Saturday, March 28, 2015

Just How Good Are You?

     Time was, an American was reluctant to “talk himself up:” i.e., to boast openly to others about his abilities or achievements. These days, the reverse ethic is in force. At least, I often hear other people boasting about this or that under conditions where the “aw shucks” / toe rubbed in the sand response of earlier generations would have been regarded as near to obligatory.

     This has some distressing consequences. For one thing, it tends to alienate others who have a reasonably good opinion of themselves. For another, boasting routinely elicits boasting, and anyone with the slightest acquaintance with positive feedback knows how destructive that can be.

     No, this won’t be another sermonette on humility. The subject is on my mind for other reasons.

     Are you good at what you do? I’m pleased to hear it, but allow me to ask a question: How do you know?

     Most of us are competent, or perhaps slightly better, at what we’ve made our occupations. That’s a survival necessity. Even the most ramified division-of-labor economy requires that you be able to do something of value to others well enough to get paid for it. (Let’s agree to omit consideration of those whose survival skill is wheedling charity out of others.) But that makes competence-or-a-little-better the very definition of mediocrity.

     Let’s imagine for a moment that you were to become determined to find out exactly how good you are at your trade. What metric would apply? Can you think of an absolute standard against which to measure yourself? I can’t. Among other things, most human qualities are immensurate. They simply can’t be expressed in numbers, and as Robert A. Heinlein has told us, if it cannot be expressed in figures, it’s merely someone’s opinion.

     That throws us back to relative measures: “how good you are” as a ranking against others who do the same thing. How would you go about determining that?

     That’s not quite as tough a nut to crack, at least when the sample space and the skill in question are closely defined. But there’s still a lot of fuzz on it. It’s inherently imprecise. It’s driven by a variable set of performances. It’s dependent on the opinions of some evaluator who might have considerations in mind that another evaluator would dismiss.

     The subject should make a thoughtful man uncomfortable about having it brought up in his presence. All the same, there are times when there’s no way to avoid it—and the verdicts issued at such times can have a large impact upon one’s life and mental health.

     I’m about to retire from my lifelong trade. I’ve made decent money at it, and I’ve had a good time doing so. I expect to miss it at least somewhat when I down tools for the last time. What I won’t miss is the annual demand that I justify my continuing employment.

     A lot of employers, perhaps most of them, put their employees through that wringer. It’s usually called something more benign, such as a performance appraisal. The very cruelest version compels the employee to evaluate himself, a double-bind if ever there was one. It practically forces him to boast about what he’s done over the evaluation interval, at least if he’s hoping for a merit raise atop the perpetuation of his job.

     I hate it. I’ve always hated it—and I’m one of the lucky ones who, except for one case in which my employer collapsed, has never had to worry about continuing to draw a salary. So in recent years I’ve rebelled against it. No, not by refusing to fill out the forms or attend the review. I chose another approach. For each question on the form that asked me to assess myself in some particular way, I inserted the following sentence:

I should not be the one to answer this. Talk to my customers.

     The first two times I did that, it earned me the proverbial hairy eyeball from my supervisor. He would ask, usually in tones that implied severe negative consequences for non-cooperation, why I thought I could get away with it. I gritted my mental teeth, smiled pleasantly, and replied thus:

I could tell you anything at all. Without input from my customers you would have no alternative but to accept it. Have you talked to them? If so, what did they say? If not, why not? Are you afraid of what you’d hear? I’m not.

     After the second iteration of that “procedure,” word got around. Don’t challenge him. He’ll make you feel like an incompetent idiot, and he’ll do it with a smile. Inasmuch as most persons in a supervisory position don’t enjoy feeling incompetent or idiotic, I got no more grief about it after that.

     The unspoken implication of my rejoinder was, of course, that the evaluation is the supervisor’s duty. That implies a responsibility to collect as much relevant data as he can. But most supervisors dislike that responsibility just as much as they dislike feeling incompetent. There’s a good reason: they’re the same thing.

     I’d love to see the boasting plague ended now and forever. It reeks of a “measuring contest.” It calls to mind an image of two Neanderthals roaring at one another over an open fire while brandishing their favorite antelope femurs. The return of proper outward modesty might even be accompanied by a renewed inward willingness to reflect upon one’s essential smallness. that would conduce to a number of other benefits, both individual and social.

     Socrates is reputed to have said “Only one thing do I know, and that is that I know nothing.” It might be apocryphal; many statements attributed to the great departed can’t be verified. But it’s true even so. The greatest savants of the ages were aware that however much they knew, however much they had achieved, was minuscule compared to the immensity of reality—of Truth. It wasn’t until many centuries later that Kurt Godel proved that this is unavoidable, but the wisest among us have known it even so.

     Unfortunately, we won’t enjoy such a retrenchment toward modesty while the incentives to boast remain as strong as they are. There are legal structures behind those incentives. So I won’t be holding my breath. I will, however, enjoy having been released from their grip.

     Braggadocio is at the heart of many a social malady. Among those worst afflicted by it, it often leads to violence. All the same, it’s a symptom of a deeper lack, usually the lack of a worthy hero one can admire and strive to emulate.

     Think about the behavior of celebrities. Of entertainers. Of contemporary sports figures. Of politicians, as painful as that may be. In the absence of better heroes—men of achievement who were raised to glory by others, but who remained modest and quiet even while being celebrated—young men will emulate that sort of behavior. The consequences are in plain sight.

     This is one of the influences most responsible for making the world what it is. It’s a great part of the reason why I write fiction. One recent story was propelled by that and nothing else.

     Just a morsel of food for thought on an unexpectedly snowy Saturday.

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