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Perfection-oriented v. Performance-oriented

Robert Strandh writes a piece about two different kinds of learners: perfection-oriented learners and performance-oriented learners.

He writes:

The people in the category perfection-oriented have a natural intellectual curiosity. They are constantly searching for better ways of doing things, new methods, new tools. They search for perfection, but they take pleasure in the search itself, knowing perfectly well that perfection can not be accomplished. To the people in this category, failure is a normal part of the strive for perfection. In fact, failure gives a deeper understanding of why a particular path was unsuccessful, making it possible to avoid similar paths in the future.

The people in the category performance-oriented on the contrary, do not at all strive for perfection. Instead they have a need to achieve performance immediately. Such performance leaves no time for intellectual curiosity. Instead, techniques already known to them must be applied to solve problems. To these people, failure is a disaster whose sole feature is to harm instant performance. Similarly, learning represents the possibility of failure and must thus be avoided if possible. To the people in this category, knowledge in other people also represents a threat. As long as everybody around them use tools, techniques, and methods that they themselves know, they can count on outperforming these other people. But when the people around them start learning different, perhaps better, ways, they must defend themselves. Other people having other knowledge might require learning to keep up with performance, and learning, as we pointed out, increases the risk of failure. One possibility for these people is to discredit other people’s knowledge. If done well, it would eliminate the need for the extra effort to learn, which would fit very well with their objectives.

Looking at these two categories, I would put myself in the perfection-learning category even though I don’t necessarily think this is the better category. He later describes how initial impressions often cause an individual to reject a programming language or toolset for bogus reasons. He says:

It is hard to overestimate the strength of this phenomenon. I myself recently discovered a marvelous feature in a programming language that I had purposely avoided for the past 10 years, simply because 10 years ago, a colleague (who did not know the feature) explained to me that it was no good. We were both victims of our own minds. My colleague because he obviously needed to defend that he had made a different choice, and myself because I subconsciously found it very appealing to be able to brush off the feature as useless and thus not having to learn it. It is hard to overestimate the wasted time I have put in during the past 10 years due to considerably lower productivity than I could have had, had I realized at the time what I now know about human psychology.

Obviously Strandh is trying to warn against this tendency. But I would argue that this tendency toward premature judgment is in fact a natural learning response. The brain absorbs what it can. It’s quite possible that this feature wouldn’t have made any sense to him at the time the feature was presented to him, and it was only later that he could appreciate its usefulness. The learner creates his own path, rejecting some avenues and accepting others. We can hope that some teacher can guide him along and point out when the learner is going nowhere, but there is a lot to be said for the learner discovering things on his own. The mistakes in exploratory forms of learning can be just as instructive as the correct paths.

That is why keeping abreast of a field is particularly important (by for instance reading weblogs). While reading newsgroups and weblogs, the mere recurrence of certain discussions will gradually familiarize the learner to a tool or concept and help him to “rediscover” it later on. To use the example presented above, the reason for the programmer’s stupidity may very well have his failure to keep abreast in ideas and commentaries by peers who did find the tool to be useful.

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