Your job is so easy
July 23, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good write-ups on the "everyone else's job is easy" phenomenon? You know, the one where people think you can buy good (accounting services / legal services / design services) off the shelf these days, and that hiring a professional is a fool's errand?

I find it fascinating when colleagues approach me and ask me to teach their kids HTML over the summer so they turn into professionals like me by the fall. You know, by using Dreamweaver.

I also had someone sign up for my Photoshop class and bring an architectural illustration along with her. She wanted to duplicate it in Photoshop. We got as far as selecting a floor texture and applying perspective to it, when she realized she'd have to re-create every item in the picture by hand. She quit the class the same day.

I'm looking for the source of this attitude. Or an examination of it. Is it marketing? Is it economics? Some sort of serious examination.

From what I can tell, this attitude leaves no professional field un-pissed-off.
posted by circular to Work & Money (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds a bit like a variation of the Dunning–Kruger effect.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:49 PM on July 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I find it fascinating when colleagues approach me and ask me to teach their kids HTML over the summer so they turn into professionals like me by the fall.

Tell them you can teach their kid, but you will need 10 years.
posted by mlis at 3:07 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is speculation, but I think that widespread access to the internet, which makes a huge breadth and depth of knowledge easily accessible, has contributed to a general do-it-yourself attitude about lots of things.

Programs like Photoshop and Dreamweaver contribute to this by making it possible for laypeople to easily do what pros used to need specialized equipment and training to accomplish. This is pretty cool, but the caveat is that being technically able to do something doesn't automatically grant someone the experience or "eye" to do it at a professional level. It's pretty natural to not realize this until you start getting some experience in a field, so there's no reason to begrudge people for not knowing this.

Really, why get pissed off about it? Most people genuinely don't know how complex coding is, or just how much work goes into a retouched image, and that's only a good thing for you, since you DO have this specialized knowledge.
posted by ella wren at 3:21 PM on July 23, 2010

It's easy to be ignorant when the final product of the expertise is so apparently small and readily-consumed.

I'm not sure if this attitude is at all a recent development, although it is interesting that technology features prominently in many of its examples.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:22 PM on July 23, 2010

Possibly related are "Is fast food making us impatient" and "Is Google making us stupid".

The common thread among the two articles above is that much of the Western world now lives in a culture of instant gratification, or at least of promised instant gratification. This in turn trains and warps our expectations.

I'd also add in the oversimplification and 'dumbing down' of explanations to complex processes: A photographer takes pictures (not really) and an accountant does taxes (not really).
posted by thisisnotbruce at 3:26 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > Really, why get pissed off about it?

I don't, personally -- I should clarify that I've noticed many others get pissed about it when I bring it up. It does fascinate me though, as I said.

I should mention that I'm happy to read original research & conclusions around this subject, but third-party sources are most appreciated. Otherwise my professional researcher friends might all get pissed off at me.
posted by circular at 3:34 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really, why get pissed off about it?

Because when this attitude is employed broadly, it can denigrate and devalue professional labor to the point that the professionals in the equation actually lose their jobs.

This is not just a Bad Thing for the people who become unemployed; it is also a Bad Thing because the skilled labor they previously performed may subsequently be performed either badly (by unskilled workers who can be paid less money) or not at all.

Here's an example from a friend of mine who is an editor at a medical journal, which is one of a large number of journals put out by the press at one of the top private universities in the U.S.

Recently, the journals divison was bought by an outside publisher, who announced that the editors at the medical journals would be laid off in the upcoming "restructuring." However, the editors were all free to reapply for their jobs as freelancers, and (if rehired!) would be paid the princely sum of $25 per 2000 words of text. (No benefits anymore either, of course.) If they were uninterested in taking the job at that rate, there would be plenty of other new freelancers interested in the task -- because, so the argument ran, editing is easy.

But here's the thing: editing medical articles is actually an intensive, slow, specialized process -- my friend said that it's not unusual to take up to 8 hours to properly edit 2000 words of text. Medical editing requires diligent fact-checking, consistency, accuracy, and specialized knowledge to ensure that the published article is, in fact, useful to the medical field. (For example, printing a table that shows one outcome of a clinical trial that's contradicted by the text suggesting a different outcome of the same clinical trial is, obviously, a problem for any medical professional reading the article; after all, which data are they supposed to believe?)

But at the new freelance rate of $25 per 2000 words, that would put his compensation at $3.12 an hour -- which (especially when factoring in the loss of benefits) would represent a pay cut of well over 90%. Obviously, it is impossible for a professional to do the same job at the same level of quality at what is literally a subpoverty wage. So then what happens? The professionals quit, the press hires a bunch of inexperienced (likely fresh out of college) freelancers willing to work at that rate, which will inevitably result in the publication of inferior information.

