Tech Life A pleasantly aspirational idea

The Illusion of Competence

My favorite moment playing hockey is literally a moment. The puck gets passed to me just behind the net, I look up across and I ask myself a simple question, “Hmmm, what am I going to do here?”

In less than an instant, I do the following:

  • Who are the two closest players on the opposing team? What is my impression of them? What are their weakness?
  • What is the right path to start my approach? Charge down the middle? Hang right? Hang left? What are likely obstacles in each direction?
  • How fast? Sprint now or wait until I have more data?

And I execute. Cut back behind the net because Eli, their forward is sloppy at right turns and is left-handed. Sprint — because there is room mid-rink.

The plan is never executed as I expect because in hockey everything changes in a moment. So I get to do it all again “Hmmm, what am I going to do here?” Melissa, my forward, is ahead of the play and, wow, can she skate, but remember – left handed. Lead her a bit and then bolt to her left because she’s going to need an outlet pass in about seven seconds.

The outside observer sees none of this. They see a singular fluid motion as I travel from one end of the rink to the next, they nod their head and think, “He makes it look so easy.”

Let’s be abundantly clear. I am a nerd and that means for most of junior high and high school, the idea of team sports gave me the shakes. I much preferred the anonymous confident solitude of video games and BBSes. I ran cross country and I did some swimming, but neither of those involved anything resembling teamwork. You ran, you swam. Someone added up the points and declared a school the winner.

Do you know what I did in order to appear competent at hockey? I played a lot of fucking hockey — for years. Now, I do have NADD which means I have a singular ability to apply myself to understanding a thing, but it was still months before I could skate with any sort of competence and it was years before I performed anything resembling a move on the rink.

That’s the illusion of competence. By making it look easy, you fool them into thinking it’s not hard. And that’s a pleasantly aspirational idea. The idea that there is somehow magic that is going on to make the complex simple.

But it’s always hard work.

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3 Responses

  1. benedict 6 months ago

    At Stanford they called this “Duck Syndrome”. (“Everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.”, http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/academicskillscoaching/why-does-the-duck-stop-here/)

    I like the description of what’s going through your head at that moment. It’s really satisfying to get to a point of enough skill at any sport where you can even start to think about stuff like that, as opposed to eg focusing mainly on not falling over.

  2. A friend of mine pointed out the vast number of questions on Quora that are seeking the “magic” that is going on to make money, or make a company successful, or to be highly skilled in a discipline (e.g. “What should I know to become a millionaire by age 30?” or “What do I need to say to get VC funding?” or “How do I get hired as a software engineer by Google?”).

    I wish I could point them all at this answer describing the hard work that translates into the illusion of competence. My personal sports analogy is in biking – I’ve seen questions on a biking list I’m on where somebody asks for the secret to doing a climb of 2000 vertical feet. And there is no secret – you get on your bike, and you climb as far as you can, and you take a break, and you keep going. And the next time you can get a bit farther before a break. And eventually you can do 2,000 (or 10,000 or 20,000 vertical feet). But there is no secret other than continuing to go out there for years trying to improve. Or maybe that is the secret.