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No One Knows How To Do Anything (And Why That’s A Very Good Thing)

Stamp River Provincial Park

Here’s a radical idea:

No one actually knows how to perform any task in the real world.

It’s true, and I can prove it. This is going to get abstract and philosophical for a second, but I promise it won’t stay there. There is a real and true point here, and it might be one of the most important unexplored truths in the universe.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed the world was made out of the element of fire. He observed that universe is always in constant motion. That nothing keeps its state from one moment to the next. Not really. His most famous line is

You can never step in the same river twice.

As soon as you leave the river and turn back to look, the river you stepped in is gone. Those are not the same water molecules. Some of that riverbank has been worn away by the rushing current. I a scientist measured that river with extremely precise tools she would find that every single variable has changed. It is only our memory and our categorical brain that defines it as the same river.

What’s true of rivers is true of everything else. This might sound like navel-gazing, but it isn’t. If carefully considered it can have a profound impact on how you approach tasks.

Everything you do is like a river. Every single task you undertake is brand new, because the conditions have changed. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say your computer is having hardware issues and you decide to fix it. You’ve done this a few times before so it isn’t entirely unfamiliar. But it also isn’t exactly the same. The processor fan has worn out a little bit more. The hard drive is older and isn’t acting quite the right way. Some of the connector pins on your video card might be bent that were fine before. There are absolutely guaranteed to be variables that have never had this configuration before. Even if you know computers very, very well you’ve never dealt with this exact set of problems before. Since computers are so complicated, there is a decent chance this precise set of conditions will be something you don’t immediately know how to handle.

It’s true of everything. Every problem is a brand new problem. Every task is an absolutely brand new and unique experience, and you don’t know how to perform that specific task. How can you? You’ve never done it before. No one has.

When we say that we know how to do something, we really mean two things:

  • We remember how we’ve performed similar tasks in the past.
  • We have the tools to attempt to figure out how to perform this specific task.

Both of these are vital to knowing how to perform a task. This is not trivial. It is very, very important because it has three  huge implications for how we view our knowledge and our skills.

The first is that you don’t know how to do something if you haven’t done it before. This is somewhat obvious. No matter how much you read about how to do something, aren’t you always a bit lost the first time you actually do it? Isn’t that always a learning process?

The second and even more important implication is that every task has to be learned while you are performing it. From scratch. You might have experience with similar tasks. You might have the tools to figure out to perform this one. But you still need to learn the specifics of this occasion. Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes the new variables are so simple that it doesn’t feel new. It’s literally true that unscrewing a screw on your computer case is unique each time, because the screw and the screwdriver have been worn down, your muscles are different, ect. But those variables are so tiny that we barely notice them. Unless, of course, the screw is stripped. Or you’re missing your small screwdriver and have to improvise. It’s often hard to know in advance whether this task will present new  challenges.

And other times the variables are huge. For some tasks this is always the case. Fixing a broken down care almost always requires exploration and combining skills in slightly new ways. It is even more true for creative endeavors. Everything you write is unique, and writing it is a brand new task that requires learning how to write this specific piece. You remember writing similar things, and you have tools to figure out to write this piece that you didn’t have 10 years ago. But you still have to learn to write this one.

The third and largest implication has to do with fear. So often we don’t start a task because we don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to write this kind of article. So I won’t start until I do. But the fact is, no one ever knows!

We enter every single task unprepared to complete it. Every single one.

Some of the preparation has to happen in the field. It has to. The past never equals the future, and no human brain–or computer–is powerful enough to precisely predict all of the variables of any situation.

The people who get things done understand this, if only on a subconscious level. They might be afraid when they try a new task they are unfamiliar with, but they realize that unfamiliarity is the constant state of things. It is an absolute given in a universe made out of fire.

So they bloody do it anyway.