Steven Heller | Essays

Incompetence Is a Skill

It is a true fact that once you learn how to swim or ride a bicycle you never forget. It must be true. I have not been on a bike for decades and the other day I hopped on one and within seconds was riding without holding the handle bars (swimming, that’s another thing altogether). A brief Google search brought up the answer to “why?”:
Because it gets stored within the procedural memory. “Procedural memory consists of using objects (including musical instruments), as well as movements of the body (such as typing).” I wish procedural memory could work for me with digital design tools. No such luck.
I retired almost ten years ago from my job at The New York Times, and left behind my private office; comfy chair, computer and, almost all of my computer design skills. While art director of the Book Review for almost three decades I needed to learn various new methods and technologies – from how to prepare images for the engraver when we printed on letterpress; how to use an un-user-friendly Harris terminal when we switched over to photo type; preparing page comps on the early Apples and Macs using Quark then switching over to InDesign (and assorted upgrades); and building press-ready pages populated with text, Photoshop and Illustrator files. I retained the rote basics — enough to get me through the day — but never mastered advanced techniques (like linking text to image, style sheets and other now routine stuff). Still, I was competent.

However, when I returned my ID card to HR, my procedural memory was wiped clean too. The erasure was so sudden that the famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks could have used me as a case study.

I once knew a guy who had suffered a temporary paralyzing stroke. After six months in therapy, he relearned how to use his motor skills. He was fine. Then one day he decided to play tennis. It was his first time on the court since the stroke and was volleying very well yet slowly. Then his opponent returned a serve that went over my friend’s head. He froze unable to move backwards. His opponent, who had some therapeutic knowledge, jumped over the net and went to my friend’s aid.

Apparently, during therapy, my friend was not taught to move in reverse — he simply did not know how to walk backwards. This condition, called “learned nonuse,” causes the brain to have even more difficulty paying attention to stroke affected muscles, therefore making it harder to rehabilitate these muscles and over-relying on non-affected parts of the body. This is where the phrase “use it or lose it!” comes from. My friend’s tennis opponent actually taught him to walk backward then and there.

“Use it or lose it” in my case is presumably solvable. I use a computer every day for writing in Word (an old version), Zoom (which I regularly update), FaceTime, building Keynotes, opening PDFs, searching Google for the illustration above, and other simple things. I can open a file in photoshop and do rudimentary tasks but, frankly, that’s not enough to fulfill my needs or expectations. Even with cheat sheets I have problems following procedures. In effect, I have become incompetent. So, when it comes to making my ideas come to life on screen, including animations, GIFs, and whatever, I have to have someone do it for me.

At first, I thought, that this is part of the aging adventure. There is only so much bandwidth in the brain and since I do not have to regularly design or make files for a book, magazine or poster, I just pass it on to someone who will follow my direction (or do something better). During this pandemic season, it is no longer a viable solution. It is lazy. However, starting from scratch is not an option.

Fran Lebowitz admitted on her Netflix special “Pretend It’s A City” miniseries directed by Martin Scocese that she did not have any marketable skills — she was useless for anything but driving a cab (which she did for a year) or waiting on tables (which was iffy when years ago she did it). Lebowitz does not own a computer or smart phone or have an email account. At least I have all. She also suffers from years of “writer’s blockade.” Her, what we amateur neurologists and Ringo Starr calls an, “active compensatory factor” is a bitingly hilarious wit. So, she can make a good living through her talent for talk on the speaking circuit. But the pandemic has been a disaster. I sympathize but eccentricity only goes so far.

Yet look who’s talking. Being unable to do all but the simplest design tasks, I am forced to do dumb work-arounds. Instead of learning the latest version of Indesign, I screw around with Word (I literally cut and paste, then scan and make a PDF). Without knowledge of Photoshop or Illustrator, I make Keynote slides (make screenshots, cut and paste, make JPEGs, etc.) — I can cope by stitching things together. Usually, I just write down what I’m trying to do and hope that someone with skill (and talent) is not busy or takes pity. It is not ideal but in lieu of reprogramming, it is a plan.

Jobs | July 22