don’t be an expert


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s there are few.”

I’ve loved this Buddhist saying every since I first read it. I’ve used it multiple times to lead off articles and to open presentations.

But for roughly the first 3 years after I read it, I thought it a compelling endorsement of the experts. I naively classified myself as an expert in a variety of areas: limb loss; relationships; and health care reimbursement, to name a few. And, using my self-proclaimed expertise, I concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that this saying brilliantly crystallized experts’ ability to winnow away the inessential, leaving only the most important issues for consideration. I loved my interpretation so much that I used it when paying homage to my grandfather at his memorial service.

This was not, in retrospect, one of my proudest moments.

I talked glowingly about how my grandfather was an expert in so many things. How he possessed all the skills that beginners lack. I used lovely metaphors, 10-dollar words, and humor to build my case, brick by brick, establishing his expertise. By the time I finished, I had worked myself into an appropriately nostalgic lather, sending my grandfather into the Great Beyond with a speech worthy of publication in a “Chicken Soup for the Recently Departed” publication.

It was thus with great embarrassment and mortification that I later re-read the “beginner’s mind” phrase and realized with lightning-strike suddenness the obvious: Buddhists were trumpeting the beginner’s ability to see the world in a fresh and exciting way every day, all the time. The expert – I – was the person with a problem. I wondered what the audience at my grandfather’s memorial service had thought as I inverted the meaning of my favorite saying.

As much as I loved my grandfather, I don’t think he was beginner. This was a man who spent large amounts of time staring out the glass sliding door of his summer home in Maine every morning implicitly bemoaning his inability to control weather patterns, for God’s sake. (I loved him for that, by the way.) So, from a Buddhist perspective, my good intentions notwithstanding, I had spent 15 minutes or so, surrounded by grieving friends and family, unknowingly insulting the man who had been one of my biggest champions.

The painful emergence from my Era of Ignorance has periodically led me to reflect on how limb loss/difference can rather violently jolt one from the familiar and safe cocoon of expertise into the unsheltered world of the beginner. The fundamentals of human locomotion? Must be relearned. Trusting that your significant other will desire intimacy with you the same way she did when you had all your appendages? You no longer take that for granted.

But you work your way past those terrifying early days. You learn how to walk again. You learn how to control your hand so that you can pick up a glass and tie your shoes. You become . . . an expert. Which is comfortable. And safe. And stultifying. Examples abound.

I’ve now used an above-knee prosthesis for more than 14 years. I learned to walk from some of the most skilled trainers and physical therapists in the country. I learned how to run from therapists who worked with Paralympic athletes and from those athletes themselves.

I co-founded a prosthetic company and had the opportunity to assist in gait training myself, demonstrating the fundamentals of walking to new amputees. I walked on mechanical knees, then on microprocessor-controlled devices, while also getting to demo even newer technologies. I tried different prosthetic feet. In short, I learned everything about walking that an amputee could ever hope to learn. I became . . . an expert.

And so, as I recently watched video clips of another amputee triggering a feature in his prosthetic knee that I couldn’t replicate, I quickly found expert explanations. I considered his size, his age – all the things that made him different than me. Armed with this data, I shared my opinions with my good friend and professional compatriot, Ian, a prosthetist, while at an educational event this week.

As I expounded on the 53 reasons why Patient X could activate the feature and I couldn’t, Ian nodded his head in agreement, even providing additional information supporting my theory. He agreed with me. He and I understood the issues. We had neatly explained away my inabilities. I smugly congratulated myself on my advanced powers of prosthetic understanding.

But then Ian asked me to perform a simple drill. A repetitive action that, in and of itself, has no utility. After completing this task a dozen or so times, Ian took me “into the wild,” placing me in the same situation as Patient X. And suddenly, despite the 53 factors separating me from Patient X, I was doing what I had seen him do in the video – the exact activity that Ian and I had concurred only minutes earlier wasn’t possible.

This drove home with resounding clarity that, yes, I am a complete idiot. Because this isn’t something that happens occasionally. I experience this kind of “How-could-I-have-been-so-wrong?” moment on a regular basis. I insist on thinking that I understand everything perfectly until I’m inevitably and irrevocably proven dead wrong, over and over again.

