How to Be Good

by F.

I'm not sure whether stars are born or made, or both, but the current thinking suggests that a large part of stardom is made—self made. It seems we often discount factors like hard work or luck when trying to explain why someone is good as something. There's nothing we can do about luck, but hard work is something of which most of us are capable. But hard work is not enough. Working hard is not working smart. So how do you work smart?

I think it is something like this.

First, there has to be a goal, a vision, or some ideal against which you can judge yourself. Call this G. G can be actual or hypothetical, but when first learning a skill, I think it is probably more useful to have an actual G against which your work can be compared. A G like "to be the greatest writer in the world" or "to be a star" are not useful because you might not know if you got there or, if you don't get there, how far away you are.

Second, you have to try to reach G. The attempt is usually your work. Call this W.

Third, you have to determine, objectively, how close you are to G. That is, What is the difference between W and G? This requires radical honesty if it is not obvious what the differences are between W and G. Here are two examples.

You do a Soduku Puzzle. There is a correct answer to the puzzle and you can find out the correct answer.

You Draw a Realistic Picture. There is no single correct answer here. G is to make a drawing that "looks like" the subject. But the criteria for "looks like" are not particularly clear. Because of this, you have to be much more honest about whether you got close to G or not.

Fourth, if you haven't reached G, you need to have the knowledge and skill to close the gap between W and G. This requires some sub-skills. For instance, you have to determine why W is not like G—what exactly is wrong? Where is the error? Then you have to figure out how to fix that problem. And you have to have the skill to do so. Skill can be mental or physical. Here are two examples.

You lack the mental skill. You want to multiply two three-digit numbers in your head but you don't do this sort of calculation often and don't have a process for doing so. You lack the mental skill. It doesn't mean you are dumb. It just means that you don't have the skill.

You lack the physical skill. You want to be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours. But you haven't trained. You can try it, and you might succeed if you are a freak of nature, but most likely you lack the physical skill necessary to reach G (which is "to run a marathon in under 3 hours.")

Fifth, you repeat this process over and over and over until you get to G.

What if you can't get there?

  • You may need to revise G to make it closer to W. You may need to focus on lesser G in order to, later, get to your original G.
  • You may need more physical or mental skill.
  • Or, you may be incapable of getting that amount of skill. For instance, I will never be able to run a 3 minute mile. It just can't happen because of my age and genetics. So I have to be honest about my abilities and then revise G so that it's something I can achieve—say, a 6 minute mile.
  • You may need to be more honest about how close you are to G. It's easy to deceive yourself because it can feel good. But if you really want G, then you have to be radically honest about how much you fall short.
  • You may need to understand better how G works, what it's components are, so you can identify them and figure out how to close the gap between W and G. Break large things into smaller parts, then work on one part at a time.

All this takes a large amount of honesty and honesty is emotionally hard. We are born to lie—to ourselves and especially to others.

It is interesting that companies stress being honest about weaknesses and stregths, and yet corporate environments are built on and reward constant duplicity. One might even say that most organizations are not "learning organizations" but "lying organizations."