10 October, 2011

Learn what you are good at

Cross-scientific work is in some ways one of the buzzwords of our times. And for good reason: meeting other scientists gives a lot of new ideas and teaches things you’d never come across inside the walls of your department. And the same goes for business, too. It never hurts to get a sense of what else is out there, what you still don’t know but would want to. Just now, I’ve realized there’s another, very important, reason to be with people from other fields.

It teaches you what you’re good at.

If you’re even a semi-pro in something, chances are you spend a lot of time with people from the same field, industry or whatever the classification. Chances are that you have a passion to improve your skills. And if you want to improve, who do you look up to? The best of your field, of course.

This all can often result losing sight of how good you actually are in doing that thing in reality. Humans are notoriously bad in judging their skills subjectively. I’m sure a lot of people have heard the joke (well, it's really a piece of research1) that all drivers think they are better than average. But it doesn’t work only that way: we often underestimate our skills, too. This happens especially in situations where the reference group (i.e. the people that surronund you most often when doing that activity) is more proficient than your average Joe.

This happens to people in sports. They spend years training for something, and after quitting on the pro level it can be hard to realize how good they can be compared to regular citizens. The same goes for studying: I often feel very inadequate about my math skills, since our university happens to be a technical one, hence housing hundreds of very bright people who seem to eat Riemann-Cauchy equations for breakfast. But I once came across a language student, and suddenly found out there’s a lot of math that I’m good at. And she found out, too, that speaking six languages is a big deal.

For this reason alone, I recommend from the bottom of my heart to go out there and meet people. Knowing what you don’t know is important for your development. But knowing what you do know is as important for your belief in yourself.

1  McCormick, “Comparative perceptions of driver ability— A confirmation and expansion,” Accident Analysis & Prevention 18 (June 1986): 205-208.