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Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

 

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Posted March 15, 2012

I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of two closely-related quotations through the years, and scarcely a week goes by that I don’t gather new evidence as to their basic truth.

The first is from Clint Eastwood’s movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The second is from 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope, who wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

When you are unfamiliar with an activity—you’ve never ridden an ATV or gone rock climbing, for example—you realize that you’re clueless and (one would hope) act accordingly. But after you’ve been doing something successfully for a while, it can be hard to tell how many more skills you need to acquire. Do you know 10 percent of what you need to know, or 90 percent? And where would you like to discover the fact that you’re on the low end of the knowledge scale? I’ll bet that it isn’t when you’re heading in to a 35 mph curve on your new motorcycle at 50 mph. Incidentally, believe it or not, there is gravel on roads sometimes, another fact you don’t want to simultaneously discover.

Most of us would rather brag about how great we are. But if you don’t follow Dirty Harry’s advice, activities that start out as fun and exciting end up in painful and expensive trips to the E.R. You run the risk of self-inflicting some other limitations, such as how well your arms and legs work. You may be living with those self-inflicted results for a surprisingly long time, and you probably won’t be doing much mountain biking or wake surfing while you heal.

Two social psychologists at a university did a study involving a number of tests. They asked participants to estimate how well they would perform before they took each test. The result: The participants who rated themselves highest did worst. And the reverse was true: People who scored high tended to underestimate their skills. When the people who had over-rated themselves got some training, they became less sure of themselves. They had gained a notion of how much more there was to learn.

I’m often surprised (and skeptical) at how much alleged “experience” the people in mishap reports claim to have had at the time they did the bone-headed stunt that landed them in the report. Here’s what doesn’t count as “experience”: bad habits, risky behaviors, and doing something wrong repeatedly. Some people, over the course of a decade, get ten years of experience; others get one year, repeated ten times.

Perusing a special “complacency” issue of Approach, I found a terrific one-liner about the cause of aircraft mishaps: “Usually it is because someone does too much too soon, followed very quickly by too little too late.” If that doesn’t describe most of the motorcycle wrecks I’ve read about lately, I don’t know what does: too much acceleration, and too little learning the limitations of the bike’s brakes and the rider’s own skills.

Same goes for a lot of what mishap reports refer to as “inadvertent actuations,” which is the weakest possible way to describe the noise and damage that result when someone fires a weapon by mistake and the round tears a hole in the nearest wall, ceiling, or body part. These mishaps are invariably the result of not following the simple rules of weapons-handling, getting way too comfortable with a weapon, and/or not getting enough training (or, more likely, not paying attention to the training someone was trying to give you). They may be highly experienced and have no shortage of learning, but they still underestimate the powers of complacency and distraction.

The basic rules of handling weapons aren’t that hard to follow. And if there is one place where you have to know your limitations, it’s when your index finger is near a trigger.

As with any other exciting and non-mandatory activity involving such things as cliffs, whitewater rapids, snow-covered mountains, noisy engines and adrenaline, the point isn’t to avoid the activity. The point is to do it in a way that ensures you will be able to keep doing it for as long as you please, thereby accreting all sorts of cool memories and priceless experiences. And the way you do that is by getting smart, not by winging it. You overcome limitations not by ignoring them but by acknowledging them.

Granted, this means starting at something less than whatever is the equivalent of turning the volume knob up to ten. So be it. Everybody is in too much of a hurry these days, anyway. “Not a problem,” I’d have said to them. “Just tell your kid not to sleep through the safety lectures.”

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