Nothing, something, everything

For most practical skills there are three levels of competence: nothing, something, everything. (“Everything” is usually called expertise, or fluency.) Take, for example, playing a musical instrument, or speaking a foreign language. If you have never picked up a trombone or spoken a word of Mandarin you are at the first stage: nothing. That’s where I am with both of these things: never played a trombone (never even touched one) and never spoken a word of Mandarin. But maybe you had piano lessons, or did Spanish at school. In that case you are at the second stage: something. You have picked out a tune, “tickled the ivories” (which is another synecdoche – you probably tickled the ebonies too), and if you visit Spain you could probably order a drink, or introduce yourself, or sing a Spanish song at the piano. Or maybe you’re an expert musician, all the way to Grade 8 and beyond, able to sight-read new pieces and play them without faltering, or you can speak fluent French or German. You’re at the third stage: everything (expertise, fluency).

How many things can you be an expert in? Maybe an instrument or two and an extra language or two, but each skill will take years to acquire.

For most of the skills that I have acquired I am resolutely in the second category: I can do something, without being an expert. I play guitar and piano enough to play and sing whole songs, hundreds of them. The repertoire is more important to me than expertise in playing. I can speak enough of three European languages (French, Spanish, Italian) to order a drink and a meal and ask for directions. Beyond music and language most things for me are about competence rather than expertise. I can drive, but wouldn’t call myself an expert despite the thousands of hours spent driving. I can perform various practical tasks around the house (unlike the handyman in the joke in the next paragraph) but will never be a DIY expert. I can mow a lawn and pull out weeds (a remedial gardener) but not plan much further than that. Often competence is enough: you don’t need to be an expert.

[The handyman joke: A man answers an advert in a local paper for a handyman. At the interview he’s asked if he can do basic electrics, like re-locating a wall socket. “No I can’t do that,” he replies. Well, how about painting and decorating? “No, never done that before,” he replies. Well, maybe some routine plumbing tasks, like changing the mixer taps in the kitchen. “No, couldn’t do that”. So if you can’t do basic electrical tasks, or painting and decorating, or routine plumbing, why did you respond to an advert for a handyman? “Well,” he replies, “I only live round the corner.”]

It can be surprisingly easy to go from “nothing” to “something”. If you really want to learn how to play a few songs, on the guitar, or piano, or ukulele, you can learn how in a few weeks. I could teach you. But if you want to get Grade 8 piano and play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” you should go to a proper piano teacher, and practise a lot, and that will take years.

Similarly you could spend six weeks in Spain or Italy and at the end of that time be able to converse with sympathetic locals. I spent six weeks in Spain, aged 18, with only my brother as a fellow English speaker, and went from understanding almost nothing (two weeks), to understanding but not being able to say much (two weeks), to being able to have simple conversations (the final two weeks). If I wanted to be fluent, to have the vocabulary of an adult, and to understand all verb forms, that would take me years.

I find it interesting how people who are at the first level of competence (“nothing”) can mistake the second level for expertise. On my first trip to Italy (aged 20, with an old school friend), the Americans at the next table at a pizza restaurant in Florence had a surprisingly high regard for our linguistic abilities. All we did was order in Italian (which was easy enough – the Italian for “Pizza Fiorentina” is “Pizza Fiorentina”, and the word for wine is “vino”) and when we started speaking in English the husband said, “Gee, I thought you guys were Italian”. His wife looked at him, said, “Honey, I knew they weren’t Italian,” then turned to us and said, ”but I’m very impressed at how well you speak Italian.” We thanked them but insisted that all we had done was use a few words from our phrase book, and read things from the menu. We couldn’t speak Italian. They didn’t appear to believe us. Similarly, people who can’t play piano or guitar might think that I can play those instruments but a Grade 8 classical guitarist or concert pianist wouldn’t. I describe myself as a thumper (piano) or strummer (guitar), knowing how long it would take to be an expert in either instrument.

I also use the “nothing, something, everything” distinction when it comes to health. The most dangerous thing to do is nothing: if you take no exercise, if you eat no healthy food, then in the long run you will not be healthy.

As with languages and learning instruments it can be surprisingly easy to go from “nothing” to “something”: walk, stretch, eat more fruit and vegetables and less bacon, include a few portions of oily fish in your diet. The difference between “nothing” and “something” is far greater than the difference between “something” and “everything”. We don’t need to go macrobiotic, or spend an hour a day at the gym, or drink bottled water from a mountain in Tibet. But we all have to do something.


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