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“No hard and fast rules can be laid down for survival anywhere, particularly in the farther places. Conditions vary. So do localities. Especially do individuals. Initiative on the other hand may be guided by a consideration of general principles such as those we can here absorb.” Bradford Angier- How To Stay Alive In The Woods

They always ask what skills they will learn. My brain cramps in response. I didn’t consider skill acquisition when I created the workshop. It seems many can’t quite think of workshop in any other terms.

What other terms might there be? Years ago, I read a book by the seasoned backcountry guide Brandford Angier: How To Stay Alive In The Woods. I bought the book because I mistook it for a kind of cookbook, a reference that would show me what to do. Instead, it first focused upon how to properly think about survival, with few specific ‘do this’ instructions. I later understood that this perspective was necessary because without properly preparing the perspective, how-to instructions fall like seeds on poorly prepared soil. Angier understood this, and I suppose he faced the same dilemma I face with my prospective clients who believe they lack skills when they really lack perspective, an appreciation of the key role philosophy plays when coping with difficulties.

Almost nobody intends to get lost in any woods, and we invariably forget to bring along the instruction manual for surviving these surprise ordeals. A pocketful of principles better serves us there.

I do not necessarily argue against skill acquisition, certainly not when certain skills exist and the acquisition of them seem likely to make a difference. My friend Daniel Starr, retired senior fellow who worked at both Bell Labs and Lucent, explains that when he studied computer science, the curriculum chiefly focused upon how to think about computing. This, he claims, provided a general background for approaching a wide variety of previously unencountered difficulties. Today, he complains, curricula focus upon teaching programming languages with, he supposes, the implicit presumption that learning to code will somehow induce deeper understanding of the more general background context. He sees little evidence that this approach works and plenty of evidence that it does not.

Yet the client almost always seeks skill acquisition, like I sought it when I bought Angier’s little book and like budding computer scientists now seek it when they focus upon learning a programming language. “What specific skills and abilities will the participant leave the workshop with?” they ask. I tell them that they might leave with a deeper appreciation of the reasons why no set of acquired skills could possibly do them a lick of good in the ‘farther places’ where their daily practice will certainly leave them. That they might ‘acquire’ a few general, not specific, ‘skills’ for better coping with the inevitable dilemmas their profession will pass to them, but only considerable practice could ever verify if the workshop experience made any difference at all. So very much depends upon them.

I learned long ago to avoid the skills seduction. After watching countless professionals certified in the skills of their trade, I noticed little uniformity in how these skills seemed to be deployed. Some went all rote, presuming, I guess, that the recipe knew it all. Others barely genuflected in the general direction of specific activities specified in the manual and still succeeded and failed at about the same rate as even those unschooled in the specific techniques. I concluded that something other than memorized method or best practice supported success, however it might be defined. I suspected then that a mindset, a philosophy, might better characterize those more likely to succeed, so I watched some more, this time with slightly different eyes.

It seems to matter a whole lot more who someone is than what they know. The well-educated with little native judgement might cope much more poorly than does the feral practitioner. Is this coping ability a skill? For a time, I thought it might qualify as a skill, but after pouring even this concoction into a variety of molds, I found little correlation between those who’d been certified as acquiring ‘coping skills’ and those who had not. Delving even more deeply, I began to see something I’d not imagined before, something I’d been exposed to many times before without drawing any definite conclusions, exampled by my sucker purchase of Angier’s book. I began to recognize the probable necessity of some false pretense, as if to set up the rather catastrophic deeper learning necessary to really catch on. We seek skills until we understand more deeply. How, then, might the acceptable premises appear?

Though they will most likely turn out to be false premises, initially acceptable premises might just need to materially misrepresent the likely experience and the most probable outcome. Advertise the acquisition of skills and then provide an experience, like Angier’s book, that utterly undermines the naive expectations but still delights the client. Start where they are. Bait and switch them. Almost nobody voluntarily enrolls in a philosophy course, preferring more practical pursuits. Later, philosophy might well seem exceptionally more practical, but at the beginning, the beginner's mind can’t seem to cross that subtle bridge, let along scale the mountain lying beyond.

I admit that I feel like a shyster when I engage in this dialogue. I feel the seductive pull to promise just what the prospective client pleads for, knowing that I have neither the intention nor the ability to actually deliver that. We engage in a double blind dedication test, one which will either qualify or utterly disqualify a premise for continuing the relationship. At some point, I will point out this little meta-dance, admitting just how much I want this prospective client’s dream to come true and also confessing that not only am I incapable of delivering this salvation, but I know of no one on the face of this Earth who could. Then, either the conversation changes course or it ends there.

I believe that we all hold an underlying philosophy, though most of us might remain unaware of the exact contents of it. Most of us do not dangle our philosophy around our neck on a laminated card. We feel challenged when someone asks after our foundation, though we might exhibit that foundation in everything we do. If, for instance, we believe that one can drive results, we tend to drive or ascribe driving (or the lack thereof) to whatever results emerge, but we fail to ascribe to philosophy (or the lack thereof) to much, and focus upon skills instead. Even the One Best Way displays the presence of an underlying philosophy primed to believe there could ever be such a thing.

By the end of Angier’s book, he’s listing specific items he’d include in a survival kit, though he prefaces this list with the caveat that any reasonable person might disagree on what belongs on this list. By the time he starts listing specifics, he’s plowed enough ground to more properly receive his suggestions, which he concedes might properly include ignoring them altogether. By the end of the book, he’s more partner than teacher because he’s introduced a way of considering the issue so that both the reader and the author might consider together. This might seem to diminishes his authority as the expert or amplify the understanding that his skills cannot be simply transferred to any other, and cannot really be understood or appreciated without some shared perspective on the domain.

The beginning remains the most difficult part for me. I do not intend to demean the naive dreams that first spark interest in what I might do, though I remain painfully aware that I might seem to demean. It’s always different than we thought. I get to shift my perspective, too.

The Muse explains this dance as epistemology clashing with ontology. The Venn diagram illustrating the intersection of the two looks like widely separated balloons. We speak different languages at first, we see different worlds. It’s Flatland every time. Sometimes we’re able to pop a dimension or two and discover delight lurking behind there. Other times the whole universe seems flatter for the attempt.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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