Always Something More

As we learn a skill, then practice it for an extended period of time, it’s easy to become accustomed to our own capability. I’ve written elsewhere why taking something for granted is rarely constructive, and this is no exception. Sure, it’s great to know that we are competent, and once we have demonstrated competence for a while, it’s tempting to say that we have mastered our craft. Few fields, however, are completely developed, to the extent that no further innovation is possible. Years ago, I heard that this was true of the field of optics, but since then, further innovations have silenced such comments.

I look to  language as a model, and find that comparatives and superlatives are generally safe to use within a set, though globally, they often are not. When we have a closed system, such as a classroom of children, we can safely use comparative adjectives to describe them. For instance, “Thomas is short, but Rita is shorter. Kendra is shortest in the class, however.” Or “Dave has long hair, though Cindy’s is longer, but Cameron has the longest hair in the class.” Any time we step outside the hypothetical classroom, however, we will always be guessing. Cameron, for instance, may have had the longest hair in that class, but to say that she has the longest hair anywhere, compared to anyone, would be risky. it’s often not hard to find a counterexample, in this case, someone with longer hair.

It perhaps might seem frustrating to have to qualify every comparative or superlative statement we make, though we’re far more interested in mere linguistics and semantics, here. We care about behavior and influence, and linguistics have proven to have profound influence over both.

Let’s go back to the first paragraph above and specify that we’re talking about a technology. Once we have developed a strong proficiency with that technology, and we have demonstrated that skill for awhile, both those who observe us, along with ourselves, are tempted to say that we believe we have mastered the technology. But as with most other fields, there will likely be much further to learn. Competence might mean that we reliably can get good results as we use that technology, but it seems wise that we would qualify any statement of mastery. For instance, “I’m the BEST at x” is overused, and often meaningless. By definition, few among us can truly came to universally be the best at anything.  We might be the best in our city, our state, region, the country…or just the best in our particular clinic or office building. But once we say that we are the “best”, we invite challenge. Which itself is healthy. But consider what that statement does to us. As we think about our own proficiency with that technology, if we consider ourselves “the best”, where do we expect to grow? If we’re already the best, is it even possible to get better? Not by definition. That would be confusing the comparative with the superlative. If we were “the best as of 2014” or “the best in Texas”, we have somewhere to grow. 2015 brings new challenges and new opportunities to excel. We step out of Texas, and now we have new areas with new comparisons. We might still manage to be better than all other comers, but we can’t actually know that. Ever. “The best” or any other superlative, must be qualified in some fashion, or it invites the other person to mentally place an asterisk over it, with the simple disclaimer: ” * …so far… ”

Now let’s solely concern ourselves with the message we send our own brain with a superlative. We tell ourselves that we in essence know it all. We don’t direct ourselves to improve or refine our skill, as the implicit understanding is that we already are at the very pinnacle.

I like to preserve a degree of humility in my own attitude towards my skillsets. I’ve learned that if we don’t, life will occasionally, and often, per Murphy’s Law, at the worst possible time, remind us to be humble.  I might use a declarative statement in my own mind regarding my skills, such as “I am excellent in this area.” I’ve compared myself to no one, and I am open to becoming better. We guide our unconscious minds in many ways, not the least of which is the language we use. So in that example, I’ve owned up to what I know, I’m prepared to demonstrate it, and yet I’m also looking for enhancements, any improvements to my process. And there is always room for improvement. Unless of course you operate in a closed field as optics allegedly was. I say “humility” because nothing seems to make the aforementioned Murphy happier than waiting until the moment after a person calls himself “the best” at something before causing him to make a really dumb, amateur mistake. If we accept that, though we’re really good, we can always, as humans, make such mistakes, it ironically seems to prevent our making them.

Continual improvement is wise, and if you are willing to consider that there’s always something more to learn, you are priming your unconscious mind to seek that additional information out.

That’s “the best” advice you’ll find on the subject…in Texas!

Copyright © 2014 Chris Gingolph

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