Moving On

Becoming an Expert

By Farwell Forrest

Everywhere we turn today, we're confronted by experts. They spring up like dandelions in a pasture after the cows have been moved out. For the rest of us—those of us who aren't experts, I mean—it's easy to become confused, particularly when so many of the experts offer contradictory advice.

That being the case, however, it soon becomes painfully obvious that no one expert has a monopoly on truth. In almost everything, in fact, there are as many different truths as there are experts. This isn't much help, is it? If an expert can't always be counted on to know The One True Way, just what is it that distinguishes her (or him) from the rest of us?

Here's one expert's answer. Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel-prize-winning theoretical physicist, once wrote that

An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his field, and who also knows how to avoid them.

Right on! Experts don't know all the right answers. No one can. They simply know how to avoid the worst mistakes.

OK. You're a paddler—a novice, perhaps. In any event, you're not yet an expert. What will you have to do to become one?

First, you'll have to stay alive. Sound's easy enough, doesn't it? But it isn't that easy, really. Every year, a few of America's 25-million-odd paddlers die on the water, usually because they neglected to wear a life-jacket, failed to dress properly, or didn't heed the warning of a threatening sky. However it happened, they'll never be experts. They flunked the first and most important test. They forgot that having a good time doesn't make you immortal.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a character flaw. Almost every experienced paddler can remember at least one time when only good luck—or divine intervention—pulled her through. Tamia had such a day in the Hudson River Gorge once, but you don't have to dump in a Class IV drop to have a near-death experience. I almost drowned in a farm pond.

Stay alive. It's a good idea. And you can't be an expert unless you do.

What else? That's easy. Remember what Heisenberg said? Learn from your mistakes. And you will make mistakes. Everyone does. Even the experts. Just do everything you can to make sure that your mistakes aren't fatal ones.

This isn't a radical proposition. It's what education's all about. Whether the subject is quantum mechanics or kayaking, we learn by first making mistakes, then analyzing them to see where we went wrong. And the folks who have the hardest time learning new skills aren't necessarily either stupid or inept. Not at all. The slow learners are the ones who can't ever bring themselves to admit they screwed up. It took me a long time to understand this, but I came round at last. That's when I started to learn.

Is there anything more? Yes. Trust yourself. Novice or expert, you'll make mistakes every day you go out on the water. But if you're smart, you'll learn from each of them, and as you learn, you'll acquire confidence in your own judgement. This is the hallmark of the expert. She knows that she doesn't know everything, but she knows what she knows. And when other experts tell her something she knows to be wrong on the strength of her own experience, she ignores them and listens to herself. If she's going to make mistakes, she's going to make her own, thank you very much.

Of course this attitude would be suicidal in a rank beginner, but in an experienced paddler it's the sign that she's arrived. She's stayed alive. She's made mistakes and learned from them. Now, at long last, she's learned to trust herself—not with the reckless certainty of the beginner, but with a tested and mature confidence born of long experience. She's served out the term of her paddling apprenticeship. She's an expert, and she knows it.

You can be one, too. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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