Things Worth Knowing Well, Things Worth Knowing Poorly

Last week I asked you which skills were worth knowing, even poorly. I got a lot of responses, from martial arts to programming, and sketching to survival skills.

Although the poll didn’t bring up any clear consensus responses, I find it hard to argue against almost any individual suggestion. The truth is, most things are worth learning, even poorly. Perhaps the quote I led with by Kato Lomb is simply false.

However, one of the things that did strike me was that most people simply picked things based on there personal experience learning that thing, or their interest in it. That’s a fine way to start a brainstorm, but perhaps there are some intellectual tools we can use to examine the issue more closely?

Which Kinds of Things Are Worth Knowing Well?

The problem, admittedly, with my poll is that the question I posed was open enough to accept almost any answer with a reasonable justification. I had hoped to illuminate a contrast between things worth knowing well and things worth knowing poorly, but a lot of the difficulty in showing that was how I asked the question.

Instead, let’s rephrase:

Clearly some things are more valuable to learn than others, independent of your personal interest. Literacy is more valuable than sculpture, and programming is more useful than Latin (assuming you don’t harbor a secret passion for clay or dead languages).

This is a first way to break down skills—by how useful they are to learn. Many of the skills listed in my previous post were of this kind. Things sufficiently worth knowing that even having a poor level of ability is valuable.

However, I want to focus on a different, more subtle, distinction. Imagine we take two skills that have approximately equal usefulness. Now compare those two skills and ask where the value comes: does most of the value come from the basics or does it come from mastery?

I may be reading too far into Lomb’s quote, but this was the critical point I inferred from her writing. Languages are useful things to know. But they are also things that tend to yield a fair amount of their rewards from simply attaining a basic level. The level of language that can be learned in three months is less valuable than the level one can achieve after three decades, but the former still yields a reasonable payoff.

This payoff of adequacy versus mastery is probably different depending on the language. Fifty hours of Spanish study let me stumble through some basic conversations, whereas one hundred hours in Chinese was still painfully difficult to speak. However, in general, I’d argue that you’ll get a lot more out of a few months of language study than a few months of most other skills of similar overall value.

What’s an example of a skill which doesn’t have this kind of payoff chart?

I’m sure I’ll get some angry rebuttals in the comments for this one, but I’m going to say computer programming.

If we’re evaluating programming and language learning by the first metric—are they valuable enough that they are worth learning, even poorly, there’s a case to be made that both programming and language learning fall into that category.

However, if we’re arguing along the second line, that the majority of their respective payoffs comes from adequacy or mastery, I wouldn’t put computer programming in the adequacy camp.

A Tale of Two Languages

What makes programming different? I see two reasons, one is economic, the other is technical.

First, the economic reason. For most people, programming is a way of doing work. Either you work directly as a developer, or (like me) you make use of programming to help you do things in an unrelated line of work (like blogging).

In the first case, adequacy just doesn’t cut it. Great coders can earn significant salaries, but mediocre coders are fairly cheap. You won’t get rich writing merely adequate code, you have to be an expert.

In the second case, adequacy rarely justifies the cost. I do use my programming skills occasionally, but generally if a project gets more complicated than a small script, it makes more sense to hire someone to build it (or look for a pre-built solution) than to hack something together myself.

In both cases, the payoff tends to come from being a particularly good programmer, not someone who merely knows the basics.

The other reason has to do with the technical differences between human and computer languages. A fluent speaker is only moderately more productive in the act of communication than someone who has an intermediate level. There are many things in Spanish that take me longer to explain than they would in English, but, I’d guess, if you average out all my interactions they aren’t considerably slower than a fluent speaker.

This is quite different from the difference between a “fluent” programmer and a novice. The master programmer can be orders of magnitudes more productive, perhaps accomplishing the same task in a tenth of the time. This is because programming languages utilize layered abstraction to make ever-increasing complexity possible. That increased complexity gives added power to great programmers, but it also means there is more to learn for novices.

Some people will argue that programming helps with logical thinking, even if you don’t actually write any code. Although I’d love for this to be true, I’m skeptical. My sense is that programming teaches you a certain way of thinking, which can be useful outside of programming. But so does marketing, entrepreneurship, biology, physics and music. It’s not clear to me that, if you never touch a line of code, that the “programming” mentality is inherently more worth learning than these other ones.

One could argue that this programming mentality helps with using computers, therefore packing in more rewards for mere adequacy and shifting the balance away from mastery. But I know many computer science professionals who are only so-so with gadgets and non-programmers who are wizards, so I’d say the jury is still out.

Remember this doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to learn the basics of programming. Skills of high absolute value are worthwhile even if their payoff curve is shifted more towards mastery than adequacy. I did the MIT Challenge largely because of what I believe to be programming’s absolute usefulness, even if more of that value comes from mastery than other skills.

Choosing Adequacy or Mastery

Whether a skill reaps disproportionate rewards for mastery or adequacy also depends on what you do with the skill. I don’t work as a programmer, so my payoff curve for learning about programming is shifted more towards adequacy than it is for, say, the psychology of learning and memory (which is more important for my core business). The opposite would probably be true of a professional software developer.

Ultimately it’s a combination of intended use, personal interest and technical details of the topic itself which determine whether a skill rewards more for adequacy or mastery. What might be worth only the basics to one person could be worth devoting a lifetime to another.

For those of you who submitted responses to the previous post (or thought about the question of what’s worth learning, even poorly), where do you feel your previous suggestions sit? Do you feel the skills you suggested are ones which get a lot of benefit just from having the basics? Or are they skills where most of the total value comes from the long process of mastery?