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This is a short story I read a long time ago, almost certainly before 2000 and likely before 1990.

I don't recall if it was in a magazine or in a book/anthology.

It was probably published a decade or more before I read it, because technology is not present in anything beyond about mid-1970s levels.

The plot remains very strongly with me though:

An exactly average man decides one day to buy, from an ad in the back of the yellow pages or newspaper classifieds or similar, a set of lessons that claim to impart a particular skill.

His friend advises against it, claiming they don't work very well, and are a waste of money.

But because he is the exactly average man, average in all respects, the lessons work extraordinarily well, and he becomes an expert/virtuoso/etc.

So he begins to get all the lessons and become extraordinary talented.

Some of the lessons include piano lessons and weight lifting/body building/health improvements.

I believe it ends in disaster for the average man, a cautionary tale about excesses in any form.

For the life of me I cannot Google this now, to share with a friend who claims to be "very average".

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  • what sort of disaster?
    – user14111
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 3:34
  • I don't recall. Ostracized perhaps. Or he collapses under the metaphorical weight of all his new-found talents. It might have been a "be careful what you wish for" cautionary tale.
    – studog
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:52
  • I'm so sad I can't answer this, because I read this same story, around the same time period. I think there is a 50% chance I read it in this anthology: goodreads.com/book/show/… Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 16:40
  • @CaptainSkyfish Thank you so much! If there's two of us that remember it, it's more likely that it's real and I'm not crazy after all. :-) I may have this one in my in-storage books. I'll check but it'll be a while.
    – studog
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 20:50

2 Answers 2

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The only story even close to that description I've ever read is about a WWII veteran taking a highly advanced correspondence course.

With integral calculus in the third lesson.

This story is not a cautionary tale against being too knowledgeable or too competent -- it is difficult to imagine science fiction authors being anything but enthusiastic for as much knowledge and as much competence as possible. So many of the "If This Goes On..." style of warning stories warn of too little knowledge and too little competence, or at least without wisdom and ethics to use it well.

But in the story I know closest to the question, an almost

"exactly average man" decides one day to buy, from an ad in the back of the yellow pages or newspaper classifieds or similar, a set of lessons that claim to impart a particular skill.

He is a seriously injured, and widowed, veteran sent back home in 1945 who, in response to a letter, starts taking a correspondence course.

It is (of course!) "Correspondence Course" by Raymond F. Jones.

He is an extremely sympathetic character because of his losing his wife, and because of his war-shattered leg. He starts the correspondence course in response to a letter:

SERVICEMAN—WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

You have come back from the wars. You have found life different than you knew it before, and much that was familiar is gone. But new things have come, new things that are here to stay and are a part of the world you are going to live in. Have you thought of the place you will occupy? Are you prepared to resume life in the ways of peace?

WE CAN HELP YOU

Have you heard of the POWER CO-ORDINATOR? No, of course you haven’t because it has been a hush-hush secret source of power that has been turning the wheels of war industries for many months. But now the secret of this vast source of new power can be told, and the need for hundreds, yes, thousands of trained technicians—such as you, yourself, may become—will be tremendous in the next decade.

He does not learn widely varying things like piano and bodybuilding, but does learn the technology of the "power co-ordinator". And wonders how even the best scientists on earth have invented all this just since the war.

As you would be guessing while reading, scientists on earth haven't.

He takes two trips to a town that says "Population 806" and wonders if the population had declined since the sign was made, before finding the installation of the "business" offering the correspondence course, and promising some sort of opportunity.

It ends in a way that could be called "sadly" for such a sympathetic character. But he is not punished for hubris, or for being "too" knowledgeable and competent, as could happen in mid-century middle farmland America.

It's not a warning to be careful what you wish for.

He wasn't punished; he was needed.

So while it did "[end] in disaster for the average man", this particular story is not "a cautionary tale about excesses in any form."

It's an Alien Encounter story.

And if the aliens are truly alien, nowhere near the Uncanny valley in a way that makes them sympathetic to us, then the two races might be too incompatible to benefit each other.

There is some duress and threat of force, and he could be harmed, or die before anyone else found him. It looks disastrous to human readers, including me, as he has a completely alien experience at the end.

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  • 1
    That's not quite how I remember it. I thought the man accepted the alien's proposal willingly; I don't recall the "duress and threat of force." Memory ain't what it used to be. Time for a reread, I guess.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 23:20
  • He sought the business willingly, and entered the device to work on it. But when he tried get paid for his work by Earth being given the technology -- and when he tried like a normal free man to leave. . . . . Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 0:47
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Sounds familiar but the only story I've read with similar plot is Isaac Asimov short story "Profession". I'm quite certain that it is not the correct one, though.

1
  • Definitely not Profession, although that's an Asimov tale that has escaped me somehow. Thanks!
    – studog
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:55

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