Rick has been working with the web since 1995, covering aspects of web technology from front-end design to back-end development. This experience led to the understanding that a vital part of the industry was severely underserved: the systems used to manage content are not designed for the needs and processes of those who use them. His company, Excolo, specialises in the human and technical processes of content management.
Rick is the author of Author Experience: Bridging the gap between people and technology in content management.
Rick tweets in fits and spurts @think_info – mostly live from conferences.
The social conundrum
My life is a litany of abject failures. These have not been glory-and-spectacular-bust failures. They have invariably been miss-the-starting-line failures.
In my youth, I cycled everywhere; most of it was uphill. I built up muscle. I was also a good skier (all that off-season cycling…). Yet nothing came of that. For years, I blew away maths and physics teachers by being several years ahead of the learning curve… but no one would listen when I stretched to the interesting ideas.
Later, I wrote. Novels, generally fantasy. Besides one encouraging letter (from Terry Pratchett’s agent), no one would give me the time of day.
The foray into sales was… so unsuited to my personality that despite years of learning and training, I got exactly nowhere.
My more mainstream professional life in web and content management may appear successful. It has kept a roof over my head for more than 17 years. But in truth, it is as much a failure as the others: despite the plans and effort, there has been no growth. With the experience behind me and pushing into fields that are desperately important yet devoid of other participants, I flounder.
It does not matter how good I have been at these undertaking. In every case, they go nowhere.
Maybe if we look at my personal life? No. That is no better. I have no family, no partner, no close friends, and no social life. If I disappeared, I doubt anyone would notice for several months.
The sum of knowledge
For years, I have struggled with the mystery of why my life seems destined to go nowhere. I have picked at the question, hunted for solutions, sought counsel. But the problem seems intractable; a real Gordian knot. One for which there is no sword – no cheat that will circumvent it.
What I eventually found was an understanding of the shape of the issue; an explanation for the ever-tightening spirals that deny an unravelling.
When it comes to competence and skill there are two camps: those who believe people are born with innate abilities, perhaps genetic traits, and those who see that skill is the concentration of learning experience. When children grow up to be good at the things their parents excelled at, it is because they are in an environment where they are exposed to, interested in and practiced at those same things from an early age.
The generally accepted benchmark for expert proficiency is 10,000 hours of directed practice.
This tells us something very important: the sum total of a person’s possible skills and competences is directly proportional to their age. This potential can be wasted through undirected repetition, but you can only gain more through a longer life.
Now, I have exceeded (or come close) to that mark on three fronts: maths, writing, and web stuff.
Where it all goes wrong
Having achieved expert level in several areas, how can my life possibly be a series of go-nowhere failures? I have not invested any learning into activities such as drinking alcohol, or watching sports. Surely, one of these skills should have connected with an audience and produced some form of success…
But skills and expertise are of no value if they cannot be recognised. To be recognised, they need to be exposed to others. And exposing them is, itself, a skill: a catalyst.
I have next to zero experience in that catalyst field.
Without this ancillary skill, I could have the ideas and know-how to solve all the world’s problems: still nothing could come of it. (Large as my ego may be, I don’t pretend such omniscience.)
This principle is best summed up by a talk I heard some years ago (but cannot find now – I think it was a TED talk) about what it takes to start a new business. Any successful start-up has three key skills in its founders: technical competence, sales ability, and financial management. The key detail is that no one brings all three of these to the table.
If we look at the big tech success stories of the last few decades, they are always partnerships: Gates and Allen; Wozniak and Jobs; Page and Brin; Zuckerberg, Saverin, McCollum, Moskovitz and Hughes; Howery, Levchin, Musk, Nosek and Thiel. Even the lone wolf founder – Bezos – brought other talent on board to implement his ideas.
Many of the people in that list of founders were introverts, known for being socially awkward. But each team included someone who was outgoing: a social facilitator.
We live in a world where everything is based on social flow and interaction. No skills or talents truly matter: social competence is the universal lubricant. Without it, you can never get started. With it, you can go farther than you inabilities should allow. As such, those whose practice and skill-development goes into getting good at something, to the detriment of social graces, will forever be side-lined, despite the value they could bring.
Be the exit from the spiral
“Just go out and meet people,” others have advised me. “Just go to [place of choice]” (usually: the pub). That’s easy for them to say. They are able to meet people. They can start conversations. They find pubs interesting. This advice, for me, is counter-productive. The actions suggested make me less likely to be able to connect with people: I have no frame of reference to start a conversation with a random person, and pubs are about the most mindless place I can imagine (watching paint dry is far more exciting).
Everything suggests that this is a self-reinforcing situation: lack of social opportunity leads to lack of competence, leads to social activity being ever more painful to endure, leads to less opportunity. It’s something I can continue to work on, but there’s only so much one can change about oneself alone.
What I would ask of you is this…
Look around at the people you know. Do not assume they can overcome the challenges they face by doing things the way you would. Those ways may make no sense to them. Instead, partner your skills with theirs. Team up and make things happen.