Merlin Mann shares some wisdom in this talk delivered at the E4E Developer Conference in 2014. It’s inspiring, funny, honest, damn good advice on how to get better at whatever you do. Below are excerpts, but the entire talk is worth a watch and listen.
I find it very hard to get better at things. I find it very difficult to do. I think a lot of people struggle with it for a long time.
How do you get better at doing a thing?
When you get better at doing a thing, how do you know you’re getting better at doing the right thing?
When do you know it’s time to go to another thing?
How do you avoid becoming the world’s greatest master of something nobody really cares about anymore?
You start following rules, and eventually move to intuition.
I am super interested in the person who isn’t even a novice yet. What’s the step before novice?
I don’t even know, what I don’t know, about what I don’t know about. Before you misunderstand Ruby, you have to know about Ruby.
It’s such a cliche, but I think about it all the time. Maslow’s hammer.
I suppose it’s tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it was a nail.
- Abraham Maslow
When you don’t understand what problem you’re solving, when you don’t understand the problem domain, you will try just the craziest stuff because it’s the one tool you could use without breaking your finger.
Isn’t that a funny thing about expertise?
What is a novice? A novice is the new person on the job. They could conceivably follow the rules, but they’re screwing up so often that they’re not really following them.
At best, once you’ve crossed novice, you can boil water. You can follow the directions to boil water and not set yourself on fire.
Isn’t there something mindful about being a novice?
Any one here take yoga?
I tried yoga and boy did I realize the whole time I was totally a novice. There’s not a single part of yoga that was not novice for me.
Every bit was excruciating. I knew the entire time, I sucked hard at yoga. There was never a time where I thought I should get a mat and a bag.
The entire time I was hurting, and I was feeling stupid, and I was realizing there was no lower I could go.
I knew about yoga, but I was not good at it.
Isn’t that part of the good thing about being a novice?
You have a little bit of beginner’s mind. You’re open to new stuff.
The advanced beginner is in the unique situation of having virtually no idea how little they know about something, but has every reason to believe they might be an unrecognized genius.
Beware of the advanced beginner. How do you know if you’re getting better at something?
That’s why we stall at the advanced beginner stage.
At every level of expertise there’s a built-in blind spot. There’s something about it that’s difficult to know.
When you’re at step zero, and don’t know nothing, you don’t even know what you know nothing about.
When you’re a novice, you don’t know enough about the experience of doing what you’re being taught, so you have to follow the rules.
When you become an advanced beginner, you have no idea what little you need to know.
This is somebody that has had to deal with different problems, in different problem domains, in different circumstances, with different teams, and different resources.
And they still find some way to make it better than worse.
Remember, just because you have not failed colossally, does not mean you’re not an expert. It just means you don’t have that much experience yet.
I’m not saying we should go out and try to fail. But there’s so much to learn from somebody who has a hard time telling you why they think that’s the best solution.
My favorite example is the old butcher. If you go into this place, and order three-quarters of a pound of roast beef, a very old shaky man will cut it and package it up.
How about using one of those newfangled scales?
The guy shrugs and puts it on the scale. Three-quarters of a pound on the nose.
Have you ever had this experience?
You know the kind of things I’m talking about. You know a tailor who can guess your size when you walk in. You know people who can tell what’s wrong with your car because how it sounded when you drove up.
And you’ve known the butcher. The old butcher. Who knows how much is three-quarters of a pound, but can’t tell you why.
What’s the life hack? What the trick? What’s the most important thing you need to know to decide that’s three-quarters of a pound of beef?
He says you know the trick, the trick is to be a butcher for 40 years. That’s the trick.
That’s why I love the expert. Even the expert has blind spots that they can’t tell you.
Sometimes the more you dig in on the thing you think you really understand, the more you’re shutting yourself off from the stuff in the world that you could be getting better at or that you should be getting better at next.
What should you be getting better at? And how do you know?
Panic! I’m not talking be scared or being anxious. I’m talking about panicking.
Panicking is when you wake up and go “oh my god, it’s too late.” Panicking is waking up and realizing all the skills I’ve got on my resume are not the things that are on those job boards.
Isn’t it kind of interesting how that happened?
Humility is when you go, “you know what? Maybe I’m not the greatest at everything because partly I don’t know what everything is yet.”
When I was a kid, I was super into Ozzie Osborne. When they were on tour before his tragic death, not only was he one of the most shredding guitar players ever, but the story goes that Randy Rhoads would ahead of time pre-arrange classical guitar lessons in any town that he could along the way of the tour.
I could pretty much guess that he could probably teach those guys something about guitar. But that wasn’t his attitude. His attitude was not, “I’m freaking Randy Rhoads!”
His attitude was I want to get better at guitar every day if I can. What a huge difference. What a huge amount of humility. And it didn’t make him any less. It made him greater.
I don’t have a single way in the world to tell you guys to how to be more curious or what to be curious about. Except to say, I think you can do it.
I think you would surprise yourself. You will surprise yourself when you become curious about more stuff.
I only have one piece of advice during this entire thing. This is really just an excuse to say, my god, why can’t we all be more curious.
When I meet people at parties, or meet with them, or meet people on the street. People always want to network. Swap cards. And let’s LinkedIn.
