Wise mistakes

Short quote from “In the Beginning was the Command Line” by Neal Stephenson:

Sometimes their lack of a broad education makes them over-apt to go off on intellectual wild goose chases…

It resonated with me for some reason, as I re-read this essay after some years. The most obvious reason it resonated was because I agreed with it (or I found it agreed with me, or it was agreeable to me, etc.). However there is one very obvious part of it that was different from what I’d been thinking. It was different but still fit. Where I had been thinking “wisdom”, he writes “a broad education”.

My conception of wisdom is some sense of efficiency related to achieving comfort, avoiding trouble, finding peace of mind, accomplishing one’s goals. Experience is one component for sure. Another is receptivity and openness. Yet another is constructive self-doubt and ego. One finds oneself making fewer mistakes, taking into account one’s weaknesses, wasting less time as one becomes wiser. How one oneself experiences this could be a combination of gut feeling as well as some insight (eg knowing why one is apprehending a situation as one does, why one is behaving as one does).

One presumption I may have been making was to consider wisdom outside of the context of education level, so that it would apply to someone with folk or street smarts.

What comes to mind now are people who succumb to mystification of one kind or another and spend a lot of time pursuing that myth, look at things from within that myth, while simultaneously viewing themselves as knowing and inquiring “enough” or even more than average.

Three contexts in which this is apparent are aikido, psychology, and international/multicultural being.

In aikido, one may have a teacher who is truly skilled or just impressive or convincing. That is, the teacher doesn’t act as a catalyst, directly or not, for the student to venture out from their comfort zone and experience things “outside”. “Outside” could be practice in a certain manner in the same place with the same people. It could also mean in unfamiliar places, or with unfamiliar premises, emphases, frameworks, beliefs, and values. Despite staying within comfort and familiarity, one can certainly find things to work on and challenges, to all of which one can say, “I’m doing my best!” But a) how to tell if those things and challenges are in fact worthwhile or going to lead you to what you wish to arrive at, and b) how to tell if the way you’ve been going about it thus far has covered all the possibilities. The most powerful limitation of possibility is not knowing you are limited. If you’ve gone to the ends of the earth according to the map you’ve been living by, then of course why would it occur to you to venture further or look out elsewhere? How could you possibly see the map differently when it already makes sense? It tells you the edge of the earth looks like so, you go there and see that it does, the map tells you that there are stars and moons out there and here’s how to get to them isn’t that challenging, and you find that yes, it is challenging isn’t it? That is, here are the techniques, here is what’s important to consider when doing them, here’s how to do them well or better, yes it’s challenging, off you go now, practice practice practice!

If I originally see things in terms of angles and off-balancing directions, what process might I go through when I practice aikido with folks who are more concerned with energy and flow? I might be able to conceptualize whether they’re doing the same thing I’m doing at all. I may also be able to see how it can be so. Based on the broader education of these two paradigms, when I encounter an aikido that has as its premise partners’ reactions to openings for strikes that aren’t necessarily taken by the other partner, then I may more quickly see what they’re trying to accomplish with what they do, how they do it, and further down the line how it relates to what I was doing originally.

Psychology… That one’s way to big and many – I’ll leave it alone.

Culture. That one is close to psychology but again it comes back to how to see oneself, recognize the lens through which one sees and experiences. How can you know your own culture to any conscious level without seeing how other cultures are. I’m sure many people living abroad would say something along the lines of, “The longer I live away from the US, the better I come to know this culture, the more and more I know in my bones I am an American”. It’s really difficult to know that one doesn’t know without contrasting experiences. The questions precipitated by contact with other cultures (“Why do they eat like that? Why do they show respect like this? Why do they not care about time like us? Don’t they want privacy like you and me? etc.”) will make it much easier to organize and make into bite-size chunks the things one subsequently notices, sort of at least, about one’s own culture. So there’s the experience and exposure. And the education probably does a great deal as far as training one to verbalize, ask certain questions, follow certain lines of inquire, and possibly even have tools to see the tools with.


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