"The Craft of Learning" (Essay)

Some thoughts on learning new skills versus knowing when to "hire the experts", and perhaps an insight or two into the successes of failure.

I made a movie. There, I said it. Not a quick, shoot it on the iPhone type, but a reasonably length mini-documentary. I've never done that before. I won't say I'll never do it again, or that I will. It's a big project, and a ton of work.

Of course, I didn't make a movie by myself, or even do most of the work. I have friends with mad skills in photography, videography and perhaps most important, video editing. I simply was part of the story that unfolded during the filming, but my job was to bring the story to life onscreen. I learned a ton, including many points along the way where I had to decide if I was the right and capable person to learn how to do something.

I now have reached "that age" where I'm both unafraid of learning new skills and fully appreciative of letting skilled people do what they do best. The hard part sometimes is recognizing which is the right choice. And then there are always other considerations - time and budget being primary among them. I've done a whole bunch of things I've never done before over these past couple years, and I've also worked with several people who are really good at what they do, and simply offered opinions, reactions and feedback when asked.

Having a kid is a wonderful opportunity to examine the process of learning up close. In the past few months, I've watched - and occasionally helped and infrequently cajoled - my no-longer-so-little person grasp basic math and run with it. She writes stories, learns to type on the computer, tackles games and activities that are new to her, and does most all of it with gusto. Fired up at the opportunity to try something new.

For a child, there's always that struggle on that very same tightrope; "I want to do this myself" versus "Daddy/Mommy, will you help me?". And it was real to me the same way all over again, as a kid as well as a parent. Helping to make a movie about a masterful craftsman, who builds the instruments on which my livelihood depends. I can't draw a decent guitar on paper with pencil, let alone have all the skills involved in making one out of a tree. Watching a skilled photographer and image editor each working their magic in a mix of awe and "how the hell did you do that?" And perhaps most daunting of all, me with no experience tasked with making sure the very best of their work was represented in a cohesive and compelling format - one in which I have never worked previously!

I've learned a lot about "success" over the years too. We're not taught as children just how fluid that concept is. We grow up with the amorphous hope to "be successful" in some capacity. I am clearly a bigger failure at most everything I've done than a "success". I will never taste the pinnacles of pop stardom for sure, nor will the movie that I just helped to make win an Oscar or Emmy. Those things are of little consequence.

Success to this middle aged, somewhat adaptable creative person is to be able to DO things that come from the mystery of imagination. To be rightfully satisfied with the work done as a result worthy of the effort. To struggle to pay the bills while living a life rich in family, and creativity and community. To be good enough at doing some kinds of things that people continue to reach out to tackle new projects together.

"Failing" is simply the part of material removed in making the sculpture, the lyrics that don't make the song, or the diligent practice on a single passage of music to teach the fingers to remember the right sequence of neurons firing. Without it, there is no real "success" in my humble opinion. Finding that balance - success and failure, do-it-yourself versus "can you help me?" - seems to me to be the fundamental skill in the craft of learning.

And I hope you enjoy the movie! Martin Fair built the guitars, Sarah Huntington shot the film, Dave Kiser made that film and my words and music into a story. I tried my best to stay out of the way, and to help remove all the stuff that didn't need to be included.

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