I used to play an online fantasy game that, being a cheap knockoff of World of Warcraft, which I’ve never played, had most of the usual trappings: castles, goblins, various other monsters that I’d go out and kill even though most of them hadn’t done anything to me personally, swords, magic spells, and meandering landscapes I-or rather my avatar-would traverse in search of adventure and various tasks. I felt a little guilty about it, feeling I was wasting my time, mostly because I was wasting my time. Not that there’s anything wrong with video games–I have plenty of friends who enjoy them and get a lot out of them; it’s just the way I felt about my own experience.
Like most games it allowed my avatar to level up once certain tasks were performed and I couldn’t help thinking how, up to a certain point, that was like real life. Learning a new skill, or improving on something you already know, requires practice-or, if you want to call it what it really is, repetition. But, like I said, the game only imitated life up to a certain point. I could shut down the game and walk away from it for a week or a month or longer and when I came back, if I came back, if I could remember my username and password, all my skill levels would still be where they’d been when I left. In real life skills atrophy without practice. No matter what the skill is, no matter how good you are at it, if you walk away from it for a month or more, or less-the time may vary-you’re at least going to need some time when you get back to it to get back in the groove. Depending on what’s happened to you in the interim you may never be able to get back to where you once were, or maybe your approach will have changed fundamentally.
I remember when I first learned to ride a bicycle. It took me a while to get the hang of it but once I did I spent a lot of time riding around, although mostly on family vacations to Florida where everything was flat and I could stay away from streets with heavy traffic. I’d never qualify for the Tour de France, but I was good enough to get from one point to another and if there’d been a Tour de Terrain de Stationnement I’m pretty sure I could get into that, but that’s another story.
My life took me in different directions, though, and it was at least twenty years before I got on a bike again and whoever came up with the phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” to mean something you never forget how to do had no clue what they were talking about. It was probably the same person who came up with “underwater basket weaving” as a task anybody could do. I’ve woven baskets. It wasn’t hard but it required some skill and practice and patience that I doubt would be ameliorated by adding scuba certification. And back in the bike saddle I was able to make a reasonable spin around the parking lot where I was practicing but it still took me a little time to warm up and I wasn’t going to qualify for any kind of competition.
The other way the game didn’t reflect real life is that leveling up didn’t require any real challenge. One of the skills in the game was mining. An entry-level player could mine clay and it didn’t take to acquire a few levels to mine copper and, yeah, that is kind of like life–a lot of skills have that initial acceleration where you go from not knowing anything to feeling so confident you think you can do everything, until your ability plateaus. As a player advanced they could mine iron, gold, mithril, and so on, each one granting more skill points, but at the same time more and more points were needed to reach the next level. Again this is how a lot of skills we learn in real life work. However in the game a player could, theoretically, reach the maximum level just by mining clay over and over and over, depending on their tolerance for tedium and carpal tunnel syndrome. And anybody, regardless of base ability, could level up.
Contrast that with life where I could sit down at a piano and play “Chopsticks” over and over for the ten-thousand hours that’s alleged to be the time needed to master a skill. At the end of it I’d be pretty good at playing “Chopsticks” but I wouldn’t be any closer to playing Rachmaninoff than when I’d started and, honestly, even with practice and training I doubt I’d ever be all that great as a piano player. I might be pretty good–although if my school music classes are any indication it would take a lot of practice–and I suspect I’d plateau well below concert performance level. At some point to mastering a skill, or even going beyond proficiency, requires more than just repetition. Otherwise it’s, er, just repetition. Not everyone can manage that.
And that’s okay. Some people are wired to be concert pianists while some are wired to cycle around France, and maybe some can do both and make the rest of us look bad.
The point here, which I hope I’ll be able to successfully get to if I put in enough practice putting one word after another, is that life is complicated and there’s no straight line or even completely level ground to anything. Mastery is also an illusion. Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Which I take to mean you can sit around waiting or you can giddy up and Godot.
At least that’s one possible takeaway. As with everything your mileage may vary. Another is that it’s back to school season which has me thinking that I need to find some aspect of my own life to level up, in some way I won’t feel was a waste of time, in some way I won’t feel guilty about.