Is there an antidote for the Crippling Fear of Inadequacy with which all creatives, contrarians, and sportspeople are familiar? When are qualifications are red flag? If I can write a film review, can I build a rocket?
The importance of qualifications is incredibly overrated in many domains — business, cooking, public speaking, teaching, music, writing, and so on. With writing it’s a special problem; because writing is perhaps the most effective means of doing actual thinking, believing that one needs to be qualified to write in a certain manner or about a certain topic is a surefire way to stamp out any possibility of creativity occurring.
Thinking is a creative act; we put some knowledge together and come up with an idea, theory, hypothesis, and then test it against other knowledge, an expert, or through experiment. The knowledge that we put together can be explicit, such as something we read in a book; or it can be inexplicit, like how I hit the tennis ball without thinking about the angle of the racket, spin on the ball, the weather conditions, and the playing surface. Fear of even approaching a topic because of an absence of qualifications closes the door on both forms of knowledge, and therefore any chance of coming up with an opinion, original idea, or something to contribute to the conversation.
Advancement in any field is the product of new knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge fundamentally relies on a tradition of criticism. Sure, the criticism from experts and experienced persons bears more weight than that of the newbie, but outsiders offer something different. And let’s not forget that Einstein was somewhat of a wacky outsider.
If everybody ‘stayed in their lane’ as advised by their school teachers and parents and blog commenters, innovation would finally come to a grinding halt. When it comes to the white space of the time, there can be no qualifications; if there exists qualifications for dabbling with the unknown, we’re not talking about the unknown. The novelist knows that he can’t produce at a rate any more rapid than by writing; he is creating the story as he writes it, not putting together a thousand pre-compiled notes. Leonardo da Vinci used layering and sfumato because it allowed him to create and paint. He didn’t have a complete snapshot of the end-product and then go to work; he had an idea and treaded lightly and consistently until it come alive. Great artists know that they don’t know what they’re creating until it’s creating. Creativity is a dance with the unknown — a useful image to highlight the distinction between the humanities and the sciences. The act of writing a novel is a very different ball game to building a skyscraper.
Review-writing is an interesting case study. Most people feel they can write a significant restaurant review (especially when something goes wrong 1), but not so much for movies and other media. I wonder whether the reason is too much exposure to the works of professional critics, which imprints a sort of top-down ‘This is how things should be done’ rule. No. What is interesting about a review is your perspective. Just like your opinion about the restaurant, I want to know how the film spoke to you, what insights it birthed, the emotions you felt before, during and after, and if you’d watch it again. If you copy even just the template of your favourite professional critic, the review becomes less about you and therefore less true.
Take the story of Spiderman:
Here we have a young, bursting-with-potential, uncertain, irresponsible kid who knows not what he is capable of — and can only know by stepping into the chaos and giving himself to the cause. He jumps off the building and figures out web-shooting en route to the pavement. He ‘unlocks’ the knowledge gifted to him by the radioactive spider by creating a panic situation, albeit the most extreme of sorts. The new knowledge enables him to rise to the challenge of saving the world, and he basically becomes a different person. There have been several Spiderman films at this point, and they all feature this thread, but Homecoming and Far From Home capture it most vividly, in addition to being a thrilling watch to kids and their parents. If Spiderman exists, it is Tom Holland.
Whilst we typically aren’t saving the world, lack of qualification is a mainstay if advancement on the technological, medicinal, moral and all other important fronts is of primary concern. And it should be, because at the societal level there are many known problems left to solve, and at the individual level, well, we all have Things We Want To Do. At one level, Spiderman was totally unqualified. At another, he was more qualified than anyone. We humans might exist on the middle plane: we’re unqualified but bursting with potential that is unlocked only through acts of creativity. We don’t need the radioactive spider. We need problems, dare, obsession, and more tolerance of the lack of qualifications.2
The above is just two paragraphs of at least a couple more I could write about my recent trip to watch Spiderman: Far From Home. Without mentioning the production of casting, it is an interesting review to read so far, and the reason is that the incentive to write it is internal, I am invested in it, I find it interesting, and most importantly, it doesn’t follow the Professional Critic Rulebook.
It’s not that qualifications aren’t important; it’s that they’re half the story at most, and the most boring half. The qualified hairdresser is not better than me at cutting hair because she is qualified. She is better because she has skill that I don’t have. The qualifications just allow her to open up shop as a professional hairdresser, and to be recognised as ‘legit’ amongst other hairdressers. The weight given to qualifications obviously depends on the domain you’re in and what you want to do in life. But when it comes to things like writing, creating the fundamental theory of physics, painting the Mona Lisa, delivering the speech, becoming the President, setting out to build Amazon, composing the masterpiece, being an entrepreneur, and so on, qualifications aren’t just unimportant but an indicator that X has been done before.
That there is no map for unexplored lands doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be explored as much as it doesn’t mean they don’t contain the seeds of the most beautiful fruits humans have ever known.
- Bad reviews of anything aren’t as accurate as they seem. Too many bad product reviews fail to address the actual product, instead focusing on shipping, the labelling, the delivery driver, or something other than what actually matters. In restaurants, that the waiter or waitress is having a particularly bad day does not justify a savage review.
- It goes without saying that a surgeon should be overqualified.