Learning on the Fly

Cool post from Chris Brogan, who not only mentions Patton Oswalt, perhaps my favorite comedian, but also gets in some good thoughts about expertise and task learning:

The Internet and computers in general have opened us all up to opportunities to do what we want. Lowered prices on all kinds of things open this up, too. In my immediate vicinity, I have an electric guitar that I can play well enough for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t know you play guitar!” I also have two prosumer video cameras that I use regularly, whether or not I know how to do that well. I have Final Cut Pro X, so I can edit things rudimentarily. I have a blog (you’re here!), so I can publish. I write books, because hey, this computer has a typewriter. I have an MP3 recorder so I could do a podcast, if I wanted (I want to, but I have run out of hours).

We are quite often given the opportunity to do something we’re not qualified to do. We often take on projects we’re not qualified to take on. I do it all the time. I will sign up for something, learn that I have no idea how to do it the way I imagine it, and then I rush to learn how to accomplish something that will make my client feel I’ve delivered value. It’s exhilarating (which I’m not an expert in spelling, but blogging software now has spell check). And yet, I have to accept that I’m not an expert.

The takeaway:

Wait to be an expert? Never. Just don’t sell yourself like that, either. Instead, lead with your enthusiasm, and then make damned sure you deliver.

Let’s go be non-experts.

I’ll take off my typically very cynical hat and totally agree with this. Getting more comfortable with jumping into things headlong is part of growing up and it really rewarding a lot of the time.

What this really made me think of, though, is a discussion I’ve had a few times this semester with my roommates and my Dad. Growing up, I think children tend to have this idea that adults are generally on top of their shit and know what they doing (actually, in a marvelous coincidence, Patton Oswalt has a good bit that touches on this). But the more you get older, the more you (if you’re like me and some of my friends) realize that lots and lots of people just aren’t really with it, at least not on the level that you’d expect.

This dynamic comes out when you have to do group projects with kids who just don’t really care about the work or aren’t prepared. But it’s even more interesting when you meet people in the real professional world who don’t answer emails or are rude to you or aren’t communicative in the way you expect.

Recently, I applied for an internship doing political communication work, something that would really interest me. I sacrificed working in PRLab, my school’s student-staffed PR agency, in which I’d fulfill a supervising role, to apply for this internship, which was not a sure thing. I get called back and told I’m first in line for the internship, which was very cool. I then realize that the internship is unpaid (which is fine) and is in Washington, D.C. (which isn’t fine, because I go to school in Boston). The internship application letter, which was distributed to Boston schools, is for the office of Barney Frank but makes no mention of the fact that you have to be in D.C. to do the work. When I asked the guy on the phone about this, he kinda laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess we should’ve mentioned that.”

I’ve got no ill will about this (seriously, I don’t), in part because I was lucky enough to get my role back in PRLab. But I couldn’t help but think, “How can the guy creating that letter not think of mentioning that the role in Barney Frank’s office requires being in D.C.?” Especially when this is going out to kids in Boston.

At a certain time, I realized that all of the kids I grew up with and attend school with will become the adults that surround me. Lots of those kids are attentive, hard-working people. But many of them aren’t. It really is amusing to me, looking back at my idea of the Professional World™ from even a year or two ago and just how that’s been shattered.

Of course, being less critical and jaded, I can guess the reason that the guy controlling the internship applications didn’t think of this. It’s not because he’s dumb or inconsiderate or a bad professional. It’s because he’s overworked, concentrating on other things and probably put that application sheet together at the last minute. Nevertheless, I think if you’re sending an internship opportunity out to Boston University and that internship requires being located in Washington, that’s something you gotta mention.

As is the case so often, Bill Watterson says it better than I can:

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