When Your Experience Gets in the Way

Seeking a distraction from my relentless ruminations about the Rest of My Life, I turned on the boob tube to find Titanic playing. Although I was far too old to get swept away in the adolescent wave of enthusiasm for the 1997 film, it’s sufficiently well acted that I decided to watch it rather than flick through a hundred other channels with nothing on. Depending on my mindset, different things about movies catch my attention–this time, it was an observation about the ship’s captain. “26 years of experience working against him. He figures anything big enough to sink the ship they’re gonna see in time to turn. The ship’s too big with too small a rudder. It doesn’t corner worth a damn. Everything he knows is wrong.”

As we all know, Captain Smith’s realization came too late, resulting in deadly consequences. As soon as I heard that piece of dialogue, I knew I had the makings of a blog post exploring the nature of risk and desire versus caution and humility. Experience, confidence, ambition, and arrogance are so often intertwined and can lead to both wonderful and disastrous results. All we can do is our best, but humanity is rife with stories on both sides of this weighty equation which is what makes considering it so interesting…

The older we get, the more unlikely it is that we’ll challenge what our experience tells us. Life is far too complicated and moves at far too fast a pace for it to be practical to dedicate time to double checking our knowledge base or asking ourselves what might be different in this particular case, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Feeling under the gun and embracing a certain amount of confident laziness, we reasonably rely on what’s worked before, often overriding any warnings that flash in our gut. If we held back in every instance, we’d never get anywhere, right? Right. It’ll probably all work out just fine…

And usually it does.

The reason I am drawn to this as a re-booting topic is because we need to recognize that sometimes shifts occur for no explainable reason. (This isn’t a direct analogy to poor Captain Smith but stick with me.) Let me give some examples. Let’s say your relationship is going along, status quo, as it always has, but one day the sand shifts–the easy going energy between the two of you disappears, replaced by an odd tension you don’t initially recognize. Something is off, but maybe it’s just you. So you ignore it. The problem is that relying on your “tried and true” problem solving skillsets won’t help you here but that possibility doesn’t occur to you, so you try them again. And again. Like Captain Smith relying on the watch to see the ice bergs and believing his rudder will do its job.

Where have you plowed ahead, crashing spectacularly, unable to use any of your previously successful rescue moves?

In my life, I always relied on the fact that honesty, capability, and hard work would be rewarded. It was a solid belief and worked all the way up until the moment it didn’t. And when that moment came, I was utterly unprepared. I couldn’t believe it. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this formula wouldn’t pay dividends, so when I crashed into reality, I had the wind knocked out of my lungs good and proper. I couldn’t breathe. I had no back up strategies on which to rely.

Fortunately, unlike the ill-fated Captain Smith, most of us can find a way to stay afloat, however much we feel like drowning. But it takes time to understand what’s happened. It takes time to realize we were spectacularly wrong—even if all the times before we’d been proven right.

How do you prepare for moments such as this?

You don’t. At least not the first time. It’s a cold comfort for me to tell you that you can’t prepare to have your life turned upside down, I know. It’s deeply discomfiting to realize that those possibilities exist, but they do. And they’ll happen to each of us. I guess the best I can come up with is to try to be less arrogant and a bit more philosophical, trusting that we can improvise through the worst of whatever happens.

So, how does what I’m saying fit in with the arrogance vs. confidence equation? After all, nobody wants a philosophical airline pilot or surgeon! I guess what I’d say is that the occasions in which our lives or most fundamental understandings of what our lives will/should be like get turned inside out are rare. Most of the time, we’re ok to rely on our experience. Most of the time, some version of what’s worked before will work this time, too. But experience can weigh us down and limit our choices. We need to retain greater flexibility, be more fleet of foot, practice greater humility while not making us indecisive. Does any of what I’m saying make sense?

Could the tragedy of the Titanic have been avoided? Yes. Was Captain Smith contemptibly reckless for trying to break the Atlantic crossing record? No. Like distracted driving or leaving the kids in the pool for just a second while we dash inside to grab the phone, permanent consequences arise under otherwise normal conditions, changing our lives forever. I guess you can’t prepare, but it’s good to remain humble. There’s just so much we cannot know.

In this instance, everything he knew was wrong.

In this instance, everything he knew was wrong.

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