The Other Side of the Couch
Growing up in the 1960’s, I remember Sunday afternoons, visiting my grandparents at their apartment in the Inwood Park section of Manhattan. They and my mother emigrated to the United States from Germany before World War II and their apartment always had an exotic flavor for me. While not quite a visit through the wardrobe to Narnia, listening to their accented English, seeing the paintings and furniture they had brought with them and the scent of mothballs made me feel I was in a different world. In their living room were two chairs where my father and grandfather would sit and talk. Across the room was a long narrow couch. After lunch I would sit on one end with my mother next to me and my grandmother next to her.
Fast forward to 2005 and a Sunday visit to my parents house; the house I grew up in. Lunch is over and I am sitting on a similar narrow couch in the living room. My father is in a chair across from me and we are talking. Now, however, my youngest son is on one end, I am in the middle and my mother is on the other end. I looked at my son and had an out-of-body experience. The sensation was like being inside of a time-lapse film and in the space of a few seconds I was transported back 45-years and felt myself sliding, like a chess piece, across the couch. When I returned to reality I looked toward my mother and realized that, in the fullness of time, I would be sliding again.
Now this may seem a bit maudlin to some, but to readers of a certain age, it may resonate. The trip across the “couch of life” (sorry, I know it’s hokey, but I couldn’t help myself) is one that everyone makes and each “cushion” presents its own unique vantage point. From where I sit now, instead of sending out resumes; I am receiving them. Instead of waiting to be told what to do; I am doing what needs to be done. Instead of imagining how I could ever know as much as those around me; I am teaching those around me. As the Talking Heads sing, “How did I get here?”
Many of us get there via formal and informal apprenticeships. Apprenticeships, I believe, have three distinct components: perceived knowledge, ignorance and true knowledge. Perceived knowledge is bestowed upon all by the virtue of youth. Our years of education and experience pale against a young person’s fresh view of the world; a world where no one has gone before. The self-assurance that comes with perceived knowledge is very valuable. It provides energy, strength, optimism and fearlessness; which are useful traits that lead us into the next phase: ignorance.
An apocryphal statement by Albert Einstein is, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” It is good to allow new things, to make mistakes and to learn from them; even though those mistakes can be a pain in the *&#%* and occasionally expensive. On the other hand, artists of all stripes first train by learning “technique” and imitating the masters. It’s balancing between these poles is the tricky part. When ignorance is achieved (that is, when one realizes that maybe - - just maybe - - there are valid reasons for prescribed practices and procedures) it can replace the bravado of perceived knowledge with apprehension. “Anything you can do, I can do better . . .” can become “. . . if I only had a brain.” This is the point where one is receptive to a valuable lesson. It’s not that experienced persons don’t make mistakes - - lord knows we do - - but that we have learned how to fix them. This can be a very liberating concept.
From this point true knowledge can be accrued. Over the course of time, with new responsibilities and challenges, we can grow into capable professionals. This process is aided by training programs offered by many industry groups. Professional organizations and the Internet provide access to a wealth of information. All of these are necessary and useful. But ultimately it is time and the fundamental dynamic of people working with people; in different facilities; in different places; with different levels of experience that give us true knowledge. Working, teaching and mentoring enrich us all personally and professionally. So . . . who are you sitting next to?