July 29, 2017

The Retest

Most of what you know about yourself is wrong. It is worth taking a few hours to find out how wrong you are.

The ideas you have about your strengths and weaknesses are based on thinner evidence than you could ever imagine. A quality you say you have held all your life, something about yourself you’ve told people a hundred times, might be an opinion formed from a small number of episodes that occurred in your childhood. Maybe there were five stories that seemed to confirm this idea, or maybe just one or two. They happened a long time ago. You can’t remember them accurately. You’ve changed in the years since. They’re hardly enough to hang a self-image on.

Then, if you look at the individual episodes, you may also find that they are not nearly so persuasive as they seemed — even without the problems posed by memory and the passage of time.

This idea that there is scant evidence for your core ideas about yourself, particularly your limitations, is one of the central themes in Wayne Dyer’s book Excuses Begone, and it has been written about extensively by others. While Excuses Begone presents a useful system, there aren’t many specific examples. Perhaps that is just as well, as others’ stories are no substitute for what you can find when you survey your own mind.

On a whim, I decided to do this myself, to examine one of the assumptions built into my own self-image. I didn’t start with a perceived limitation, but with a skill. I have long held the thought that I have a special talent when it comes to words — letters and words more so than phrases and sentences, that is. When I looked at where this idea comes from, I realized it all hinges on a single memory, a school assignment I did when I was twelve years old.

It was a simple assignment, really more of a challenge than an assignment. We were to write down, out of our heads without using reference books, as many words as we could think of that contained the two-letter sequence an. These would be words like can and ant. Most students wrote a list of around 20 or 30 words. Some wrote more. I kept going and filled up half a page with words like grandparent and island. My list of words was so much longer than anyone else’s that the teacher displayed it on the bulletin board for a few days for other students to look at.

I counted my list, of course. I had written almost 200 words.

So that’s my evidence? You can poke holes in it from several different angles. First, it is a reconstructed memory. Any episode that you’ve used to form your self-image has to be a reconstructed memory simply because your self-image refers to the episode. You remember the episode through the lens of your self-image, and it takes only a few dozen times of doing so before a story is distorted beyond recognition. Did I really dash off a sequence of compound words that started with grand around the middle of my list? Was the two-letter sequence I was working from really an? It seems right, but I can’t be certain. Did I really write 200 words? I am not so sure when I think about it. Maybe in truth it was near or over 100.

Even if you can believe the memory, there are other problems with using this challenge as evidence of skill with words and letters. It was, let’s face it, a small accomplishment. Two hundred words? That’s not many by the standards of my more recent efforts. I have already written more words than that today, right here, just describing how I wrote half a page of words so many years ago. Another source of doubt is that, even though I remember myself as the “winner,” the assignment wasn’t presented as a contest. It’s to be expected that some of my classmates would have put in the minimal effort needed to show something that looked complete. We took spelling tests in which we spelled ten words, so they would have had a reason to feel comfortable after they had come up with twelve or fifteen words. Surely some of them would have written many more words if someone had told them that they should be able to.

Besides all this, I had what might be considered an unfair advantage. One of things I did to pass the time at home was to read the unabridged dictionary. I would read definitions sometimes for an hour at a time, sometimes reading two or three consecutive pages of small print, sometimes jumping around to look up the words in the definitions I had just read. It stands to reason that, regardless of talent, I would have more words in my head just because of the time I had spent in the dictionary.

And it was a long time ago. How much could it really tell me about who I am now, all these years later?

There was an easy way to find out. I would redo the same assignment. I would again write down as many words as I could think of that contained an. I tried to approach the assignment the same way I had originally. I promised myself I would apply the same level of effort.

Ha. Same level of effort? I stopped early after I realized I had passed 1,000 words. I could have kept going but the contrast with my original effort was already apparent.

When I look at my new list, the interesting thing is that most of the words are ones I would have been familiar with at the time of my previous attempt. I certainly knew words like octane and quadrant when I was twelve, but words like these came to mind more quickly and easily today. Also, my new list still had lots of obvious omissions. I didn’t think of androgen or superhuman until after I had stopped.

Set aside the questions about whether this exercise is a meaningful test of anything that matters, and look at what the comparison between my two attempts says about the episode I had remembered and based a corner of my self-image on. Two hundred words half a lifetime ago? I can’t possibly say I am skilled with words based on that if on my retest today I wrote down five times as many in a shorter time.

In fact, to the extent that I have any special skill with words, it seems to be mainly the result of the time I have spent poring over dictionary entries. That’s something I still do at the drop of a hat when the need arises. I must have some affinity for words if I am in the dictionary habit, but putting in the time seems to be what counts.

In a way, this is a hopeful way of looking at it. Could I gain a comparable level of skill in other areas just by putting in a similar level of time and effort? There is at least reason to hope. The cost of this kind of skill is considerable, but not enormous. I must have spent hundreds of hours studying words and their meanings. Now that I think about it, I have a similar but unsung skill with geography, again apparently the result of hundreds of hours of effort. Hundreds of hours might sound like a lot, but when you describe it as two hours a week over a period of years, you realize it’s a perfectly practical amount of time to invest in a skill you want to develop. Perhaps I can eventually become just as good at guitar licks as I am with words and places.

Reexamine the pieces of your own self-image and you are sure to find the same kinds of gaps and errors that I have been finding. Don’t let your view of yourself become a story you repeat for the rest of your life out of habit. Especially take a fresh look at the things you think you’re good at and the things you think you’re bad at. What you are almost certain to find is that you are a more complex and interesting person than the story you’ve been telling — and that you are not the same person you were a few years ago.

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