Friday, August 09, 2013
I'd like to think I'm an expert in something. I've spent the last day trying to figure out what that might be. I can quilt, but I'm not an expert. I can sew, but a tailor I'm not. (I'm still too afraid to try the invisible zipper installation.) I know medical terminology and medical knowledge, but I'm certainly not an expert in that or I would be a doctor by now. I know a lot about nutrition but wouldn't consider myself an expert. I can play the piano, organ, and Celtic harp, sing and even direct choirs, but I'm no expert musician. I know a lot about Abraham Lincoln, but I'm no match for the people who have written books about him. I'm a great speller, but I'd lose in the first round of the National Spelling Bee (have you ever seen those obscure words they use??). I'd like to consider myself an expert in my chosen expander software program, Instant Text, but there are features in there that I've never had to use and thus have never learned.
You see, when I really have an opportunity to see or hear an expert in action, I am awed. I know just enough about a lot of things to enable me to really value expertise when I see it. I realize, however, that for those areas in which I am lacking experience, my mind can never fully appreciate these artistic endeavors. For instance, I really enjoy looking at pretty flowers and love to eat delicious food. But alas, I have never been a gardener and I have never been a chef, and thus I know I really have no idea how much toil, learning, setbacks, etc., that went into producing those masterpieces. My friend Sally knits. It looks very difficult to me, and when I see one of her intricate sweaters, after I deeply admire it, I know that I will never be able to appreciate it as much as one of her fellow knitters would, because I have no idea how much time it took to make and how much time it took to learn the patterns. Maybe one day if I ever learn to knit, I could revisit all those beautiful pieces and be blown away at an even greater level by her handiwork. But I do have experience in some things, and I believe that has given me a better understanding of the work involved.
I remember seeing the late Van Cliburn perform when I was a teenager. The general audience members were entranced with the performance, of course. But I'll bet you that we pianists, young and old, in that same audience had a deeper appreciation of what was happening before our eyes, because we knew what it was like to practice (in a small way), we knew what it felt like to give a recital (in a small way), we knew how frustrating it was to learn something new and master it - again, in a small way. He was doing the same thing we had done - only on a much grander scale. He was our inspiration. Forget super heroes - he was the young pianist's awe-inspiring moment. He made it look easy - but we knew better.
This is why when I see beautiful quilts, I am wonderstruck by the work that I know went into it. I can admire the spellers in the bee, the seamstresses on Pattern Review, the Maine harpist Julia Lane, and the authors who write about Lincoln after countless hours of research. I feel that a tiny piece of me is present in them, because we share the same desire to learn - only they became the expert and took it to the limit, while I am content with coasting along in my learning, basking in their well-earned glory and marveling at their talent.
They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That's a lot of time to dedicate to one magnificent thing. If I practiced piano for 10,000 hours, that's a lot of hours I wouldn't be sewing or quilting or transcribing. Every hour to perfect one skill takes away an hour of enjoying another.
I decided years ago that I would give up chasing the expert label. I had to ask myself if I would rather be fairly good at a number of things or a bonafide expert in one thing - and the answer for me was the former. Van Cliburn dedicated his life to the piano and the world is better for it, but he worked hard and long to perfect his talent. I'll bet you he didn't make a single quilt the whole time!
Of course, the world always has the "Renaissance person" - the Leonardo Da Vinci type - the one who is an expert in many things. But those people are rare. Most people who are experts in one thing can only handle expertise in a couple of other things before they just run out of time.
I'm writing this post on National Book Lovers Day - in honor of all those authors who dreamed big and worked hard to master writing and illustrating, for which I am so grateful. At the same time, I honor the artists, musicians, crafters, growers, knitters, spellers, and everyone else who was hungry to learn, worked hard to get better and better, and by that, have added beauty to our world. (Yes, I believe a correctly spelled word or an appropriate apostrophe is a beautiful thing!) I will never be an expert, but neither will I be complacent when the experts shine. Thank goodness we don't all have to have experience in something to have at least a tiny inkling of the work involved when we see what others have produced. We are co-creators, and I am honored to share the world with you!