling and throwing knives, in a few weeks. We all did. No, I didn’t think I could.
Acting is actually great for demonstrating the comparative advantages of being really good at a unique version of a skill. If you sort actors by their relative value, there’s nothing better for an actor than to be a unique master, followed by being an actor who can imitate many other actors or acting styles, followed by being an actor who can imitate only a single charismatic actor, do one general acting style very well, or is unique, but haven’t reached mastery, followed by generic actors who also aren’t very good. What I’m arguing is that this isn’t different for other skills where it’s less obvious. Look for what people want that only you can provide.
In conclusion, if your ultimate goal is to spend your resources on education effectively, i.e., learn in a way that maximizes the market value of the skills that you’re learning, schooling is not a rational choice. It won’t be a rational choice for as long as it will remain heavy on standardization, as well as boring and impersonal, and keep denying you customization and control over your progression. Provably much more effective way to spend time and money on education is to use it to gain experience, network, grow your character, and do as much enjoyable practice as humanly possible.
I’m really quite certain of this. If you disagree, I’d love to hear why.