Wednesday, July 22, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: I Love Being a Father


"The nature of impending fatherhood is that you are doing something that you're unqualified to do, and then you become qualified while doing it."  John Green  


This picture is 44 years old as of last Friday. That's me holding our first child Elisabeth in the hospital while "rooming in" with her and my wife Marcie. She came a few weeks early and hadn't had time to plump up, hence the skinny legs. Marcie was the photographer.  

In those days it took a lot of effort for a father to attend the delivery of his children, and even more to have the baby stay in the room with us, instead of in the nursery. We had to use a hospital 30 miles away because the local hospital would not permit such things.

The 30-mile-away hospital required us to attend Lamaze classes beforehand. The only Lamaze class we could find in the area was taught by a young hippie-looking couple who lived far out in the country in a rustic log cabin kind of homestead. They were very much "in to" all things natural. We and a few other expectant couples sat cross-legged on their living room floor and learned the rudiments of natural childbirth. Sometimes during class, the teacher's four-year-old son who was still nursing would take his place on his mother's lap, pull up his mother's blouse, and proceed to have his supper. The mother kept right on teaching without missing a beat.

On July 17, 1976, the long weeks and months of pregnancy finally came to an end, and it was time to get to the hospital and put our training to work. On the drive there, we benefited from a police escort of sorts. In my haste to get Marcie there in time, I was speeding (yes, literally speeding) along the interstate to the hospital when the red and blue lights of the highway patrol told me to pull over. As the officer approached the car, I told Marcie to be sure to act as if she were in great pain. She just laughed because at the moment she was between contractions.

I told the state trooper my wife was in labor and we were headed to the hospital to deliver our baby. He ran back to his car and motioned for us to follow him. He led us, racing at full speed with siren blaring and lights flashing, straight to the hospital. He dashed to the ER to retrieve a wheelchair and then wheeled Marcie inside while I parked the car. We later wondered if he did that to confirm we really were having a baby and not just making up an excuse for speeding.    

After a few hours of painful and UNMEDICATED natural labor using our Lamaze training from the hippie couple, we welcomed our darling baby girl. Marcie did all the work, and for me, it was love at first sight, as it was with all our six children.  

Our newborn didn't have a name in advance because in those days we didn't discover her gender until she actually arrived. That key piece of information eliminated half of the candidates on the prospective-name list, but then we still had to see which name fit the child. The actual naming took place in our room where the three of us were isolated for a couple of days. We called her Elisabeth, with an S, like John the Baptist's mother in the New Testament.  

"Rooming in" meant we had the baby to ourselves and were responsible for her care. Visitors could peek in from the door, but couldn't come in. The privacy was heavenly. I can say I was a hands-on father from the beginning. I got to hold her as much as I wanted. I gave her her first bath, and was the first to cut her tiny little fingernails. By the time we went home, we were fully bonded, which set a pattern for the next 44 years with her, and for her siblings who arrived over the next 17 years.

Since then, five more beautiful babies have joined our family and have become permanently embedded in my heart.  I wish I had the time and space to tell you about those five other births, but suffice it to say, each was a moment of pure love and true joy, each in its own unique way. I couldn't be prouder of each one of them, from the moment they came into our lives until today. And I couldn't be prouder of Marcie for her desire to have them and to deliver them all au natural, and then nurture and cherish them forever.  

Over the years, I have found Theodore Roosevelt's statement about fatherhood to be 100% correct: "There are many kinds of success in life worth having. It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railway man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison."

They are grown up now and moving forward on their life's journeys. As it turns out, we've all grown up together. Being their father has taught me far more than I have ever taught them. "Fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man," said Frank Pittman.  

I thank my dear children for all they have taught me, and for making my life richer and fuller than anything else I have ever done.

Except, perhaps, to have married their mother.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: Mastery - What Does it Take?


"Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.  For this reason, mastery demands all of a person."  Albert Einstein 

In my previous Wednesday Wisdom, I distinguished between Level 4 learning, "Unconscious Competence," and Level 5 understanding, which I call "Mastery."  

