How do we know what we can do?

A friend of mine once related a story about a programming class he took in college. There was another student in the class who asked the professor on the first day: “This is all fine, but, how do we know what computers can do?”. The professor tried to give him an answer. But clearly the answer wasn’t good enough, because he asked the question each day for a few days, then dropped out of the class.

While one could have a little snicker about that story (I know I did :-)), it’s not that there was anything at all wrong with the question, it was just in an unexpected context. Had it been a philosophy-of-technology class, that would be the perfect way to lead off the semester.

Which leads me to my main point: that sort of simple question is worth pondering for oneself: “How do I know what I can do?”, or in a social context, “How do we know what we can do?”.

It’s not an easy question to answer, at least for me, but an important one, even if it’s only asked implicitly. I’m not likely to embark upon something unless, in some sense, I think it’s within the realm of possibility for me to do it. But how do I know what I can do? Having a clear understanding of where my confidence (and lack thereof) comes from would allow me to systematically probe the borders in different directions, rather than just waiting to accidentally get there by magic.

It occurs to me as I write that that the concept of confidence, and some ideas related to it, can be hollow if it is understood as some sort of a tank in a person that must be filled, but without knowing of what it is filled or how.

(Umm, this came out less well-formed than I thought it would, mainly because I’m learning about the topic as I write about it. Hope it was useful to you to read it…)


  • anna
    2005/04/30 - 20:01 | Permalink

    I too learn as I write, so here goes some learning! I am the kind of person who only knows what I can do by giving it a try. Perhaps this is rooted in a belief that I can do anything, or at least anything that any other human can do. But sometimes I try something, and then I quit. Even then, I’m not sure it is because I CAN’T do it. It is more because I don’t like how I feel when I am doing it or trying to do it. Or, I find I want to spend my time and effort on something else. I’ve also had this “we can do anything” philosophy in relationships. I like the thought that two people can always find and go to new heights and depths if they want to, but I’ve also realized in the last few years that this can put pressure on a relationship too, like…we could still be going deeper, so why aren’t we? Or personally, I can still be doing more, so I should be. For me, one question besides “What can I do?” is “How much should I be doing?” But maybe that is just the same thing as asking “What can I do?” So much for learning, maybe I just confused myself!

  • Steven
    2005/05/01 - 15:29 | Permalink

    Going from the “give it a try” stance, one can ask further questions. How do you know what its there are to try? What about its that take three years?

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