The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

Yet, the truly great artist keeps striving, otherwise they get buried on a plateau – under an avalanche the people who’ve kept going have caused.

So how do you avoid getting stuck up there?

  1. Ask yourself why. Why this story? Why this medium? What do you want to say? Your motivation might just be to get good at something. It’s nice to say you’re good at something, but it’s hard to get anyone but your mother to care if the only message your art sends is, “Look at me!” Art is communication – Tolstoy defined it as an emotional transfer. The purpose of art is to make people feel. The reasons why are as numerous as artists, but that goal remains prime.
  2. Observe and keep gathering new influences. It’s not enough to figure out a great formula and stick to it. That’s the fastest route to cliche and stagnation. Great art draws from life experience and observing the world outside that art. For example, you can always tell if a storyteller pays attention to the way kids actually behave, because someone who doesn’t draws from the same cloying cliches everyone else uses. Also, the best artists don’t just look up to the greats, they pay attention to what the next generation is up to as well.
  3. Vary the tone in your work. There’s a type of artist who considers their work so serious they never lighten up for a moment, drubbing the audience with the drama bat until they go numb. I watched a movie recently where the soundtrack shoved constant tension in my ears, steamrolling over obvious moments of levity, making the whole movie so exhausting I stopped giving a shit. The director in question lacks the intuition about when to let up, as well as faith in his audience to feel. It’s like he had a film school formula that told him what kind of music makes the audience feel X, and instead of sprinkling it like a spice, slathered it over everything.
  4. Constantly re-evaluate the rules. As the old saw goes: every time you write a novel, you have to learn how to write that novel. If you see someone else break a rule you hold dear, and it somehow works, make a note of it and let it go. No one likes a pedant. Constraints are only valuable so long as you can move within them. If you find yourself in a straight-jacket, it’s time to bust a strap or two. Sentence fragments are not all evil. They’re sometimes exactly what you need.
  5. Creativity is inventive by nature, yet so many people forget. One time an agonizing search for the right word led me to discover there wasn’t one. A friend told me to make one up and I was shocked. You can do that? Damned right you can. Shakespeare invented hundreds of new words, but even an idiot like Homer Simpson can add to the lexicon, as shown when “doh” was added to the Oxford Dictionary. Leonardo DaVinci nearly destroyed The Last Supper with his pigment experimentation, but I’m pretty sure if you asked him he’d say, “Screw that one painting surviving the centuries. I’m devising new techniques for the future.”
  6. If you stop taking risks, boredom follows. The over-competent master is someone who sticks to a successful formula and keeps hammering it out. Their output stays constant at a fairly high level. Commendable, right? Only so long as people don’t get bored, and that includes the artist. On the whole, the great artist’s record is far more spotty. It can range all over the spectrum, from absolutely terrible to so amazing it crashes through the roof of people’s expectations. Great work sets the bar. Competent work stays safely below it. If your formula is so successful you don’t dare deviate from it, you might as well make a mint selling the formula (or lease your IP for hire) and retire. Even Michael Bay has gotten sick of making Mattel Toy Nostalgia Extravaganza movies, but he’s stuck doing them because he’s buried under a huge pile of money.

You can see the risk principle in action with certain bands, like Pink Floyd. You had David Gilmore and Roger Waters – one conservative artist holding the wild one in check, and the wild one constantly pushing the others’ boundaries. Within that dynamic lies great art (or a total explosion). When you have both in the same person, you get pure magic (or a total implosion). Each had their own trajectory after the band split up. Gilmore’s Floyd was conventional stadium rock and Waters stuff was so weird it only has a small cult following. But the best example comes from when the two of them settled their legal issues enough to allow each to perform their own personal Pink Floyd concerts. David Gilmore was adamant about keeping the songs as close to the original recording as he could. Roger Waters, on the other hand, was adamant about improvising every time. Both philosophies have their own set of fans. I watched my dad shift from the first kind to the second as he grew bored with hearing the same song over and over again. As much as he liked the originals, he grew more respect for Waters, treating music like a living thing rather than a butterfly pinned to a disc long ago.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

5 thoughts on “The Over-Competency Trap

  1. Playing every note at tempo and exactly as written has one problem: those are SUGGESTIONS that come from how the composer hear the music inside the composer’s head.

