Integrity Languages


The Problem with “Merely Beginning”: A Response to Seth Godin

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 15, 2016

training wheels

There comes a time in everyone’s career where they will disagree with those who have inspired them. I am a big fan of the short, pithy posts from marketing maestro, Seth Godin but yesterday, he slipped up. Or rather, he missed an important detail.


His post, “Without Training Wheels” is, on the face of it, a masterful piece of motivational thinking. His argument is that the best way to learn a skill is to do it. If we want to learn marketing “You don’t need to go to school for four years. You need to do marketing.” Following the metaphor of learning to ride a bike, he argues that “All training wheels do is confuse, distract or stall.” In other words, real-life is a better teacher than the classroom and any sandbox environments will just get in the way of your development. Far better to be let loose on the world promoting “a worthy charity” or a “micro business” than to sit in a library reading a book about how to do it.


Convincing? Yes. Accurate? It depends.


While it is true that we are learning that children learn to ride bicycles better when they start with bikes with no wheels, that doesn’t mean that no-one ever learned with training wheels. Similarly, while there is no argument that we will learn more in our careers out in the world, that doesn’t mean that a little time in the classroom (or doing one of Seth’s courses?) can’t give us a helpful boost or even help us avoid some embarrassing falls.


There are few better examples than the world of interpreting. There are definitely talented interpreters who came into the profession having never set foot in an interpreting classroom. Many of those, however, have found it helpful to do courses later in their career to sharpen precisely the kinds of skills that are now taught in a good interpreting degree course.


There is a reason why most organisations ask for you to have trained as an interpreter before you bang on their door looking for a job. Interpreter training will not make you a perfect interpreter but, if it is delivered well, it can give you the basic techniques you need and, more importantly, the crucial skills of effective learning and critical thinking.


In the past few years, researchers like Elisabet Tiselius have started to argue that, if interpreters are to keep on improving, they need both the initial academic training and close mentoring from other colleagues. In other words, just doing interpreting is not enough to actually improve at it. We need to be able to think about our practice and learn to work with others to improve it. And, without the critical thinking skills that a good interpreting school should teach, it is all too easy for interpreters to get side-tracked with bad advice.


In the world of marketing, I absolutely defer to Seth’s wisdom. Perhaps there it is much better for people to dive right into the pool than to learn in the classroom and then jump in after learning a few strokes. But in interpreting, the most effective route to excellence still seems to be to get solid training from practising experts and challenging theorists, and then to take your first few strokes, knowing where the sharks are knowing where to find ongoing mentors.


Do you need to spend four years in school before interpreting professionally? Probably not. Will it help to get training from the pros first? Absolutely!

2 comments on “The Problem with “Merely Beginning”: A Response to Seth Godin

  1. Hi Jonathan, I suppose you’re right in a sense, but I think you’ve got your provocateur’s hat on at a jaunty angle there when saying Our Man “slipped up” ;). Clearly, for example, no one would want their child to have a heart operation with a surgeon who was just diving in and making it up as they went along. Perhaps that kind of caveat was obvious, perhaps not.
    I read Seth’s piece as a quick and simple call to action, to roll up our sleeves and get learning from experience, from the school of hard knocks, without hanging back. For those of us who have come to translation as a second career, in particular, if you want to get somewhere, there’s no time to waste.

    • I don’t think I was that provocative. It did indeed read as a call to action but the undercurrent of criticism of those who prepare before action was off-putting. It seemed to support modern anti-intellectualism and the constant bias for action, which is fine, so long as there is still time to think. Sure, there are many cases where you should jump in and perhaps marketing is one. It does need a big caveat though, to prevent people diving into pools that are deeper than they seem.

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