A lot of people are impressed by experts: people who somehow seem to know everything about something in particular.
But I remember my mom nurturing a cynical streak in me from an early age when, in response to my over-awed reaction to a confident young classmate, she told me to remember that “anyone who says they know everything really knows nothing. Because EVERYONE knows that no-one knows everything”. Now this may not be the catchiest nugget of wisdom ever, but it introduced me to two key ideas at an early age:
- Perhaps the real clever clogs aren’t necessarily those who proclaim their expertise.
- If you want to know a lot about something, there’s probably a lot you have to not know about something else. (Bear with me – it gets more concrete.)
There was a great article by John Cloud in Time Magazine last week which reminded me in a roundabout way of the wisdom of my Irish mammy. The writer argued convincingly that experience is not a predictor of performance. Gen Y proponents may well see this as fuel for the fire burning in their bellies, but I think there’s a lot more that can be pulled from of the ideas in this article.
For example, Karl Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s leading experts on expertise, says that while there’s no doubt the highly experienced professionals he’s studied are very good at their particular talent, they are often little better than laymen when something unpredictable happens within their field. This is because they’re not necessarily equipped to function outside their particular box. This is the difference between the notion of expertise as a function of years of experience, and true “expert performance”.
There are three key factors to achieving expert performance:
- Deliberate practice: Also known as cold hard slog. This includes reflecting on what we do well and what we don’t do well, then going out of our way to spend the majority of time working on what we’re bad at (often the tasks we most dislike, funnily enough). Because if things ever gets easy then we’re just coasting, according to Ericsson, and that’s not how experts improve.
- Avoiding overconfidence: This is a big trap for the unwary. When we do something we consider easy, we often free up our minds for other cognitive pursuits, i.e. the very things that can distract us from the mistake we’re about to make. Apparently, overconfidence also explains why licensed racing car drivers are more likely to have on-the-road accidents than regular drivers.
- Regular accurate feedback: This is important because we don’t always have the self-knowledge to see what we need to work on, regardless of how many years we’ve been at it.
In other words, Ericsson says we need to work on what we’re not good at. (Incidentally, this does not mean accepting work beyond our capabilities. The key here is the difference between working on and working in a particular area.)
So what does this mean for translators? Well, if you’re in the early stages of a translation career and considering your options, I think this sounds like a good argument in support of the renaissance man theory. Received wisdom says you must specialise to be successful as a translator, but as I’ve discussed before, there are lots of ways to specialise without having to narrow your focus to one particular translation area. When starting out, and indeed at any stage of your career, it’s worth taking what may seem like a side track if it will help you develop relevant complementary skills. Don’t be panicked into thinking you have to hone in on a particular domain straight off. There’s a lot to be said for gaining general experience across a range of areas, rather than focussing solely on becoming an “expert” too early in your career.
Finally, I have to admit that this article may well have provoked a classic case of twisting the evidence to suit my own inadequacies. I’ve said this before, but several years down the freelancing track and I still find each job is as difficult and as scary as the first one. This probably explains why I felt such a sense of vindication when I read Ericsson’s statement that things should never get easy. “Aha!”, I thought, as I underlined the sentence in red pen (twice). But I’m certain I’m not the only relatively experienced translator who feels a healthy dose of nerves as I stare down the barrel of a new job. And if it’s true that first-rate performance comes from dedicated, solitary slogging over a sustained period of time, then I reckon us translators are on to a good thing.