Avoid the trap of pursuing excellence

I once read a good definition of aptitude. Aptitude is how long it takes you to learn something. The idea is that everybody can learn anything, but if it takes you 200 years, you essentially have no aptitude for it. Useful aptitudes are in the <10 years range. You have aptitude for a thing if the learning curve is short and steep for you. You don’t have aptitude if the learning curve is gentle and long.

Skills Studio thinks of aptitude as the same as innate ability.

How do you measure your innate ability? 

Things like standardized tests only cover narrow aspects of a few things. One way to measure it is in terms of the speed at which you can do a complete loop of production. Your innate ability is the rate at which this cycle speed increases. This can’t increase linearly though, or you’d be superhuman in no time. There’s a half life to it. Your first short story takes 10 days to write. The next one 5 days, the next one 2.5 days, the next one 1.25 days. Then 0.625 days, at which point you’re probably hitting raw typing speed limits. 

In practice, improvement curves have more of a staircase quality to them. Rather than fix the obvious next bottleneck of typing speed (who cares if it took you 3 hours instead of 6 to write a story; the marginal value of more speed is low at that point), you might level up and decide to (say) write stories with better developed characters. Or illustrations. So you’re back at 10 days, but on a new level. This is the mundanity of excellence effect and this is an essential part of mediocratization. Ironically, people like Olympic athletes get where they get by mediocratizing rather than optimizing what they do.


Excellence lies in avoiding the naive excellence trap.

This kind of improvement replaces quantitative improvement (optimization) with qualitative leveling up, or dimensionality increase. Each time you hit diminishing returns, you open up a new front. You’re never on the slow endzone of a learning curve. You self-disrupt before you get stuck. 

The interesting effect is that even though any individual smooth learning effort is an exponential with a half-life, since you keep skipping levels, you can have a roughly linear rate of progress, but on a changing problem. You’re never getting superhuman on any vector because you keep changing tack to keep progressing. 

Now we have a slightly better way to measure innate ability as the rate at which you level up, by changing the nature of the problem you’re solving (and therefore how you measure “improvement”).

 The interesting thing is, this is not purely a function not of raw prowess or innate talent, but of imagination and taste. Can you sense diminishing returns and open up a new front so you can keep progressing? How early or late do you do that? The limiting factor here is the imaginative level shift that keeps you moving. Being stuck is being caught in the diminishing returns part of a locally optimal learning curve because you can’t see the next curve to jump to.

The trap of being consumed with achieving excellence is something that can be all-consuming and it truly is a trap.

Colloquially it's called, "turd polishing". Simple truth is that you should learn to know when you have hit an acceptable quality, a level of excellence that is acceptable and adequate. Searching for ultimate excellence is a real trap, akin to Gartner's "Trough of Disallusionment", you are going down a rat-hole that will suck you dry.

Learn how to rule off the development effort based on médiocratisation. Which isn't to say mediocre is OK or even acceptable, but it is an option, and in many ways it is acceptable and perfectly adequate.

Definition of médiocratisation in the French dictionary:

The definition of mediocratization in the dictionary is in favor of the politics of the middle ground, of the government of the middle class. Government supporter of mediocre.

About the Author:

Greg Twemlow is a Sydney-based Social Enterprise Founder | Startup Mentor | CEO | Writer | Speaker | Designer at the Skills Studio

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