Can I use spy skills as a learning tool?

Posted: May 9, 2013 in Learning, Mental Reboot, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Alicia and I spent an afternoon in The International Spy Museum and I failed the spy test.  She passed.  Hmmm.  This is a great museum with lots of fun interactive stuff, cool artifacts, and of course plenty of Bond, James Bond.  My favorite part of the museum was being able to see the actual devices that spies used, some of which were absolutely Bondesque.

But the thing that struck a chord from a personal perspective was the skills that a successful spy must develop and how incredibly bad I am at most of them.  Since a large part of what I’m trying to do this year is get better at learning in general it seems like this may be a hotbed of uncharted skills to play with.

Here are just a few of the things that a spy must be able to do well:

  •  add convincing details to a cover story on the fly and then be able to regurgitate them quickly under pressure
  •  massively impressive observation and memory skills (was that piece of tape on that pole yesterday, if not could it be marking a dead-drop?)
  • make decisions on the fly with sparse data
  • write and read coded messages (this could be really fun)
  • recognize people that you’ve only seen once even when they’re in disguise
  • Change the way you look, walk, speak, and hold yourself with or without the assistance of a physical disguise
  • Combat skills (or combat avoidance skills)

Now of course I could go on and on with this list just from what I saw in the museum, but I think there are a couple of interesting patterns here.  One is that some of the creativity around being a spy overlaps pretty heavily with writing fiction.  Another is that there seem to be several underlying ‘core’ skills – memory, creativity, and quick twitch decision making.  It seems to me that  developing any or all of these would be pretty useful in general, even if I never land another (oops I mean a) job as a spy.   And on the flip side, there are some concrete aspects to spy skills that seem like they might be quick tests of skill acquisition.

One of the things that I intended to do when I started my reboot year was to build a list of crazy fun small skills to knock off as interesting both in themselves and as a way of learning how to learn.   This is even more interesting as I learn more about learning, because I keep seeing that attacking smaller tasks so that one can make mistakes and learn to correct them quickly is a much more effective way to learn than taking on the big tasks first.  The classic example is that if you want to be a writer, you should start with short stories rather than novels (even if you think your natural length is a novel) because your cycle time is measured in days or weeks rather than months or years.

But I got involved enough in larger things that I didn’t manage to start attacking any of the small ones.  One of the first things I’d like to attack is a small memory task.  Another thing might be to learn Morse code.  Oh, and then I could tap dance Morse code, hmmm.  Anyone have suggestions for small fun skills to attempt to acquire?  Spy related or not?

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  1. Aaron Robinson says:

    A ‘skill’ that I tend to mentally perform when sitting in meetings or listening to someone drone on is choosing specific words being said and spelling them backwards as fast as I can. This leads into something I also tend to do when I have a writing utensil and that is mirror writing. This one is generally interesting because inevitably someone next to you starts to do the same 🙂

    Continuing this theme of communication, exercising the ability for humans to easily read documents where words are written at perpendicular angles to one another is also fun. The idea here is to take a piece of paper and write as one normally would from left to right, once the paper is full, rotate the paper 90 degrees and continue to write. You would be shocked at how easy it is to read both sections.

    • ohdwg says:

      Nice – those all seem like fun skills to practice with. Of course I have enough trouble spelling words forwards, I wonder if trying to spell them backwards would help or hurt my normal spelling?

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