Why? Because you can't put quality on a spreadsheet. After all, editing is easy.
posted by scody at 5:38 PM on July 23, 2010 [22 favorites]

I think this has more to do with people's relationships with their computers. Most consumer-level computer users have a superficial and mostly painless relationship with their software: you open Word, type on it, press Print, etc. The degree of "operator input" necessary for everyday things is relatively low.

Most people have no idea that there even exists that other category of professional-level production software, and thus can't fathom the amount of expertise necessary to use it. I think people just figure that all software is pretty much Word, and that professionals simply have the right disks for the software and a how-to book. The idea of intense specialization in software is just not something that crosses your average person's mind when they think about what computers do. To them, computers do everything instantly if you just know to press Ctrl-D.

Imagine someone who had never seen a picture of the cockpit of an airplane. They might imagine that flying a plane was pretty much like driving a car, only with "up" and "down" thrown in. That's what the majority of computer users are like.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:43 PM on July 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

I am inclined to believe it has to do with the prevalence now of the *tools*. Once upon a time, to take just one example, the average person did not have access to a law library. Lawyers owned books, books that ordinary people did not have. They were a gatekeeper to the information.

Now, the information is still complicated enough that it probably in many cases needs that gatekeeper, in many different professions. Accounting is also terrible about this. But there's no gatekeeper. Someone with QuickBooks is able to produce an end result that looks like a financial statement, very easily. They therefore assume that they have produced a financial statement. Its inaccuracy is not obvious enough to make them realize they really can't do it themselves. Similarly, someone with internet access can learn enough about a lot of things to be dangerous, and get the software tools to do a half-assed job, and because they aren't experts, they often can't see the difference between a half-assed job and a good one.

Until those tools and information were out there for people to get access to for amounts of money that seem trivial compared to paying a professional, I don't think this happened nearly as much.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:48 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most people have no idea that there even exists that other category of professional-level production software, and thus can't fathom the amount of expertise necessary to use it.

This, a thousand times this. Laypeople handheld through egregious abuses of consumer level software think that their experience is universal -- that there is some type of a wizard or magic button that just does everything.
posted by nathan_teske at 6:12 PM on July 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

With specific regard to the comment above about editing, I read an article about the value of editors the other day. I should imagine a medical journal is not in position to do a statistically valid A/B test, though.

For the challenges involved in stacking shelves, tending bar and making coffee this Reddit thread makes interesting reading.
posted by robertc at 6:12 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's definitely not a new thing. A friend of a friend was a professional flautist with the symphony of a fairly large city. She frequently had people ask her to "teach me how to play like you do."

She always derived a great deal of delight from their horror when they learned that it was no problem, they would just need to spend 4-6 hours a day, every day, for 20 years or so.

I think overeducated_alligator's theory should be expanded in scope beyond the realm of software. People who have never bothered to learn anything difficult, or to achieve competency in anything even remotely complicated, have no real idea how hard some things really are.
posted by ErikaB at 8:19 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think there are a few aspects here.

1. My kid can do this! The stereotype of the child hacker makes some people think that anyone can pick up on coding, hacking, networking, etc. The idea that all things computer related are child's play are especially grating to us in IT. See also: My kid could paint that!

2. Software as supertools. People hear the marketing about certain software and assume that its just as dumbed down as MS Word or MS Paint. They think they can just fire up Dreamwaver or Visual Studio and be instant experts. They dont understand that specialized software isn't for general users. Everything is help menu driven, which is fine, but once your tool reaches a certain level of complexity or specialization you can't really learn that way.

3. A good part of the adult learning industry promotes unrealistic expectations. I'll get catalogs about how to learn mobile programming in a month and see books with titles like "Learn C++ in 24 hours." This also ties in with the DIY-approach going mainstream. A forty-dollar book sure beats paying a professional $150 an hour. In reality it takes about 10 years to really learn a skill like programming.

4. General hubris. Perhaps a little Dunning-Kruger in there too as mentioned above. Some people are just rotten, dismissive, overconfident assholes. They don't know how deep your field goes because they just don't care.

5. The information age lends itself to a wide but shallow level of learning. Wikipedia,,, askmefi-like sites, etc barely scratch the surface of the topics they cover, but its just enough information to be overconfident and dangerous.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:06 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

A couple of people mentioned the problem in relation to editors. That's just prose, right? Anyone can write prose. Sorry, but the evidence is that they can't. In my job I write prose too--I'm a legislative drafter (that is, a person who drafts Acts of Parliament). I regularly receive chunks of text that are presented as being ready to drop straight into a draft Bill. Usually I have to spend quite a while not only editing the text stylistically, but fixing up the missed logical connections, organising the structure so that there's some sort of logic to it (as distinct from just being a free-form string of ideas), asking questions about the cases and situations that haven't been covered, and so on. Even if the author of the text was a lawyer the text will probably still be rubbish--knowing the law has little or no bearing on it. Anyone who writes any kind of highly organised prose for a living knows that most people can't do it.

