“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” The famed physicist Niels Bohr said this. It is one of my favorite definitions of an expert and really sums up the process of becoming one, in my opinion.
As a beginner, you make a lot of mistakes. Almost everything you do is wrong. But if you are good, you learn from those mistakes. You learn what not to do and slowly you start doing things right. As you reach an intermediate skill level, the mistakes you make become more interesting and complicated. No longer the common mistakes of a beginner, these mistakes occur less frequently and require more skill to overcome. Finally, you reach the edge cases, the once or twice in a lifetime kind of mistakes that require a very specific set of circumstances to happen. Once you have conquered those, you are an expert. There isn’t a mistake that you haven’t encountered and know how to conquer.
This journey is particularly visible in the tech support field, where I have spent most of my career. You have the beginners get confused over problems that happen multiple times a week, and then there are the legends that can solve anything that you put to them and have stories about the unsolvable problems that stumped a half-dozen other techs before they fixed with just a few keystrokes.
The point of all of this is that failure isn’t really a failure as long as you learned from it. A mistake is just one more step on the long road to becoming an expert. As long as you remember that, and as long as you try not to repeat the same mistake twice, eventually, you will become an expert.
2020 was a failure on multiple levels. The biggest failure was a failure of compassion. The divide between us was made even deeper. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a banner-waving leftist and that I want very little to do with anyone further right than Obama, and that opening a dialogue with the far right is a good way to get even more people killed. Having said that, we are going to have to open that dialogue eventually.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand”, said Abraham Lincoln as he ushered another 150+ more years of racially motivated discrimination and violence. True to his predictions, our house is ready to fall. We are going to have to talk to the other side, but that conversation cannot be tolerating people as they are. We have tried that for a century and a half and it hasn’t worked. Look at last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that, and… No, this conversation is going to have to be about teaching people that the mistakes they are making over and over again, their failures in compassion, cannot continue.
We need to teach the other side that they cannot continue to live in a society based on mutual aid with an intolerant attitude. Compassion isn’t just desired, it is REQUIRED. And after last year, that conversation is no longer optional, it is mandatory. We cannot silently tolerate these things anymore. Not if we want to continue on the road to becoming experts in compassion, something we should all strive to be.
Let 2021 be the year of learning from our mistakes. Let compassion reign.