This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.
I am bad at chess.
When I say I’m bad at chess, I mean I’ve played at most 10 games of chess my whole life. Anybody who’s learned the slightest bit of chess will wipe the floor with me.
When other people say they’re bad at chess, it could mean anything. I’ve heard novices say they’re bad at chess, but I’ve also heard a master say he’s bad at chess. I’ve heard someone say they’re bad at chess, then play against that master and almost win. I’ve seen someone say they’re awful, then win with a handicap of a queen and two rooks.
When everyone says they’re bad at chess regardless of their skill level, hearing “I’m bad at chess” gives zero information. You can’t learn their skill level unless you watch them play a game.
Yesterday, I went to a board game cafe. One of the staff members recommended we play Dominion. I mentioned I played a lot online, and he said he played a few games back in the day. Two sentences later, I learned “a few” meant 1500 games.
I’m not going to talk about why people downplay their accomplishments, because you could read the imposter syndrome Wikipedia page instead. What I want to talk about is the consequences of this kind of behavior.
One day, I was at a gathering in a friend’s house, and someone proposed playing Codenames. I hadn’t played Codenames before, but from the reviews it sounded great. I immediately went into teaching mode, setting up the board and explaining the rules.
We started playing the game, and on the 4th round someone mentioned an exceptionally good clue from a game she played last week. Someone else then wanted to clarify what variants we were using. Neither of them said they had played Codenames before; it was only revealed well into the game itself.
There are couple factors at play here. Once I got going, there was natural inertia to let me continue with my explanation. And during the game itself, everyone was focused on playing the game, not on explaining their experience with the game.
Still, I wonder how many of my friends are secretly experts in subjects I’ve never heard them talk about.
I feel this issue is exacerbated with introverted people, who generally don’t talk about themselves, and with women, who generally don’t play up their accomplishments as much as men do. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize most of my Khan Academy intern class had done more functional programming than me.
It’s shown up in this very blog. People have told me they liked my blog posts, but I don’t see them as especially interesting or special. I know people who have better thoughts, more insightful thoughts, relayed through private conversations and real life instead of posted on the Internet for all to see.
To quote Neil Geiman,
Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.
(From The Sandman)
The difference, then, is that I try to wear my thoughts on the outside. The outside world won’t know of a friend’s brilliant insights into the privacy vs security debate, or their research on post-quantum cryptography, but it will think I’m good at cryptography because I wrote one blog post on garbled circuits. It hides that I’ve only taken two crypto courses, had to struggle through both, and am woefully uninformed about the wider state of cryptography research.
The world is biased towards people who do things that make them look special, not towards people who are special. I’m worried about the gap between the two, and what it could lead to.
Finally, a closing thought. Turn these ideas back onto this post. Did this post give you a new perspective? Or did it only give words to ideas you already had?