GURPS skills and real life

“Right now, he is he only thing on my mind.” No, he is (probably) not gay, he is talking about his rival in the ancient board game of Go. But some of us find it impossible to only have one thing on our mind… we are a natural born flutterby.

Still winding my way through the friendly, readable and inspirational book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Another thought that struck me was comparing it to GURPS – Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal Role Playing System, originally developed for pen & paper roleplaying games.

In GURPS, a high intelligence will give you a flying start on all mental skills. Then again, it costs a lot of character creation points to get that genius IQ in the first place. You still have to put half a point into any skill you want to learn. This corresponds to learning the rules of chess, for instance. Basically you need a passing familiarity with something, and from there on you can wing it, if you are smart. You won’t be really good at it, but you have a decent chance of success as long as the odds are not stacked against you.

This approach naturally lends itself to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. If you have a character point to invest, you could use it to get somewhat better at a skill you are already winging. Or you could pick up two new. It is hard to stop such a person from winging like a butterfly (or flutterby, as I like to call them) from one skill to the next.

In contrast, someone of average intelligence (or barely even that) will face a completely different choice when he has a point to spend. If he wastes it on picking up new skills, he will still not be competent enough to use them except on a good day with the wind and the sun at his back. Better to invest it in a skill he already knows. Even when he has invested enough in one skill that he is unlikely to fail except the most challenging tasks, the alternative value of spending points on something else is so low, he may just as well go on to become a master even if he only needs it once in a blue moon.

I think this is a pretty realistic portrayal, given that I used to have a high IQ myself when I was young. (It has probably declined somewhat since then.) I did exactly this same thing, fluttered by one skill after another. I picked up some German, a little French, bits and pieces of Esperanto, Icelandic and Finnish. But I never really learned enough to have a meaningful conversation in any foreign language except English, which was my third language.  It was the same with games, musical instruments, cooking, Earth sciences etc. I can bluff my way through a lot of things, but anyone who has studied a skill seriously would see right through me.

I think this is a major reason why talent plays so little role in mastery. Talent rarely is that specific. Rather, you are probably talented in several things if you are in one, and when you are as better than the other newbies, you think you are going to excel without effort, and so you start spreading yourself. By the time you realize that is not how it works, the desperately diligent are far ahead of you, even though they started behind you. Because they are single-minded in their effort.

Well, that is how I see it today. But at this stage of my life, I am not really interested in excellence in anything less than life itself. Not that I am doing too well with that either. But even if I have 30 years left before I start to unravel – and that is if I can dodge cancer and random accidents – I cannot really think of anything worth pursuing singlemindedly except the betterment of the soul. And I don’t think IQ helps much in that regard.

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