Basically it all comes down to trying to figure out how much money you make. That’s what people do.
The thing that I will ask my friends on a catch-up call, what I will ask the person who’s driving me here from the airport, what I will always ask the person is the same question.
Hey, what are you really excited about right now?
This is really general. But what makes people really awesome at what they do is curiosity.
I’m talking about people who are curious about stuff for it’s own sake. I’m talking about the encyclopedia browsers of the world. The people who just want to know more.
We got our kid a three-wheel scooter years ago. The beauty part of a three-wheel scooter is you kind of can’t hurt yourself that bad on this thing. You get the pads. You get the helmet.
It’s got one, two, three wheels. You can do crazy stuff. You can start off with your foot on the brake and just start rolling. Terrible skills that do not contribute to good two-wheel scooting.
The scooter is now too small for my daughter, but she still wants to use it. It’s ridiculous. She looks like a dog in the circus. It’s become like a child-size novelty scooter.
But she kept doing it. She even eventually said, “Hey, I’d like a big girl scooter.” So, we got her one.
The thing is we got her the big girl scooter, she got on it, it didn’t have three wheels, so it fell over. Not so interested in the green scooter anymore. Let’s go back to the little kids scooter.
We said, “Honey, please just give it a try.” Again, she’s almost getting back pain from trying to reach over to us this [the small scooter].
But this is what she understands. When she was on the two-wheel version, that felt like the broken one. Because she couldn’t be good or fast anymore. Right?
So to her, that reads as failure.
When I was a little kid, and I was first trying to ride a two-wheeler, I begged my parents to fix the god damn training wheels on my stupid bike. Because it was wobbling.
And they said, “Honey, it’s supposed to wobble. Because that’s how you learn to ride a two-wheeler.”
If the training wheels on a two-wheeler were flush against the ground, they wouldn’t be training wheels. You’d have an old person trike.
If you didn’t have that awful, horribly, buddhist like wobble, you wouldn’t have learned how to ride on two wheels.
That’s where my kid was with this. She really didn’t want to get up. I said, “Honey, please just try it. Don’t worry, this is a closed course, you’ve got a helmet on.”
No interest. It just goes away.
Now it’s getting farcical. My daughter, who is a giant and continues to grow, goes back to the three wheel scooter. We even bribed her. We said, “Honey, for your birthday we’re going to get you a big girl bike.”
And you can pretty much guess how that went. We’re back to the scooter.
At this point, I was ready to give up. I don’t want to shame my kid. I feel like I’m pushing her all the time.
But I feel like there’s something. Look at me. I want to be helpful. I want to explain how there’s a way to ride something on two wheels.
How do you explain how to ride something that has two wheels?
I’m going to give her lots of sage, zen advice about centers of gravity and chakras and shit. Like what am I going to say?
You get on it, and go you go fast enough, so you don’t have to fall down anymore. Invoice.
But that’s just not super fun.
A couple weeks ago, out of nowhere, I think she got a little bit curious. And she said, “We’ll give that a try.”
She put on the helmet, she got out, and she started falling down. A lot. She fell down a lot.
You know where this story is going?
I didn’t. I honestly thought she was just going to get brain damage and continue to ride this tiny, ridiculous, three-wheeled scooter.
Cause I’m a nice dad. And I don’t want to be a dick about it.
So here’s the part that drives me completely bananas and I wish it could make sense to me.
She finally decided to give it a spin. First, in the garage a little bit. Then, going out on the sidewalk.
She was not having fun. And then something kind of ridiculous happened.
The fifth time we took the big girl scooter out, she suddenly had no problem riding on two wheels.
And I felt like a dummy. Because I’d been sitting around for all that time trying to make her feel good about scooting around on her little three-wheeler.
And that’s why I worry about advanced tricycling and the people who help us with that. Because sometimes, don’t you kind of feel like if I could just get the world’s most advanced, tricked out, power user training wheels, I could really fly with this thing?
And that’s how I felt a lot. If I waited long enough, maybe my daughter would get super smart and get a crescent wrench and hack her wheels, so she was able to never have to learn.
But she didn’t.
And then an improbable thing happened last week. Now she’s trying with the training wheels on a real bike. I don’t even know who this child is anymore.
My role in this? Getting out of the way and not giving advice.
My thesis is:
It’s hard to know
what you’ll need to know
in order to know
what you’ll need to know.
No one can tell you how to ride a bike. You’re just going to have to figure out that bikes are cool, you fall down a lot for awhile, and then you get to ride wherever you want.
But I don’t have a pamphlet for that. That’s going to make that fun when you’re falling on your ass.
Sometimes you’ve got to get out of the way. But you still need that curiosity.
Don’t be afraid to repot yourself. Somebody is going to repot you. Days will come along and something stupid is going to happen. Someone will die, a building will blow up, insurance didn’t work out. Stuff is going to change. And it’s going to get dumb.
And you’re going to have to repot yourself. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. And it’s a question of how ok it’s going to be when you land.
And that’s why I say:
It’s hard to know
what you’ll need to know
in order to know
what you’ll need to know.
It pays to stay curious.
Even especially in the things you don’t know you’re curious about yet.
Thank you, Merlin.