As I pondered my own stupidity – a subject that could yield a book of Infinite Jest-like length and complexity – I realized that limb loss/difference may be the single greatest tool and gift in my “remember-that- you’re-only-a-beginner” arsenal. Examples abound.

I met a young woman named Lacey at the Amputee Coalition’s annual conference last year in California. An above-knee amputee, she casually mentioned that she was a cheerleader. I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s cool. She still thinks of herself as a cheerleader even though she’s an amputee.” After all, I know what cheerleaders do. And I know the capabilities of above-knee amputees. Never the twain shall meet.

And then, a few weeks ago, I saw a video of Lacey in a gym with her prosthesis. Doing a handspring. Damn. She is a cheerleader. Examples abound.

I grew up playing soccer. After college I found my way into a weekend league with a bunch of acquaintances from high school. I was part of that team at the time of my accident. Upon receiving my prosthesis, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never be able to do anything useful with a soccer ball again. After all, controlling a soccer ball requires ankle and foot dexterity that no above-knee prosthesis can provide. Right?

Then Ian showed me the video of a young European man – wearing an above-knee prosthesis – juggling a soccer ball with his prosthetic leg. And not in a limited or awkward way – the ball jumped from flesh to carbon-graphite foot 10, 15, 20 times with a fluidity that defied logic. Examples abound.

We can examine my breathtaking understanding of the capabilities of running with a prosthesis. My primary physical activity for the first 24 months following my accident consisted of running. In my late twenties and highly competitive, I entertained thoughts of becoming a groundbreaking distance runner, which seemed reasonably easy given the fact that in 1996 there were few individuals with LL/D who even understood how to run leg over leg, much less do it for any serious distance. I even looked up the world record for the marathon and located an unofficial time for the-then fastest man to cover 26.4 miles with a prosthesis – a European who trained without a prosthesis by hopping up mountains. Foregoing leg-over-leg running, he hop-skipped his way to an approximately 14:30/mile pace, or more than 6 hours total.

As I trained at much shorter distances, it became clear to me just how daunting his accomplishment was. At one point, I did 6 miles in 60 minutes on a treadmill, an achievement that made clear to me that maintaining that pace for another 18+ miles was an impossibility. There are certain things above-knee amputees just aren’t designed for, and one of them is speed over distance. I knew from personal experience how true that principle was – in fact, it transformed itself from a hypothesis to a scientific law at some point between 1998 and 2009.

But then I learned that Richard Whitehead completed a marathon averaging a shade over 6 minutes/mile. That’s nearly twice as fast as my fastest time for one-quarter the distance. In fact, at 2:42:52, Richard is blowing away most able-bodied runners. A minor footnote: Richard is a bilateral above-knee amputee.

These glaring examples and a plethora of much smaller ones that smack me over the head several times a week remind me just how little I know – and how fantastic that is.

Life with a prosthesis gives me the opportunity to constantly recalibrate my conception of what’s possible, to see events with a sense of wonder and possibility – to be a beginner. And these examples are not limited to the world of LL/D.

Last spring, I took my boys to see American Idiot on Broadway, a critically-acclaimed show based on Green Day’s rock opera. After that show ended, the cast came into the theater’s foyer and posed for pictures and signed autographs for the audience. My kids ended up posing for photos with two of the lead actors and received signatures from most of the cast. (Ironically, one of the leads plays a soldier who gets his leg blown off while serving in the military. It made for an interesting conversation between me and him.)

So with this backdrop in mind, I procured a second set of tickets for my boys as a Christmas present. And I chose this particular performance because it was one of roughly 30 featuring Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, in one of the primary roles. My kids have grown up listening to this band the same way I grew up listening to the Beatles. And they think of Billie Joe Armstrong the way I thought of Paul McCartney – he is the consummate rock star.

(As an aside, upon entering the theater, the man checking our tickets looked at me sourly, and sneered, “You are aware that this show features adult content?” I replied, “Yes.” Apparently dissatisfied with my answer, he continued, “Language, simulated sex, drug use.” He then eyeballed my younger son and asked, “How old are you?” My son said, “Nine.” Mr. Ticket said, “Wonderful.” and waved us in. I’m still trying to figure out why the St. James Theatre would have someone collect tickets whose sole agenda appears to be to drive paying audience members away.)

