“He began to wonder whether we could ever make psychology so absolute a science that each little spring of life would be revealed to us. As it was, we always misunderstood ourselves and rarely understood others. Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
—Oscar Wilde, A Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde could pack a library into a sentence; and this passage sends my mind off running in multiple directions.
First I am reminded of a book I read long ago: Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. In one section, he talks about the mysterious phenomenon of expertise. How do you become an expert? There is the well-known answer, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, that becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. When you pass that threshold, something strange happens.
Foer demonstrates this with a memorable example: chicken sexers. These are the people who examine the rear ends of baby chickens to determine whether they are male or female. (The unfortunate males are dropped down a chute where they are killed. Males are expendable, unluckily for me.)
The task is astoundingly difficult; professionals need to train for years to achieve the required accuracy. But when they do achieve mastery, they are able to see things that others cannot see, and they themselves can hardly articulate. Ask them to explain how they know one chick is female and not male (says Foer), and they will not be able to put their knowledge into words.
This is a universal experience. Teaching and doing are two entirely separate skills. Experts are often not great explainers; and great teachers are sometimes middling performers. Have you ever tried to learn something—playing an instrument, for example—from a real master? Or just somebody far better than you? Have you ever tried to teach a beginner how to do something you’re quite good at?
In these situations, the famous difference between knowing how and knowing that is manifest. I can tie my shoes without looking, but if I tried to explain the steps, I’d probably confuse myself.
Expertise is the product of experience. And experience, as Wilde points out, is just another name for our mistakes. This is easy to forget. A student won’t get better at anything unless she—or an expert teacher—critiques her performance and point out areas that can be improved. Simply strumming a guitar won’t make you Jimi Hendrix, and writing in a diary won’t make you Shakespeare.
Expertise requires that we judge what we do, and then constantly strive to do better. This is what separates training and doing, practicing and performing. In the former, we are self-critical.
Wilde brings in an interesting moral dimension to this notion when he says that experience has no “ethical value.” By that, I think he means that we cannot learn to become a good person simply by doing things. The ethical value comes from us. We need to apply some sort of criterion to our experience; we need to judge right and wrong, better and worse, desirable and undesirable. These judgments are themselves not products of experience; they are applied to experience.
We learn to be good by making mistakes and getting better at judging what is right and wrong, in just the same way that we learn to play piano by making mistakes and learning to recognize what sounds better and worse. Moral expertise is in principle no different from musical expertise: we learn from recognizing our own errors.
Wilde wonders whether we can “make psychology so absolute a science so that each little spring of life would be revealed to us.” I can’t predict the future, but there does seem to me something mysterious about expertise. How can we do something without being able to explain what we’re doing? How can conscious training create unconscious mastery? What is happening in the brain when we get better at something? Can mastery ever be distilled into a book of rules and precepts?
Lastly, there is his comment about “always misunderstanding” ourselves and “rarely understanding” others. It is so true that the motives of others often seem crystal clear, while our own remain deeply mysterious. Some perspective is needed to understand a person, and that is just what we lack when it comes to ourselves. And this lack of perspective on ourselves is one of the things that makes self-study so difficult. If we cannot see ourselves objectively, how can we accurately understand what we need to improve?