Saturday, March 28, 2015

Just How Good Are You?

     Time was, an American was reluctant to “talk himself up:” i.e., to boast openly to others about his abilities or achievements. These days, the reverse ethic is in force. At least, I often hear other people boasting about this or that under conditions where the “aw shucks” / toe rubbed in the sand response of earlier generations would have been regarded as near to obligatory.

     This has some distressing consequences. For one thing, it tends to alienate others who have a reasonably good opinion of themselves. For another, boasting routinely elicits boasting, and anyone with the slightest acquaintance with positive feedback knows how destructive that can be.

     No, this won’t be another sermonette on humility. The subject is on my mind for other reasons.


     Are you good at what you do? I’m pleased to hear it, but allow me to ask a question: How do you know?

     Most of us are competent, or perhaps slightly better, at what we’ve made our occupations. That’s a survival necessity. Even the most ramified division-of-labor economy requires that you be able to do something of value to others well enough to get paid for it. (Let’s agree to omit consideration of those whose survival skill is wheedling charity out of others.) But that makes competence-or-a-little-better the very definition of mediocrity.

     Let’s imagine for a moment that you were to become determined to find out exactly how good you are at your trade. What metric would apply? Can you think of an absolute standard against which to measure yourself? I can’t. Among other things, most human qualities are immensurate. They simply can’t be expressed in numbers, and as Robert A. Heinlein has told us, if it cannot be expressed in figures, it’s merely someone’s opinion.

     That throws us back to relative measures: “how good you are” as a ranking against others who do the same thing. How would you go about determining that?

     That’s not quite as tough a nut to crack, at least when the sample space and the skill in question are closely defined. But there’s still a lot of fuzz on it. It’s inherently imprecise. It’s driven by a variable set of performances. It’s dependent on the opinions of some evaluator who might have considerations in mind that another evaluator would dismiss.

     The subject should make a thoughtful man uncomfortable about having it brought up in his presence. All the same, there are times when there’s no way to avoid it—and the verdicts issued at such times can have a large impact upon one’s life and mental health.


     I’m about to retire from my lifelong trade. I’ve made decent money at it, and I’ve had a good time doing so. I expect to miss it at least somewhat when I down tools for the last time. What I won’t miss is the annual demand that I justify my continuing employment.

     A lot of employers, perhaps most of them, put their employees through that wringer. It’s usually called something more benign, such as a performance appraisal. The very cruelest version compels the employee to evaluate himself, a double-bind if ever there was one. It practically forces him to boast about what he’s done over the evaluation interval, at least if he’s hoping for a merit raise atop the perpetuation of his job.

     I hate it. I’ve always hated it—and I’m one of the lucky ones who, except for one case in which my employer collapsed, has never had to worry about continuing to draw a salary. So in recent years I’ve rebelled against it. No, not by refusing to fill out the forms or attend the review. I chose another approach. For each question on the form that asked me to assess myself in some particular way, I inserted the following sentence:

I should not be the one to answer this. Talk to my customers.

     The first two times I did that, it earned me the proverbial hairy eyeball from my supervisor. He would ask, usually in tones that implied severe negative consequences for non-cooperation, why I thought I could get away with it. I gritted my mental teeth, smiled pleasantly, and replied thus:

I could tell you anything at all. Without input from my customers you would have no alternative but to accept it. Have you talked to them? If so, what did they say? If not, why not? Are you afraid of what you’d hear? I’m not.

     After the second iteration of that “procedure,” word got around. Don’t challenge him. He’ll make you feel like an incompetent idiot, and he’ll do it with a smile. Inasmuch as most persons in a supervisory position don’t enjoy feeling incompetent or idiotic, I got no more grief about it after that.

     The unspoken implication of my rejoinder was, of course, that the evaluation is the supervisor’s duty. That implies a responsibility to collect as much relevant data as he can. But most supervisors dislike that responsibility just as much as they dislike feeling incompetent. There’s a good reason: they’re the same thing.


     I’d love to see the boasting plague ended now and forever. It reeks of a “measuring contest.” It calls to mind an image of two Neanderthals roaring at one another over an open fire while brandishing their favorite antelope femurs. The return of proper outward modesty might even be accompanied by a renewed inward willingness to reflect upon one’s essential smallness. That would conduce to a number of other benefits, both individual and social.

     Socrates is reputed to have said “Only one thing do I know, and that is that I know nothing.” It might be apocryphal; many statements attributed to the great departed can’t be verified. But it’s true even so. The greatest savants of the ages were aware that however much they knew, however much they had achieved, was minuscule compared to the immensity of reality—of Truth. It wasn’t until many centuries later that Kurt Godel proved that this is unavoidable, but the wisest among us have known it even so.

