I was totally going to post about something entirely different, and then I saw an essay linked from Making Light which blew my mind, so I'm talking about that instead.
When asked for advice a while back, siderea came up with
Never identify with your virtue or lack thereof. That way lies compulsive rigidity and painful blindspots that lead one to walk off cliffs. Should you think of yourself as a "bad person", the problem is not in failing to think of yourself as a "good person", its in trying to categorize people as good or bad.
Which I thought was pretty sound and elegantly phrased.
This oldish LJ post by celandine13
points out a similar fallacy in thinking about competence, as well as virtue. Delightfully titled: Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity
, I do recommend it. I definitely like the idea of a debugging metaphor for learning a skill, because it gets away from the talent vs practice frame. I mean, people can argue endlessly about whether something is a matter of innate talent or whether it's a craft that you have to work at, but both of those risk invisibly assuming that "good at" a skill or not is something that you are
, part of your identity.
I like that celandine13
provides concrete examples from music practice, because part of the problem is that simply determining to work at something isn't very useful unless you have a concrete idea of what work consists of. And yes, a debugging mindset may well be more productive than just doing the same wrong thing repeatedly. For me personally, learning to play the piano moderately badly was one of the most useful parts of my education, because it taught me how to learn, how to build a skill that didn't at all come naturally to me. Which was extremely valuable when I started trying to do science at a level where it's actually hard, even when I'm generally successful at absorbing and retaining complex information in an academic setting.
I also find her thoughts specifically about education and training highly relevant, and likely to be very useful to me as a teacher. It ties into the stuff about praise I learned when I was trying to take that pedagogy course: praising learners for being good at something doesn't help them improve and can even make them worse in the long term, because their sense of self is challenged every time they find something difficult or perform less than perfectly. Educationalists such as Dweck argue that you should praise learners for the effort they put into succeeding at something, so that their achievement becomes the thing they did rather than who they are.
But then the second half of the post, bam, it broadens out into talking pretty much about life. It's not a matter of being less stupid or less lazy, it's a matter of debugging the process that is causing you to make errors and not grasp a subject or excel at a skill. Circling back to siderea
's good advice, I am very seduced by the idea that virtue is also a skill or a practice. (I got a very positive response when I mentioned casting happiness
as work, too.) And as such, it makes sense to debug
the underlying issues that cause you to sometimes act against your moral code, rather than just working very hard at being
a better person.