Dormant skills

Pitfalls in thinking about human potential

♾ phil

I often find extremely productive individuals around myself and all over the internet. For obvious reasons, I wonder what is it going to take for me to be in the same league. More recently, I came across this episode from the Pessismists Archive, Do We Lose Skills Because of Technology? which got me thinking about this in terms of skill.

Feifer (the podcast host), discusses this from the perspective of two primates — chimpanzees and bonobos, both genetically similar to each other, and to humans too. Chimpanzees are extremely proficient at using tools for food, e.g. using sticks to extract termites/fish, sponges to soak up water, and so on. Bonobos, on the other hand, mystically do not use such tools for eating at all, despite very similar genetic make up. They are, however, quick to adapt and imitate when placed alongside chimpanzees using tools for food. Evidently, bonobos are perfectly capable of using tools for eating, but just do not. An explanation is that historically, bonobos have lived in an environment of food abundance. They simply do not require tools.

Flexing the imagination a little, I conjecture that humans too have dormant skills. Individuals, as a consequence of their environment and personal goals, just do not end up picking up the same skills. The dormant skills should come alive given that the two pre-conditions are satisfied:

(i) a directed effort to develop the skill,

(ii) a friendly environment where those skills can be put to test.

Most individuals are adept at (i), and is obvious. Very few, however, are lucky enough to just get many variables right for (ii) to happen. The keyword there is friendly. David Epstein talks about “kind” and “wicked” learning environments in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In wicked domains, the rules are unclear, it is hard to find repetitive patterns, and feedback is delayed/inaccurate. We certainly want to avoid such environments.

This is a reminder for myself always to think in terms of both (i) and (ii). Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I want to avoid the pitfall of only considering (i). The productivity and success of my contemporaries is at least a two-dimensional quantity.