Good advice, messy systems, and invisible work—evolving from where you are

For the longest time, I had a theory that there was a secret class that I had somehow missed. This was the class that would make sense out of those elements of daily life that were a source of frequent confusion to me. Today, my inbox is filled to overflowing with offers to reveal whatever secrets I might wish to know. Setting aside the more obvious scams and promises to solve problems that don’t trouble me, I could fill my days and nights with well-intentioned solutions to challenges that I actually face.

Smart people invest immense amounts of time and effort to organize and package what they know into software tools, self-help books, conferences, workshops, online courses and more. I’ve benefitted from many of these over the years to the extent that a recent gift from my wife is a t-shirt emblazoned with the warning “Dangerously Overeducated”.

But that secret class concern continues to trouble me.

Why does that wealth of good advice not smoothly translate into equally good results? Where am I failing as a student? This continues to trouble me long after I’ve moved to the other side of the classroom.

If you’re designing a class or planning a textbook, one thing you must do is establish what knowledge your target students should already posess. What are the prerequisites? What knowledge and skills can you assume? Good designers will also consider what sorts of mistakes newcomers are likely to make.

Elsewhere, I’ve made the point that no one starts from a clean sheet of paper. Thinking through prerequisites is part of figuring out what you’d like to see on that sheet of paper.

The piece that gets forgotten or skipped over is working out what is on that sheet that shouldn’t be there. What do you think you know that just ain’t so.

I’m hard pressed to think of anyone designing courses or offering advice who takes this step. Who thinks about or worries about how their lessons will interact with whatever stupid ideas or messy systems you possess. This is a responsibility that no one tells you is yours.

We can be quick to mock those who cling to knowledge, theories, and skills that we’ve outgrown or abandoned, It’s quite a bit harder to recognize the same behaviors when they’re revealed in a mirror.

The perspective I am coming around to is that my systems and practices are messy. They’ve grown by accretion over the years. I strongly suspect that this is also true of many, if not most, of those offering their insights and advice. We are gifted with the final outputs of their messy efforts. Anne Lamott encourages us to write “shitty first drafts”. She talks less about what comes between that first draft and the final one. John McPhee takes us as far as Draft No. 4. But, the system as a whole conceals the mess. It is invisible.

This suggests that one path forward is to look for the mess. Embrace the messiness in your own practice. Seek out those who will share details of their messes.

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