     Unfortunately, we won’t enjoy such a retrenchment toward modesty while the incentives to boast remain as strong as they are. There are legal structures behind those incentives. So I won’t be holding my breath. I will, however, enjoy having been released from their grip.


     Braggadocio is at the heart of many a social malady. Among those worst afflicted by it, it often leads to violence. All the same, it’s a symptom of a deeper lack, usually the lack of a worthy hero one can admire and strive to emulate.

     Think about the behavior of celebrities. Of entertainers. Of contemporary sports figures. Of politicians, as painful as that may be. In the absence of better heroes—men of achievement who were raised to glory by others, but who remained modest and quiet even while being celebrated—young men will emulate that sort of behavior. The consequences are in plain sight.

     This is one of the influences most responsible for making the world what it is. It’s a great part of the reason why I write fiction. One recent story was propelled by that and nothing else.

     Just a morsel of food for thought on an unexpectedly snowy Saturday.

11 comments:

Bruce Fauth said...

Thank you. You've said what I've been thinking for a long time. I want the Medal of Honor winner you never heard of as my hero, not some boasting athlete.

In re evaluations:

I work for myself (as a CPA, and even this time of year I ALWAYS take a moment to read your thoughts here each day). And since it is just me, my income is determined by the customers/clients.

The evaluation of how well I do is done by the clients. If they say I'm doing a good job, they do it by coming back again, and spread the word to others. I make a decent living without spending a dollar on advertising. My clients provide the performance review.

gamegetter II said...

I've done a variety of things for a living,spent the longest in two totally different fields.
The first was 20 years-or so,as a professional chef.
In that particular field,it used to be that there was very little of the boasting bullshit going on-the food that came out of the kitchen you were in charge of was the way in which it was determined how good you were at your chosen trade.
Now we have talentless idiots with their own "cooking" shows.
My wife watches a lot of such shows,and I've yet to see a person who could survive running the kitchen at a private country club,or a 4 star hotel. There's maybe 3 who would have a slight chance-the rest are nothing more than hacks who tweak recipes they've found in cookbooks and claimed them as their own "original" creations.
The other field I had a career in is the building trades,mostly framing,drywalling,siding,installing windows and doors,and to a lesser extent-mostly because I suck at it-installing interior wood trim in new homes new homes.
Used to be you were judged by the quality of the homes you built.
Now any idiot an have a TV show,and claim to be a carpenter-there are exactly 3 who I would consider carpenters-Norm Abrams of This Old House and New Yankee Workshop,Tom Silva,also from this old house,and Mike Holmes,from Holmes on Homes-he's Canadian-but he does shit right.
The rest of them are unskilled hacks,especially those on all the shows about flipping houses.

You have it exactly right when you say-"talk to my customers".

For the past few years,I've mainly been doing repairs and maintenance for a couple of condo complexes,plus any other jobs I can fit in my schedule.

I have old customers calling constantly 4 just this week,two of those four were from 7-8 years ago-and of all the guys in the greater Cleveland Ohio area they have to choose from-gotta be over 500-they called me-again.

I would say that means my work is good,my customers are happy.
So I'm as good as most,better than some.
That's how I look at,because no matter the trade-there's always people better at it than you are.

Malatrope said...

Customers being happy is a very good measure (the best) except that in many fields there are no real "customers" except the guys at the next stage of the development. I know that I am good by the patents on my wall, and by the systems I have designed and built which went head-to-head against the best in the world and beat them by large amounts. In one case, I made an expensive, two-week-long multishift inspection process (think airplane manufacture) into a simple afternoon operation, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per product. If you don't have "customers", all you have left is to measure yourself against the competition.

I always strove to be somewhere in the top ten globally. In my somewhat abstruse areas of expertise, it happened that the total number of people who could even discuss them was somewhere under a hundred, so that wasn't too tough!

Whatever you try to do, just try to be the best there is. I can't think of a better work ethic in any field. Just always remember that the entire reason you have work to do is because there is a need, and if that need goes away because you're a jerk then you'll be figuring out these EBT card thingeys...

Andrew_M_Garland said...

How you feel about your abilities and errors is a good indicator of your skill. A highly competent person understands his errors and has empathy for other people who have had to endure them. This motivates him to learn more and not repeat mistakes or near misses. He understands that professions and tasks outside his field involve skill and experience which he doesn't have.

A person of average competence sees errors as unavoidable and nothing to worry about. He sees things as not his fault, because everyone is imperfect. He believes that he knows enough, and thinks that he can do everything as well as people who specialize in a subject. He wonders why most problems in life haven't been solved already. (Obama is an example.)

