There’s this phenomenon that appears again and again in various fields that bugs me. I’ve seen it manifest in nearly every endeavour I’ve been active in, from music, to sport, to science and engineering. Naturally, I’ve fallen victim to it myself (a lot).

It’s sort of related to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Perhaps it’s a corollary of it. Put simply:

Many people would rather do something difficult/showy/cutting-edge poorly than do something simple well.

Let me unpack this with a couple of short examples.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when studying classical piano. Many people are drawn to the big romantic repertoire: in particular, the works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt. These composers wrote some of the best music for piano there is, and many of their compositions happen to also be some of the most technically exacting and musically demanding on the performer. When executed well, these works are superlative – some of the greatest achievements in the canon of Western music.

Most students of the piano, of course, do not have the skill or preparation to execute these well. But many will try anyway, and will subject hapless audiences to listen to them while they’re at it. Nearly every student recital will involve a teenager banging their way through some Chopin Etude, or stumbling around a Rachmaninoff Prelude. The results will be barely listenable. In fact, this is symptomatic of the performer not carefully and critically listening to themself.

They, and their audience, would have been much better off had they spent more time working on the fundamentals of technique and sound, and took on less ambitious/showy/difficult works that were within their capabilities – this would result in a much more satisfying performance.

Same thing in football. Phenomenal players such as Cristiano Ronaldo are well-known for their tricks, such as the step-over, a difficult & showy move which if executed well can completely bamboozle defenders. You see where I’m going with this. Naturally, many aspiring football superstars spend inordinate amounts of time trying to master advanced ‘tricks’ like this. I would argue that their time would be better spent emulating Lionel Messi: a player who doesn’t really do tricks; he just does the fundamentals far better than everyone else. Even CR7 himself falls victim to this phenomenon, performing the trick (with no defenders in sight?!) and getting it wrong.

Don’t get me wrong; of course there are times when it’s appropriate to do a difficult and ambitious thing in a scrappy way. This is basically what start-ups and researchers do. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Being overly afraid to take risks and potentially fall short or fail is clearly a recipe for stagnation and unfulfilled potential. But there are also times when it’s not appropriate; times when we should retreat from the frontier and re-hone our skills and shore up our fundamentals.