Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Shape of the River

"My boy, you've got to know the SHAPE of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn't the same shape in the night that it has in the day-time.' a passage from "Life on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain.

In the moments when you think you know everything, you must step aside and discern if you understand it all in context. Do you know what to do with that EVERYTHING that you've acquired over the years? How is that knowledge to be used in the broader sense or in big picture of life?

No matter your age or experience or purpose, I think we all reach points in life where we wonder what is left to learn or we feel like we may have reached the pinnacle of our expertise but a grad school professor reminded me last night that in these technology driven times, it's easy to think you've grasped a concept completely. The world wide web has placed new ideas and information at our fingertips. But to replace the benefits of person to person learning with web surfing would be a grave mistake. To substitute online learning and research for opportunities to be educated by those that came before you could be a devastating error. 

There are things that people know that the internet does not. You can learn a lot by observing people, shadowing your mentors, emulating their behaviors and the tactics that worked for them. There are secrets people can share, if you are so lucky. There are little tricks along the way. 

A time will come eventually when even the old people grew up with computers in their homes and laptops instead of spiral bound notebooks in school. But those times are not yet. And there's still so much to learn and so much to be passed on.

I love technology. I am here, right? But there's something in the history, in the old ways of doing things that is so pure and individualistic. And there's a learning that comes from others that relates all things to life and not simply to the task at hand.

My teacher reminded me of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi." It's a memoir of Twain's life as a cub pilot on a steamboat that traveled the Mississippi. In it there is that passage, mentioned above, in which Twain is schooled on the importance of understanding the shape of the river. Much like life, when you work the river, knowing how to drive the boat is not enough. Knowing how deep the water is or how many miles you must go is not enough. Knowing the route or mapping out your journey is not enough. You must understand the context in which you are doing those things. You must have a full grasp on the big picture. You must know the shape of the river so that even in the darkest night or the fiercest storm , you can find your way.

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