The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Kaizen in nonperforming expert actions

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Kaizen in nonperforming expert actions
I claim that experts (for the most part) aim to improve not only during practice, but during performance as well. Yet many expert endeavors do not readily divide up into practice and performance to begin with. For example, although one could say that the philosopher’s practice time occurred during the years of school leading up to the PhD, it would seem odd, at least to me, to say that now that I’ve been trained I am simply performing. Nonetheless, though one doesn’t have performances in philosophy or painting, for example (or if one does, they do not have the same significance as they would in sports and the performing arts) one still engages in ongoing activities that are taken on with the aim of improving one’s skill. And for the purpose of specifying just what I mean by “expert,” such activities count as practice.

For activities like painting and poetry, the expert still paints or writes at least sometimes with the aim of improving. And, again, aiming to improve in performance can be understood either as aiming to make that very performance better than prior performances. or aiming to make one’s performance of the actions better not immediately, but in the long term.

What are the activities that writers, scientists, painters and other such individuals engage in with the aim of improving their skill? Such activities are not limited to occasional writing workshops or classes on how to use the latest version of EndNote. These can be useful—and I should certainly enroll in more of them myself—but they are not the only means by which nonperforming and noncompetitive experts aim to improve their craft. Rather, those who I refer to as experts in these fields (as well as, indeed, fields that do divide into practice and performance) at times also aim to improve while performing the activities that compose part of their daily work. for example, one aims to improve in going back over a draft while trying not only making the draft better, but also to find ways in which one’s writing in general can improve and one’s understanding of a topic can deepen; this is part of the idea (mentioned in Chapter 3) that is captured in the official CUNY document that I sign off on every year, which states that “a full-time faculty member is expected to . . . constantly [make] all efforts to improve his/her professional standing through study and thought, and also through activities such as research, publication, attendance at professional conferences, and the giving of papers and lectures.”93 I typically don’t think much of bureaucratese, and I would substitute “skill” or “craft” or “ability” or even “self” for “professional standing” – but the bureaucrats have, this time, got something right, or at least nearly right: such activities are not done merely in order to meet expectations. It may be that early on in an academic career one performs such activities with the goal of achieving tenure. But tenure is only given to those who have internalized the struggle.

Or rather, this is ideally how it ought to work. In reality, in academia and elsewhere, the drive to excel does not always come from within. In youth, it may be supplied by a parent, teacher, or coach, and such individuals may play an important motivating role later in life as well. And for many, excellence may not be an end in itself, but only a means to earn a higher salary or do better than the next guy. The mathematician G.H. Hardy, one is somewhat disappointed to hear, explains that his primary motivation for studying mathematics was to outshine others: “I do not remember having felt, as a boy, any passion for mathematics . . .. I wanted to beat other [children], and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (2012: p.46). And even someone like myself, who discounts the role of inspiration in expert action, cannot help but feel a bit disappointed to learn through Mozart’s letters the degree to which he appears motivated not by the music, but by the promise of fame or financial reward (Spaething 2000). Nonetheless, whether one tries to improve because one is internally driven, or whether it is in order to please one’s father or to achieve fame or fortune, most everyone who accepts just-do-it concedes that the path to expertise involves hard work.

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