The Solution Is Simple

Dunning-Kruger effect: The hubris of the incompetent.
Motto: I could do that better than you, if I wanted to.
=== ===
Wikipedia [edited]: The Dunning–Kruger effect is a bias in thinking. People may make bad choices and be incompetent to realize it.

The unskilled overrate their own ability as above average. The highly-skilled underrate their abilities, often below the self-rating of the unskilled.
=== ===

Ownerus said...

I've spent much of the last 40 years in new product design. Original designs of things from construction equipment to prison locks and door operators to sewing accessories and often the tooling to produce them. I like to think I'm fairly good at it but have asked that same question, "how do I know?" A number of my designs have seen production. A couple continue in production after 10 and 20 years. A series of products I manufacture myself receive kind praise from customers and slowly growing sales volume. I guess that means in my little world I'm fairly good at what I do. The REAL tell is that with all that and $2.50 I can get a cup of coffee at my local cafe.
The one thing I DO know, the older I get the better I was ;^)

Reg T said...

At the VA, we nurses (as well as other employees, I'm told) had to write up our own "Gold Star Essays" for our performance appraisals. It _really_ sucked, especially if you were the least bit modest.

"Inasmuch as most persons in a supervisory position don’t enjoy feeling incompetent or idiotic, I got no more grief about it after that."

I did. I caused the Director of our VA Medical Center to be caught in telling a lie. Afterwards, he had the gall to tell me I could either tender my resignation or he would put a letter into my personnel file that would ensure I would never get hired again at any VA.

He also advised me that anyone who was discovered to have given me a good evaluation when contacted would find themselves working under the most unpleasant conditions he could manage to arrange for them. Knowing I would not risk having that happen to my co-workers (part of the reason he and I locked horns in the first place), I refrained from doing so.

About two years after I quit there to travel around the country, I chose to settle down in Montana. One attempt at a job at another VA in Bozeman, MT proved that - for once, at least - he was a man of his word.

Fortunately, I didn't need the job, just wanted to go back to helping my fellow veterans. So, I stayed retired.

Anonymous said...

I have been working for a large prominent hospital since 2000. From 2000 to 2007 I worked in the emergency room and my annual reviews were performed by my manager and were fairly painless. The manager evaluated my performance on how I was observed to have done, did I meet required goals, peer and customer feedback.

In 2007 I was asked to join the informatics team to be a part of the electronic medical record project for the hospital. I was one of four representing the emergency center. I remain in a support position today.

In 2008 the hospital institued a "PMP" process of evaluation that required the employee to be in integral part of the evaluation. It involves this feel good, "toot your horn" method. I loath this process and this is actually the only part of my job I put sub optimal effort into. I have even asked to opt out of it in lieu of not being considered for performance raises.

It is generally my belief that this process only exists to justify the positions of the managers.

Anonymous said...

I work for myself, as a number of the responders here seem to. My clients call me back, and I have many long-term repeat customers. In my estimation, to be above-average at what one does requires only a few things. It of course requires competence...a tall order for some. Beyond competence, if we're talking about "work" versus "competition" (in the sporting sense, e.g. the Fiber Channel Olympics), the most important attributes one can have are adaptability, thoroughness, and geniality.

Adaptability allows one to apply their skills in novel situations. Thoroughness ensures that the job is complete, including the details, and not simply "good enough". And finally, geniality, which is more important for an independent. Clients return to contractors who are good AND likeable. This doesn't mean one needs to be obsequious, or a yes-man, just that they be somewhat cheerful and polite in the course of dealings with clients. Degrees of gruffness are even tolerable, as long as a streak of geniality remains.

Many people are competent, they can essentially get the job done. Getting the job done, even when it's a challenge, tending to the details, and doing it with a smile, THESE are the things that set one out from the crowd.

Reg T said...

Anon at 1025,

At the VA, we figured the reason for having the employee write it up was because it saved the supervisor from having to do it her/himself. They could then simply "yea or nay" what was written, adding a comment or two, and be done.

If they liked you, they used one or two positive adjectives or adverbs; otherwise it was one or two negative ones, and badda-bing, they were finished.

Anonymous said...

Reg T at 421

Same thing happens for us.

Usually the comment is "He/She is a great asset to the team. My go to person for issues." yada yada.

We generally have 10 objectives to meet. Management creates 5-6 team objectives and we have to create the remainder of the them and decide the measurements to obtain.

I still Loathe the process. I stress more over this than any other part of my job.

pdwalker said...

I should not be the one to answer this. Talk to my customers.

(semi)serious question. Isn't that a subtle form of boasting?

When you work directly for your customers, your ability to get paid, obtain future work and important future references depends entirely on getting the job and making the customer happy they engaged you over everyone else.

If you're good at what you do, your customers and the continuing employment of you by your customers will be boasting enough.