Being the Weak Link—The Superiority Trap—Learning Pirahã
I recently joined a recreation soccer league that plays out of Penn Park on Monday nights. I’m most probably the least skilled player on our team. There was a reason I quit soccer in 10th grade… I literally could not and still cannot dribble. And I still don’t quite understand why the term “nil” is used instead of “zero”.
Being one of the more inexperienced players on the team, I am reminded of my cortisol-infused memories of riding the bench and being the de facto carrier of water bottles and fetcher of balls.
I’m also reminded of what it feels like to be at the bottom of a group… to not play as much, to feel self-conscious and a little incompetent.
Inevitably we all find ourselves in positions like this. We’re at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, pecking order, dominance hierarchy, or some other relentlessly ordered social structure, often because we’re new to an organization, industry, or sport and need to learn the ropes first.
In this uncomfortable position, it’s not long before we start to ask ourselves: what’s the best strategy for advancing upwards? How can I become more competent, so I can have more responsibility and eventually, more authority?
I think these are important questions to answer because there are certainly strategies that are more effective than others, and definitely some traps you can fall into as well.
I'm Too Good For This
When you start out at the bottom, one such trap you can fall into is what I call the I’m too good for this trap.
The I’m too good for this trap happens when you look around at all of the people who are actually more skilled, more accomplished, or more experienced than you, and you feel a bit insecure, so you tell yourself a story about how superior you are—in your own special way—to compensate. It’s a bit of a defense mechanism.
You tell yourself you’re an under-recognized genius, that best practices and rules are for suckers, and that the more experienced experts don’t know anything.
This attitude is a trap because if you tell yourself that you already know everything, so that you can feel better about not actually knowing that much, you inadvertently close off your mind to actually learning from the experts who are better than you. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who was objectively unsuccessful at a particular craft but thought very highly of themselves. The latter attitude was probably causing the former results.
What if you take the opposite perspective? What if you embrace your inferiority, admit you know little, and open your mind to accept where and how you can improve?
You get a lot more room to run.
As Robert Greene puts it in his book Mastery (which is all about the process of developing expertise in a field):
“[W]hen you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship.”
How is this done in practice?
Revert to a Childlike Feeling of Inferiority
Consider the story of the linguist and missionary Daniel Everett.
In the 1970’s, he was tasked by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) to live with the remote Pirahã people of the Amazon to learn their language, a strange, every-word-sounds-the-same tongue no outsider had successfully learned before.
Everett’s initial strategy for studying these unique people and their language was highly observational and academic, as if he were a scientist studying exotic beetles. After all, this strategy had worked for prior languages. But this strategy was also closing-off his mind. The Pirahã were not research subjects to be coldly analyzed, but real people with a real culture—and a language that reflected that culture.
After a year of little progress, a frustrated Everett noticed the children around him learning the language much faster than he was. He guessed it was because they were truly immersed within the Pirahã culture, in fact helpless without it, while he remained aloof and isolated. In a way, he was stuck in the I'm too good for this trap. As Robert Greene writes of Everett:
“If he wanted to learn Pirahã as the children did, he would have to become like a child – dependent on these people for survival, participating in their daily activities, entering their social circles, feeling in fact inferior and in need of their support.”
Everett could no longer play the role of the superior Western scientist, studying the Pirahã from his academic tower.
So he started accompanying the men on hunting expeditions, understanding the origins of words and phrases that could only make sense in a hunting context. He participated increasingly in the village’s cultural activities. As he made greater progress in learning their language, the peculiarities of the Pirahã language started to make sense. They were merely a reflection of the Pirahã’s isolated environment and unique culture.
He eventually became the first non-native to learn Pirahã, though many before him had tried and failed. He was able to cross the chasm because he had finally embraced his position of inferiority and incompetence. He had admitted to himself his superior academic strategies weren’t so great after all; another approach was required. He had gotten off his high-horse to get his hands dirty.
Anderson: Don't put me on your perch, Mr. Ward.
Ward: Don't drag me into your gutter, Mr. Anderson!
These people are crawling out of the SEWER, MR. WARD! Maybe Anderson: the gutter's where we outta be!
—Mississippi Burning (1988)
As we find ourselves at square one without much competence in a skill or much authority in an organization, we have a choice to take the position of the smug and closed-off know-it-all, or the open-minded novice.
We may have to ask ourselves:
Am I willing to dive into the gutter, if that's what's required to make progress?
(1) Mastery, Robert Greene
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