Back in the office where I learned the craft we used to say that to turn a competent lawyer into a competent drafter took at least three years, and more than that (5 to 7 years, say) to make sure that they were competent in even the most complex drafting projects. Some people never made it even to the basic level of competence.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:28 AM on July 24, 2010

It is possible to learn graphics or computer programming by yourself. The best graphic designers at a company I worked for were both self taught (both were also artists). I'm a C programmer who learned the relevant principles and languages for internet projects by myself.

It's not easy if done on a professional level, but unlike surgery it is possible. Why people think it's easy? It's the few ultra talented who make it look easy (and for them it is). That, and the fact that pioneer days of new technologies the stuff we did stuff that really wasn't that hard.
posted by mirileh at 12:41 AM on July 24, 2010

darn, I meant to edit the end to "in the pioneer days of new technologies we did stuff that really wasn't that hard".
posted by mirileh at 12:43 AM on July 24, 2010

The reason is to save money and because the highest quality or deepest knowledge isn't always necessary. I don't think it's new although the internet and information being more readily available probably affects it.

For instance, I've created a logo for a website I run. I could have paid a professional to do that. They could have used their years of experience to craft the perfect image that exactly matches the personality of the site.

But instead I just hacked something together myself because it was free and I didn't need some perfect logo. I'm happy with the one I made myself. It's adequate.

I wouldn't expect the MD of a company launching a new website to do that though. The money saved wouldn't be worth risk of the money lost through having an unprofessional looking logo.

So if you work in a industry which relies on making money then high quality will only be paid for if it looks like it will make more money than it costs.
posted by aTrumpetandaDream at 4:45 AM on July 24, 2010

It is possible to learn graphics or computer programming by yourself... It's not easy if done on a professional level, but unlike surgery it is possible.

Well it must be possible to learn surgery by yourself, otherwise the human race would never have learned how to do it, it's just there are more efficient and significantly safer ways of doing it. The main difference between trying to teach yourself surgery and trying to teach yourself programming is the need to find some convenient source of victims to practice on and the relative cost of making a mistake.

Apart from that, making mistakes is a very powerful learning technique. The problem of self teaching is more that you have to be made aware you've made a mistake. If you're teaching yourself programming a compiler can tell you that there are mistakes in your syntax, but mistakes in logic are more difficult to spot, and you may never discover that subtle security hole you created.
posted by robertc at 5:16 AM on July 24, 2010

Anyone pretty much can learn anything. And the computer gives us plenty of access for that. And that can feel threatening.

I have taught myself welding, designing, coding, writing, photoshopping, plumbing, and a whole mess of other things. Enough that I am skilled enough to compete in any of those markets. And do a better job than many, many 'professionals'.

Of course I have put years and years of learning into each one of my skills (10-20+). But the starting point absolutely can be self taught. All that means is that there is a different structure and no piece of paper guaranteeing the skill level at the end.

That kid absolutely can get a huge grasp of html coding by the end of the summer. (I had my first site up in a weekend, all hand coded.) He just needs to keep going with it.

That lady can absolutely duplicate that image in photoshop. She just needs to keep plugging away.

It just comes down to time invested and people need to learn that. That is what people are missing. What you are paying for is time invested, and people are so used to getting things instantly, that they forget that.

When you make something look easy, people tend to believe you.

I am a craftsperson, so I come from a place where it is a pleasure to learn and gain a skill level. It is a joy to spend hundreds of hours learning, so I might have a skewed perspective, as I see that kid spending every free moment designing his first website, so, at the end of the summer, yes, he can start creating websites for his family, and yes, in a year or so, start charging for his services.
posted by Vaike at 12:27 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

not a serious discussion of it, but pretty damn hilarious:
posted by FlyByDay at 7:58 PM on July 24, 2010

After thinking it over all day, I decided I actually get far more annoyed with the opposite. People who say "Oh I could never do that!" Depending on the situation, it's disingenuous, self-defeating, lazy, untrue, or all of the above.
posted by ErikaB at 9:42 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The "teach 10 years" article is great. Thanks for reminding me of it. Wish I could find more solid approaches like that, but doesn't look like it's happening. Thanks everybody.
posted by circular at 6:56 PM on July 25, 2010

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