I have a trio of activities to which I am, with varying degrees of skill and regularity, devoted: playing music, skiing, and computer programming. I have developed each of these skills over the years, with a few exceptions, without a formal course of study. Sure, I took a few guitar lessons, and have fond, if hazy, memories of ski school as a kid, but by and large, I’ve come by the skills I possess via self-directed study, trial and (sometimes painful) error, and, most importantly, learning from those around me.
Exponents of the Peter Principle tend to see in every skilled human an ultimate, inevitable apex of their ability to perform increasingly complex, challenging tasks. The conventional wisdom is that hierarchies tend to promote individuals one step beyond their potential (to their “level of incompetence”), and that the incompetence displayed by each employee in their Final Resting Place is a matter of predestination, determined by the ultimate limit of their potential. The perfectionist in me, the relentless self-improver, is not quite ready to accept this fatalist attitude, and I’d like to propose an alternative explanation to ol’ Peter.
Everything I’ve ever gotten better at, I’ve done so in the tutelage, shadow, or grudging tolerance, of someone (sometimes far) better at it than me. Every time I play music with someone like drum kingpin John Lamb, I learn a little more about listening, and rhythm, and when not to play. Every time I ski with a good friend of mine with whom I had the pleasure of skiing last week, I get a little bit better.
It’s not easy to accept that someone is better than you at something, but once you swallow your pride, dig in, and try to play at their level, great things can happen. I think, perhaps, that the fact that it’s easier, and more comfortable, and more secure, to try to avoid collaborating with people who could dust you in a dogfight, leads many people to short-circuit the development of their skills. It’s not so much that they’ve reached their inevitable pinnacle of competence, but that they’ve put themselves there unwittingly — by being too shy, insecure, or falsely confident in the skills they already have to accept that anyone could teach them anything.
So, I try to remind myself of this every time I plug in my guitar, strap on my skis, or fire up the keyboard alongside someone who has something to teach me — and I try to remember to be grateful. After all, the perfection of character is never complete.