    The variations that a musician puts in there, or how a conductor allows precision with minute changes, that’s where the art lies.

    You are right to be suspicious of ‘perfect.’

    I don’t see how a robot could possibly do this for writing, especially when the whole purpose of writing is for one human to evoke an emotional reaction from another human via little black marks on the page. And humans are unique – so the experience that makes the marks bring out a given emotion in one person doesn’t work for another, seemingly similar, person.

    The reaction is what makes writing. And all the arts. Genius lies in being able to inflict that reaction on a larger group of people than other artists can because of somehow accessing the commonalities between people.

    I’ve bookmarked your list for when I’m done with the debut novel, and the next part of the story begins the revision process from rough draft to something… My favorite quote from a reader right now is that “I’ve just finished reading Pride’s Children [Book 1]. That last chapter was beautiful. Probably the most moving chapter of all, which is a great way to end the story.” And the reason? Because it means I was improving all the way through.

    I remember feeling that each scene raised the bar, and that each one seemed harder to write, even though I knew exactly where I was going. I sure hope I can keep that up – and I’ll use your list to help jumpstart the process.

    I also hope that I’m nowhere near a stopping point yet – I’m coming at this late in life, hoping there is still time.

    Wonderful post, Sarah.

    1. Thank you. And yes, some of my generalizations don’t fit all arts equally. No one’s invented a good novel writing AI yet, for exactly those reasons you stated, so “robotic” doesn’t apply to writing so much. I think the worst we can do is be boring.

      Of course every good artist knows a music score is a suggestion. When I wrote that, I had in mind the documentary I watched on Glenn Gould where he was chastised by critics in his day for taking too many liberties with the score. There still exists a faction in classical music who only value what they think is the closest interpretation to what the composer intended. There’s great value in people choosing to play that way, but people forget that’s not the only way and the other choice is just as valid – again, going back to the pinned butterfly verses a living one. I have a few pinned butterflies on my wall, and they’re beautiful, but it’s nothing like visiting a butterfly garden.

      On the other hand, you get the situation I faced in art college, where the teachers were so against realism and craftsmanship they tried to force students to be wildly experimental before they’d learned the basics. The best metaphor for art college was made physically manifest at the grad reception, where someone on the grad committee let their friend’s “band” play, and none of them knew how to play music at all. The drummer couldn’t keep time, just randomly hit the drums whenever. The base player only played one note, over and over and over and over. And the trumpet player had obviously never picked up a trumpet in his life, because all he could do with it was make fart noises. Everyone graduating that day was just as ready to take over the art world as those tortuously tone-deaf idiots were to play Carnegie Hall.

      1. Definitely. Basics mastered FIRST, or at least SOON.

        Then you can take liberties – no one wants to listen to/look at/read a rank beginner’s rantings (unless it is the beginner’s mother, and the beginner is five).

        I didn’t even start trying to do a cover until I was willing to learn every tool my program had – this was fortunate, as I ended up having to use at least one tool in each category.

        We tend to forget how we learned to read – same thing, only a long time ago, and reading lays the foundation for writing – but writing is also completely different.

        There are totally clueless people attempting to do everything in this world; a tiny fraction of them manage something.

        I’m glad I didn’t have to go to that graduation ‘ceremony.’ The phrase ‘not ready for prime time’ was invented for them.

        1. I will admit, that graduation at least gave me comic material to milk for years. They weren’t even qualified to join the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

          What makes the Portsmouth Sinfonia so entertaining (and by that I mean barfingly funny) is they’re precariously balanced between knowing and not knowing what they’re doing. They’re all professional musicians. They know how to read notes and how to follow a conductor. The idea is like the Mad Hatter yelled, “Change places!” and everyone in the orchestra had to find another seat, picking up an instrument they don’t know how to play, and carry on as abnormal.

          But the grad band played more like they hated music and wanted to murder it. It’s like the time someone waltzed into a writing advice forum I frequented and asked, “I hate reading novels, but want learn how to write one. [Presumably so she can be super famous in what she imagined is the easiest way possible.]” and was shocked, I tells you, when she was told, “How about you learn how to read one first.” When she said she hated reading, I told her it was no different to saying, “I loathe music in all its forms. Now someone teach me how to play guitar so I can be a rock star!“

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