How We All Fake Being Smart

If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes. --John Wooden

Today, I want to share one of the most harrowing experiences of my life: learning to type in a new layout.

Voluntary Lobotomy

This is a lot scarier than it sounds. Imagine losing part of your brain without realizing it. Then, when you go to do something you have always been able to do just can't. The memories are missing, the motor patterns are either nonexistent or completely inappropriate, and your grasp has evaporated.

That's what learning to type a new layout feels like. You think "the" and "fhl" comes out. Or your fingers just don't get that they are supposed to do anything at all. If that happened in your speech, it would terrify you.

But because of all this, I've always wanted to learn a new typing layout. I wanted to see what it felt like to rewire my brain, to go from being so good at something I didn't have to think about it to not being able to do it at all, to retrenching new neural pathways, until those too became unconscious. I've done plenty of making new synapses, but it was the rewiring I was excited about.

I guess I'm a sucker for feeling incompetent.

After reading The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman, in which he shares his attempt to learn the Colemak typing layout, I decided to give it a go. After all, 22 hours (the amount of time he spent to regain 60 wpm) wasn't that much to do something I've always wanted to do.

I decided to give myself 2 months. If it just wasn't working, I would go back to QWERTY.

Ho ho ho...Silly Khaled...

What Real Stupidity Feels Like

I dove in with all my usual vigor, practicing every day for at least an hour. After 1 month, I was at 40 WPM. I was happy with my progress.

At that point, I'd lost most of my ability to type in QWERTY; I was at 20 WPM in that layout. It was creepy to have actually gotten worse at a skill, not something I'd ever experienced, but something I had expected. The skills were conflicting, so the neural pathways were being re-assigned, but I also knew that motor pathways generally don't ever get completely eliminated: QWERTY was hard to access, but it was still there.

It just felt scary to have a part of my brain I knew was there that I couldn't even touch.

After 6 weeks, my progress stalled. I was stuck around 50 WPM. I was well past the 22 hour mark. That's when I got really scared. Would I ever get my old typing speed back? Had I just needlessly cut off my own arm?

It didn't feel fair either. Kaufman had suggested in his book a difficult but steady progress. Other Colemak learners likewise suggested that they had been able to reacquire old typing speeds fairly easily. I was angry, and it didn't help that I couldn't even go back to QWERTY.

I don't actually remember the last time I felt truly stupid. I spend a lot of energy trying to avoid that feeling, either staying away from things I'm really bad at or working really hard to delude myself.

My writing fell off, which you probably noticed, and that probably didn't help my learning curve either. I got depressed. Things were looking very grim.

However, there wasn't much for me to do but keep pushing forward since I couldn't just fall back on my old layout anymore. I had to accept that this skill might just take me longer than it did for other people. So I kept practicing and typing.

Now, nearly 5 months later, I type around 70 WPM if I'm careful and the text is reasonable. I'm planning to relearn QWERTY and maintain the ability to type in both layouts (for now, I type QWERTY on my phone and am back to my old thumb-typing speed).

The Emotional Side of Learning

What I found most interesting was not the challenge of actually learning the skill, but the emotional struggle that went along with it. My identity was threatened, not just as a writer and tech-savvy Millennial, but also as someone who is "good at learning" (which I discovered actually meant "naturally talented at everything").

When I had to work at something and struggle against what felt like invisible barriers, I panicked. I had never experienced that before because I had always picked things up really easily.

It's amazing how much we identify, not just with what we know, but how good we are at learning new things. Especially if you are a product of the educational system, your self-esteem is probably tied in some way to your ability to master new ideas. Maybe you are actually good at it, or have a realistic understanding of what that entails, or maybe you are really good at faking it.

How We Pretend to Be Smart

I was, and to a large degree still am, very good at appearing to understand and grasp new ideas without actually being able to apply them. A trick I learned early was to act dismissive of new ideas, as if I'd already known about them or at least was intellectually agile enough to have anticipated them:

Interesting fact: "Did you know that dogs and humans coevolved to use eye-gaze to tell direction? No other apes do that!"
My blasé response: "I'm not surprised. It makes sense."
Really? How does it make sense to me, who never studied anthropology, other apes, or canine evolution?! I can be so frustrating sometimes.

I also learned the secret of appearing smart without actually being smart: get the directions and follow them to the letter. This is how you get all A's. It's all about anticipating the teacher or the employer.

Of course, real knowledge doesn't come with directions (or grades), but this strategy will get you into the best universities and move you up the corporate ladder. It won't, however, impart true mastery or help you make a breakthrough in your field, not unless you combine it with a willingness to fail and a genuine drive to learn from those failures.

I am much more aware of my strategies to avoid looking incompetent and am working to just admit when I don't know something so that I can actually learn it.

Why the Appearance of Smarts is Misleading

Our society likes these tidy measures of our worth as humans: grades, certificates, Likes, shares, friends, clicks, dollars, romantic partners.

These can be helpful—I hang my diploma from The University of Chicago on my wall, as it's something I'm proud of and reflects a lot about my love of feeling incompetent intellectual challenges—but they can also be dangerous. It can be too easy to focus on the measure and not the human underneath.

And since it's easier to fake competence than to actually possess it, these markers can simply reflect an ability to game the system rather than genuine mastery, interest, likability, or earning potential.

Real knowledge is seen in the naturalist who exudes confidence in the wilds and can recognize every plant, in the historian who tells the stories of her subject as if sharing family secrets, in the athlete who moves with joy and grace, and in the programmer who goes back into his old code to make it more efficient long after it's been deployed and he's been paid.

And the real learner is excited, not ashamed, to find something that he doesn't know.