I’m not an expert
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few. ~ Shunryu Suzuki
life: examined is an invitation to get curious, a compendium of ideas, thoughts, and questions about living a creative, intentional life.
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Wander the halls of the internet, and you'll bump into people claiming to be gurus, rock stars, and masters. Thought leaders, influencers, and yes, experts.
These experts will teach you how to build a billion-dollar business in just twelve months, keep unwanted hair from returning while enhancing the hair you want, and train you in the fine art of unicorn-whispering.
Experts, they are everywhere. At times, I've been an expert, too.
Not an expert like number one bestseller and creator of the blah, blah, blah method, or similar. Nope, more like a low-key sort of expert. Or semi-expert, I suppose.
But I don't want to be an expert; titles or letters after names don't interest me.
In fact, some of the least-wise and jerkiest people I've known have the entire alphabet trailing them—and the acquisition of such a distinction apparently did nothing for their character.
Who do You Follow?
If you follow the gurus and self-improvement coaches, and they'll tell you success is within reach if you adopt their plan, formula, or program.
Of course, their ideas of success, whether career, body size, or bodhisattva-level of meditative chill, fit a narrow definition. It's a marketing template that's homogenous and one-size-fits-all. Yet this template excludes most people.
Using fear as inspiration, experts goad you to wake up at 5 am to produce more and have more. More stuff, more work, more exercise, which translates to more debt and comparison. Their tactics bully you into less self-awareness and abandonment of critical thinking.
Yep, Writing About Aging, Again
It seems the older I get, the more I realize I don't know much, and that's oddly comforting. I do know some things about some stuff, but I certainly don't know as much as I thought I did!
Aging has a way of conferring humility and slaying any shred of remaining hubris for most of us (Bezos, Branson, Gates, and other cowboy entrepreneurs and celebrities excepted).
I Don't Know
Pursuing arbitrary and commodified standards can be destructive to our mental health as their attainment is often elusive.
Instead of chasing achievement, sitting in the seat of the novice is invigorating. Of course, donning the garb of the learner takes getting used to, but then it becomes, if you're like me, a comfortable fit.
I don't need to know everything or hold up the world with my brain cells (as if I ever did or needed to!). So, I'm tiny and insignificant—perhaps a depressing thought for some—but a relief to me.
Part of life as an immigrant in Portugal is dwelling in the "I don't know" space.
Nothing will deflate your inflated sense of self faster than living in a foreign country. Being an outsider reveals your most fundamental traits—flaws and all.
You either thrive through daily exploration of your inner and outer worlds, embracing the whole lot of it, or you sit around in the praça all day drinking cheap wine in an attempt to blot out reality.
A suggestion: Embrace the I don't know space. It's a fertile ground where you can deepen your curiosity and humanity.
Although not an expert in anything, I'm pretty competent in English-speaking countries; in Portugal, I'm knocked down to toddler status with regularity.
Imagine yourself in your home country, at your current age, and trying to make new friends or wrangle daily tasks—but you have the working knowledge of a three-year-old foreigner who's unable to speak the local language.
Sure, you can order coffee (toddlers probably shouldn’t order coffee), say please and thank you, and maybe repeat a snappy phrase you've heard time and again (naõ faz mal), but that's about it.
Onboarding new words and phrases is a slow and arduous process. People laugh—you hope with you, not at you—when you try to communicate. Things often go awry without you knowing exactly what happened. You laugh, too, because what else is there to do?
Life abroad takes place in liminal spaces much of the day. It's exhausting-delightful-infuriating-beautiful.
Embracing beginner's mind frees me from attachment to my smarts and any delusion that I'm an expert—in or at anything.
I often wonder if Portuguese people think I'm dumb because I feel like I am sometimes. But whether dumb or smart, other people's opinions are as variable as the wind and are not mine to manage, anyway.
The truth is I'm learning something new every day.
I can feel my grey matter smoking as I acquire phrases and understand more cultural subtleties. I grab onto new words and hold tightly, repeating the same word over and over to myself and with Katie, another word-obsessed friend.
