Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Becoming Experienced

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Here's the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years. ~ Carl Sandburg
It's not fair, I realize, but there's nothing to be done about it. Since we can't speed up the clock, we just have to put up with it, and besides, if we rush, once we get there, we'll wish we'd taken our own sweet time. Oh, and then we'll be p.o.ed because we missed out on a ton of good stuff along the way. I'm talking about gaining experience. When we don't have any, we want it, though in order to obtain it, we may have to get run through the ringer. Not every time, thanks be to God, but with enough regularity that it's worth writing about this morning.

You see, the problem with becoming experienced is, we get experience. For instance, drug and alcohol counselors often have a personal history of substance abuse. Now, nobody in their right mind becomes an alcoholic in order to counsel with other alcoholics. Wait, I take that back, I've known a few narcissistic types who were sufficiently inflated and insight-less to try. But for the most part, while those who have a substance abuse background value what they've learned, they're not proud of the way in which they learned it.

Then there's the idea of vicarious experience, which is another way of saying we learn by observation. Medical students know a lot about this one. We "assist" in surgery, for example, by holding a retractor and watching while the doctor dives into an incision, in order to benefit from her experience. You wouldn't list this on your resume, but being present and having something to do with your hands besides keeping them folded so you don't inadvertently contaminate anything important -- like the patient -- is one way of learning.

And theoretically, it contributes to a body of knowledge that we can use as a guide to reduce the number of mistakes we'll eventually make on our own, mistakes that have the nasty habit of constituting real experience. Thankfully, there's more to this process than making mistakes or getting into trouble, but occasionally that's how we figure out how to identify and stay away from them. Though not always.

Growing up around large animals, my father taught me to never allow a horse to get ahead of me on lead. In other words, make sure I walked next to his head rather than behind it. Naturally, being young and invincible, I figured his advice was for the old and feeble. Then came the cold, snowy afternoon when I was drug 50 feet by our usually well-mannered Appaloosa stud horse and my left hip became unpleasantly acquainted with his left rear hoof. The bruise was the size of a watermelon and I limped for days. Let's say I never made that mistake again. Chalk up another one for the Old Man.

Sandburg had a point (see quote), it's one thing to talk about hell and another to spend your days and nights wondering what in the hell you did to get yourself there in the first place. Which wrong turn did you take, which right one should you have taken, and why didn't someone tell you about the fifty two warning signs (billboard sized) printed in black, block capital letters on fluorescent orange in plain English posted at regular intervals on your side of the road? Honestly, there are days when we just can't see them, not even if we've stopped, gotten out of the car, walked up, and stuck our noses against them. For good or ill, we have to drive off the precipice, blind as bats until we hit bottom. And then we have experience.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

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