The play ended and my sons rushed out hoping to score Billie Joe’s autograph. But it quickly became clear that this was an uphill climb. With a rock star’s inclusion in the cast, casual conversations and spontaneous photos in the foyer were out. Instead, police roped off an area outside the theater through which Billy would eventually emerge and run the gauntlet to the awaiting SUV limo that contained his wife.

I looked at my sons and told them, “Guys, maybe we should just go. There’s no way you’re going to make it all the way through that crowd to the front. It was a great night. Let’s pack it in.” (Translation: “I’m an expert. I know better than you kids what’s possible and what isn’t. Snaking your way through a crowd 50 people deep to score a rock star’s autograph isn’t happening.”)

Undeterred, they plunged into the crowd already pressing up against the police tape. I hung back outside the fray, waiting. And waiting.

After about 20 minutes, I had the following thought: “I can’t see them. I don’t know if they’re even still there. If someone whisks them away, I won’t realize it till they’ve been gone for an hour.” With that concern rattling around my head, the throng suddenly expelled my older son, popping him out like a tiddly-wink. He no longer had his Playbill or the pen I had given him to try and secure the autograph he coveted.

Relieved that at least one of my kids hadn’t been kidnapped – this would allow me to tell my wife, “Hey, I came back with half of what I went in with!” – I asked, “What happened?”

He replied, “I can’t get close enough. Everyone there is so mean! I’m not going to be able to get his autograph.” And as he said this, a look that I can only describe as pure despair – despair so deep and pure that as a parent you want to reverse time and somehow reposition the universe so that it suits your child’s needs – washed over him.

“Where’s your brother?”

“He’s a little further up than I was. I gave him my Playbill and pen. Maybe he’ll be able to get it signed.” [Beginner.]

“No chance in hell.” I thought to myself. [Expert.] And then the crowd started screaming, as Billie Joe emerged from the theater. My older son vainly tried to move to see him, each attempt more and more bereft of hope. And then the limo pulled away and the rock star disappeared.

Scanning the rapidly-dispersing crowd, I found my younger son. (Two for two – marriage intact for another night.) He raced towards us and said, “I got it!”

“You got what?”, I asked.

He thrust two Playbills towards me and his brother, each bearing the Sharpie signature, “Billie.”

“A nice woman pushed me forward when he came out! I asked him to write my name on it also, but he said he didn’t have time. Then I yelled that I needed him to sign the other one because it’s my brother’s birthday. [NOTE: my younger son is a liar. His brother’s birthday isn’t until May. But I have to say, it was a masterstroke.] And Billie said, ‘Tell your brother happy birthday, Baby!’ while he signed it!”

My older son stood there, dumbly clutching the second Playbill, mouth agape. I, too, was rooted to the cement, dumbfounded.

The smallest person in the crowd, the kid who complained on the subway two hours earlier that he was on the verge of freaking out because he was getting claustrophobic, the kid who entered the crowd 3 minutes after his older brother, had scored not one but two autographs from the leader of one of the biggest bands on the planet.

I’m thankful that my kids refused to listen to their father, the “expert.” And I hope they take that lesson to heart, albeit without having to lose any limbs in the future to reinforce it. It’s nice to be reminded – and limb loss has allowed me to see this – that approaching things as a beginner can lead to spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moments . . . all the time.

———————————

NEWS NOTE:

In my first two less is more posts, I talked about conversations I had with Scout Basset, a young woman with one of the more compelling stories I’ve ever encountered in the world of LL/D. (See here and here.) This past week, Scout received the Endurance LIVE Challenged Athlete of the Year Award, an enormous honor. I sent Scout an e-mail congratulating her on this achievement.

I’m guessing that her inbox was flooded with similar messages from people around the U.S., but she responded to me immediately. And, predictably, she focused not on her accomplishment, but instead asked how I was surviving the lousy weather back East.

Scout’s a remarkable young woman. Meeting people like her is yet another reason that I tend to look at my limb loss as a gift rather than a curse.

Congratulations, Scout! No one embodies the idea that less is more more than you!

5 thoughts on “don’t be an expert

  1. WOW. I just read your last 2 posts — each provocative in its own way. I’ll begrudingly admit to being a (recovering) Control Freak, but to go so far as to not only embrace but CELEBRATE Beginner’s Mind…?! You are a better person than I (not to continually build up your ego or anything…) 🙂

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