Currently, Katie and I have a favorite Portuguese word. The word is faca (knife), and that letter C is pronounced like a K. You get the idea. It's so satisfying and useful in our misuse of it. Oh, and yes, we are twelve-year-olds.
To be an expert suggests that said expert has nothing to learn and everything to teach.
Read the bios of experts and gurus, and they'll claim devotion to lifelong learning. They must be —otherwise, why would the hashtags #alwayslearning and #neverstoplearning exist?
If you are compelled to tell the world about it on social media, then you can be sure it's true.
Too much expert-ism obscures nuance and new information.
The expert's mind is rich with pre-judgment and assumptions. After all, the expert has hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours in their discipline or subject—they know what to expect. But, sadly, this type of knowledge leaves little room for discovery and, I'd argue, delight.
Reclaiming awe and delight is my daily practice. For this practice, you don’t need to be an expert.
Yesterday in the park, I noticed brightly decorated envelopes with hand-written phrases on them hanging from the fences and tree branches. The envelopes were in plastic bags, dressed to survive the rain should it fall.
Curious human that I am, I was interested.
I wanted to know what the messages were about, but the know-it-all in my head screamed COVID or ANTHRAX! Don't Touch!
It turns out the envelopes were part of a mental health initiative. The envelopes were decorated with sayings like "it will be okay" and included resources for anyone in need of support.
When I quieted the miniature expert in my head, I was able to connect to the simple goodness and delight of these treasures.
I was in robot mode much of my life, knowing what to do, how and when to do it, wake up, go to bed, start all over again until I couldn't do it anymore.
Now, unless I'm in the bubble of my apartment, there's not much I can do without being present.
Out in the world, operating on autopilot is not an option.
If someone comes up to me and asks for directions, my synapses are snapped to attention as they rummage for a suitable string of Portuguese words to point the person the right way.
I must stay oh-so-awake as I navigate life here. I suspect that's why I'm tired and crave naps. Either that or I'm just lazy.
Perhaps I'm too hard on self-proclaimed experts. But probably not.
I support anyone making a living outside the conventional 9-5 scenario while conducting their businesses in ethical and equitable ways. However, I can't abide by grifters who play on other humans' insecurities and fears.
We all have talents and skills in various areas, and there is no ideal way to be or to succeed. So let's celebrate and support others without using odious marketing tactics and proclamations designed to make people feel inferior while taking their money and self-confidence at the same time.
We don't need experts. We don’t need hierarchies. We need friends and guides and mentors. We need advocates, and we need to advocate for others.
So, in what areas of life are you willing to become a beginner and drop your perceived status as an expert? Who will you advocate for?
Favorite Portuguese to English Auto-Translation of the Week:
An apartment ad:
Apartment located next to the Citizen store, Do It Better Vocational Training Center, varied types of trade and services. Consisting of 4 meats with 1 parking spot.
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Until next week—be well, stay curious, and thanks for reading life: examined
I’m about to retire and REALLY become a beginner (in Spain), but I can tell you that after 17 years in my position at work, I am often called an expert and while I get why people call me that, I can tell you unequivocally that any time I even consider embracing that thought, I almost immediately encounter a situation that just proves that there’s an endless supply of knowledge that I don’t possess. 😆
And I also am constantly surprised when people with years less experience than I have do claim to be the end-all/be-all fonts of knowledge in this or any area. The longer I’m on this planet the only thing I seem to be certain about is that neither I nor anyone else really knows everything they think they do…
How do you see straight into my mind? Oh yeah… ;) I, too, hate the word ‘expert.’ Rightly or wrongly, it implies an arrogance I am really not comfortable with. Sometimes that’s how I’m billed in my little world, but I choose to use a different word: Experienced. Yes, I’m very experienced in my field and have a lot of experience to share, but ‘expert’ implies we have nothing to learn, which is hogwash. We ALL have something to learn, and humility opens us up to that.