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“Yet our universe has one good gift for everyone, a generosity beyond all measure: We are wrong. Often and loudly and in embarrassingly gigantic ways, each of us is an idiot.”—Robert Reed, Empty

Reed’s words come from a science fiction short story that has little or nothing to do with learning, but like readers everywhere, I choose to exercise my vexatious right to reinterpret an author’s words and take them wildly out of their original context. (Yes, I’m aware that much like asking “what could possibly go wrong?”, this is a risky tactic for a writer. It's rarely wise to encourage readers to second-guess what you're saying.) Here, my new context for the quote will be about learning.

Over the years, I have been frustrated by and envious of those for whom learning was easy. They were the ones with the prodigious memories—the ones who could read something once with scant attention and remember all salient details. For me, learning has always been hard: it required a conscious effort, often a prolonged one, and more often than not, began with misunderstanding or an egregious error that left scars. Learning the hard way, in fact. And despite my envy of those who are spared those wounds, I’ve come to believe that the hard way is often better: it’s typically left me with a more lasting and thorough understanding, since erring and correcting those errors provides insights into both the right way and the wrong way. Those who learn too easily only learn the right way, and that’s only half of the picture.

I’m my own worst enemy some days. Indeed, back in 2005 when someone asked me how I could possibly be as productive as I was, I set out to figure out what I was doing right. The answer turned out to be sobering: it wasn’t what I was doing right so much as what I was doing wrong. I would often take an extraordinarily long time to recognize when I was being a bonehead and fix that behavior. Usually after being slapped upside the head by Life or one of its many agents. But being sobered up that abruptly apparently made a big impression, because once I started fixing the problems I was formerly tolerating, I kept right on ensuring that they stayed fixed. This led to what I call my “Captain Obvious” presentation, which I’ve given to various groups roughly every 1 to 2 years since 2005. It’s hands-down my most popular presentation because everything in it is (dare I say) completely obvious. Yet like me, most people aren’t doing the obvious until someone calls them on it. You can get the gist of the presentation from the paper I presented at the 2005 STC Seattle annual conference, Improving your editing efficiency: software skills, soft skills, and survival skills.

Nowadays, I still find myself reluctant to sit down and force myself to scrutinize what I’m doing and why it isn’t working so well. I don’t necessarily fix things immediately, but I at least keep a Word file full of lists of things I need to fix. When the frustration level finally breaches my tolerance threshold and I’m motivated to do something about it, I have a list of things to do. Apparently I've taken my own advice and started learning despite myself.

Why do we learn so well from bonehead maneuvers such as tolerating a problem instead of investing time to solve it? I speculate that it’s precisely because those errors are “loudly and embarrassingly gigantic”, and therefore make more of an emotional impression. Most people don’t notice or care about the small errors, which are soon forgotten, but the big ones leave scars, particularly if friends and family helpfully remind us of our most dumbass moves at every opportunity. It’s that extra poignancy (in the same etymological sense as “poignard”, a dagger) that makes the lessons memorable. Much though I’d prefer to find ways to learn less painfully, I’m generally proud of the scars I’ve accumulated along the long road that I’ve traveled; they remind me of just how much I’ve learned along the way.

Of course, not all learning involves stupid mistakes or mistakes that leave scars. A lot of learning is gentler, and comes because the rewards are differently intense. Raking autumn leaves is one of my favorite activities; great exercise, and I can slip into a zen state for an hour or so until I’m done. But in my current home, I have this blasted honey locust tree in the back yard that drops millions of tiny little elongated leaves, like shorter versions of willow leaves, that slip between the tines of the rake with each stroke. Almost without realizing what I was doing, I learned that using two strokes gathered the majority of the leaves: the first stroke aligned most of the leaves parallel to the direction of the stroke as they slipped between the tines so that a second stroke, at roughly right angles to the first one, caught the leaves across their long axis and stopped them from escaping.

I've also learned the simple pleasures of pausing every so often and enjoying the fall sunlight. This afternoon, for instance, just as the sun was approaching the horizon, I was rewarded by a glimpse of the white underside of a gull, gilded (gullded?) by the golden rays of the near-horizon sun, there for an instant and then just as quickly gone upon the wind.


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