On polar and spectral thinking with regards to skills

When it comes to skills that people have, are you a spectral or a polar
thinker? If you agree or lean towards agreement on comments like:
“so-and-so is not a writer”, “he’s not a real
programmer/painter/carpenter/singer/mechanic”, “unless you are in the top
10%/ professiopnal/ graduated from school X, you cannot consider yourself
someone of profession Y”. In each case there is a sense of either-or, of
exclusion. You either are a particular role with a particular set of skills
or you are not.

I can understand that to a certain degree. I can’t say I am a skydiver or a
cook or a manager if I have never practiced any of those skills. But let’s
say that I have. Let’s say that I have made many a meal at home: Am I a

I would argue that am I, based on the spectrum view of skills. Every role
has skills associated with it. Those skills have varying degrees of
difficulty in acquiring. Some skills can be picked up right away. Others
take years to learn, if one ever learns them at all. You may learn enough
about cooking to feed you and your family. To me, that makes you a cook.
You may not be a professional cook nor one of the best chefs in the world,
but that should not exclude you from thinking you are a cook. Same hold
true for a lot of other roles.

Now you should not think that just because you are a cook or a writer or an
amateur carpenter that you are equivalent to everyone else who calls
themselves a cook. You are on one end of the spectrum, and they are on the
other end. However, with hard work, talent and luck, you can progress along
the dpectrum from one end to the other.

One thing I like about marathon running is that it is very supportive of
this idea. If you are fit enough to finish a marathon and you enter a big
city marathon like New York or London, you will be a) in the same race as
the best runners in the world and b) you will be considered a marathon
runner. People will support you and encourage you to do better. No one will
say: you aren’t in the top finishers so you aren’t a marathon runner.
Runners generally are supportive and inclusive of runners of all types. I
wish all professions were like this.

In the oriental martial arts, it was mostly the case that you were either a
white belt or a black belt. It was polar: you either were a black belt or
you weren’t. This gave way, at least in North America, to coloured belts:
yellow, green, brown, etc. This is more of the spectrum approach to skills,
and encouraged students not to give up by showing their progress as they
made their way from white to black belt.

I think it is important for people when they are starting out in acquiring
skills that they believe that they can acquire skills and that they can be
a carpenter or a cook or a writer or a computer programmer, and that even
if they are not the best in the role that they have chosen, that they still
can consider themselves to have the necessary skills to be that role an
do.worthwhile work. There is a place on the spectrum from the barely
knowledgeable to the elite, and by encouraging more people to think that
way, the overall contribution to society will be much greater than if we
have just a few practioners.

I think the polar approach discourages people from taking up certain
skills. I also believe that people are less supportive of the spectrum
approaches when it is hard to discern one person from another. Why don’t
the best marathon runners worry about being compared to me? It’s because
they can finish a marathon in just over 2 hours and I cannot. But with hard
work and some luck, I could get closer to them.

Thanks for reading this, and thanks very much if you have any comments.
Sent from my BlackBerry Handheld.

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