Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hacker, Sham, Fraud revisited

Still thinking about the "hacker, sham, fraud" post of a couple of weeks ago.

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the notion that an accomplished professional musician like Neil Peart with more than 40 years of playing under his belt can think of himself in such terms (if only occasionally), or as a guy guy who just hits things with sticks.

It occurred to me that he's an excellent example of the flipside of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.
 Think of notable incompetents such as...oh, Republicans. George W. Bush, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich are stellar examples of the Effect; each exhibits arrogance and absolute certainty (what Will Ferrel calls "unearned confidence"). Add in fundies, creationists, Teabaggers...wait, I already said "Republicans." Nevermind.

Anyway, the flipside of the Effect is that someone competent tends to underestimate their own abilities. It could be a cultural thing (the Wikipedia entry notes that studies tend to focus on Americans, and that East Asians tend to exhibit the flipside effect, but doesn't mention Canadians specifically), upbringing, or (as in Peart's case) a nerdy outcast childhood. Peart notes in his book "Roadshow" that he was inept in all the jockish arts and suffered for it at the hands of the jocks. Something else we have in common.

He applied himself to drumming before he was even a teen, an age where I was barely even aware of music, let alone playing it. By 1978, he was 26, had been in Rush for 4 years, and was considered a phenomenal musician (and the band had released its 6th studio album); I was a resentful 11 year old saddled with a 6th-Grade Beginning Trumpet class instead of the drums I'd wanted to sign up for.

That's the branching point. He'd found his niche; I hated mine. My mother forced me to practice: she had her sewing machine set up in an alcove outside my bedroom door and tortured me with that practice crap (she'd been the one who "selected" trumpet for me). Just to stick the knife in a bit deeper, she managed to mention how expensive the goddamn horn had been, and how my grandmother had paid for it.

At some point over Summer break, I managed to slam the case lid on it and render it unplayable. I can't really say it was an accident, but it did finally get her to stop bothering me about that farking trumpet anymore. Hell of a whipping for that.

It was another 10 years before I seriously tried learning a new instrument (forget about the stupid "gonna be a keyboard player" crap from high school)--and this time it was because of Rush. I threw myself headlong into the guitar, sponging up every lesson, struggling to twist my left hand fingers around to form chords, trying to get from one unfamiliar chord to the next, then to get my hands synchronized. Competence came slowly, a finger at a time. It took several months for me to strengthen my fretting hand to the point where I could hold barre chords or bend strings; vibrato eluded me for more than a decade, even with lightweight strings.

I didn't care about the difficulty. All I wanted to do was learn to play Rush songs. I even put up with a pissy guitar teacher for maybe 6 months. He could play, but he didn't have much of a sense of humor and expressed disdain for every guitar player I was interested in ("Alex Lifeson's okay, but he's mostly a major chord player," quoth the pissy Jazz Snob). Shortly after we started working on "Tom Sawyer," I got tired of him and moved on.

He'd given me enough by that point for me to start working out songs on my own, so there's that. I sponged again, listening to the "Moving Pictures" album so much I wore the music off Side One of the tape. I bought every book I could find, (not much out there in 1990) and as my ear and experience improved I needed the books less and less. At one point, I could play (to some extent) maybe half of the Rush songs up through the "Counterparts" album. Hardly a guitar god, but still an accomplishment for anyone who's self-taught.

Twenty-two years later, I'm struggling with the "hacker, sham and fraud" thing and now I think I've figured out why: there's no challenge in it anymore. For the first few years, I soaked up all those new skills. I'd get a thrill from learning a new solo (and playing it well), or for having the stamina to keep up with a demanding song (the second half of "Jacob's Ladder") or one of their long-ass album-side epics (2112, Hemispheres). These days, though, if I'm in the mood to grab a guitar, I end up playing the same dozen or so Rush songs, the same set of Metallica songs, the same Stone Temple Pilots bass lines. I just want to play (Fun! Fun!), don't want to learn (Work! Work!).

My recent medical issues don't help; uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause brain damage--and I've gotten somewhat paranoid about that even after getting it squared away. I get fatigued (physically and mentally) easily, forget words and names, sleep a lot...learning a new song (or relearning stuff I've forgotten) seems more like a Task instead of a pleasure.

Still, when it comes to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I know I'm closer to Peart's end of the spectrum. Like him I'm aware of all my shortcomings--maybe too aware, or just less driven to get past them. If half of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at (seen on a T-shirt), maybe half of being competent is knowing what you suck at, then doing something about it.

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