As I explained there, the drawback of being an Unconscious Competent is that, because you do not understand the what, when, how, and why of your skill, you cannot intentionally improve your own performance nor can you explain to someone else how they can get better. That difference clarifies why I can (sometimes) raise large and beautiful vegetables but I cannot guide Becky in doing the same, nor can I, without a significant additional investment in my learning, step up my own game in the garden.

If you're considering achieving Mastery, whether in gardening or in any other facet of life, here are three principles to keep in mind.

  1. Achieving Mastery requires massive amounts of toil and sacrifice.
"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all." Michelangelo

A Master makes it look easy. However, what cannot be seen by the casual observer are the countless hours and days and years the Master has invested in polishing his craft, and the pain, sacrifice, and rejection he has endured along the way. Masters must often forgo many of life's enjoyments that most of us take for granted in order to focus on their area of specialty.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin on the almost inhuman amount of time, toil, and sacrifice Masters are required to expend to achieve Mastery:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.

Using the example of music, Gladwell says that to become a world-class musician, even for an artist who has sufficient talent to gain admission into a top music school, "the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."

Isaac Stern, perhaps the premier violinist of his day, expressed succinctly what is required to reach the peak of his profession. He was once met by an adoring middle age lady after a concert. She gushed "Oh, I'd give my life to play like you!"

"Lady," said Stern tartly, "That I did!"

2.  You must love your craft to achieve Mastery.

"Though you can love what you do not master, you cannot master what you do not love." Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Masters do not toil with gritted teeth, dreading each of those ten thousand hours Levitin and Gladwell say are required to reach the apex of their specialty. The secret to Mastery is circular: you must do what you love and you must love what you do. Otherwise, it never happens.

"You can only become truly accomplished at something you love," wrote Maya Angelou. "Don't make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off of you."  

In my world, I have seen Masters in the so-called mundane things of life. I've seen Master Carpenters. I've seen Master Gardeners. I've seen Master Fishermen. I've seen Master Decorators and Master Cooks and Bakers. I've seen Master Painters. In every case, I've seen them smiling as they work. They do not count the hours they spend, for their efforts are literally timeless.

Perhaps most importantly, I've seen Master Mothers and Fathers and Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles. They love being parents. They love the minutes and hours they spend with their grandchildren. They can't wait to see their nieces and nephews again.

One of the grandest mothers I know once described her yearnings as a young adult: "All I ever wanted to do was be a mother, and when our children came, every day was pure joy to me. Even with dirty diapers and runny noses and skinned knees, I loved being my children's mother."

If you would be great at anything, find what makes you happy and do it joyfully and repeatedly until you are a Master at it. For that is the only way to achieve Mastery.

3.  Achieving Mastery is a journey, not a destination.

"When you can see mastery as a path you go down instead of a destination you arrive at, it starts to feel accessible and attainable. Most assume mastery is an end result, but at its core, mastery is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a journey you experience." Gary Keller

I will admit that I'm not a good road-tripper. I am so narrowly focused on getting there that I fail to recognize and enjoy what might be interesting along the way. I just want to arrive at the terminus, get out of the car, and call it a day. Hence, I will likely never become a Master traveler.  

The compulsion to "get there" is ruinous to achieving Mastery.  

Which is not to say that along the road to Mastery there's not a drive to keep pushing forward. Having a drive for excellence is essential. Without it, no one achieves greatness. But the Master enjoys the path he's on and he loves what happens along the way. He gleans from it; he grows from it; he learns from it and discovers what he needs to achieve Mastery.

It also doesn't mean that the journey to Mastery is not marked with goals and milestones; it is. The path to Mastery is not a random amble. It is intensely intentional and purposeful. But those goals and milestones are only steps, not destinations. Becoming a Master is about the experience itself. It is complete immersion.

Is there a facet of your life in which you are committed to achieving Mastery? Are you ready to invest almost immeasurable Toil and Sacrifice? Love of your Specialty? A Commitment to the Journey? Are you prepared to pay such a heavy price?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: The Unconscious-Competent Gardener


"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge."  Daniel J. Boorstin 

I received a message a few days ago from my sister-in-law Becky, who lives in Madison, Mississippi. It read:

Scott, I have a question for you. I recall your posting pictures of some beautiful veggies you had grown. Some were incredibly large. Could you tell me how you got them to grow so big? Did you have your soil tested and add amendments? Did you use a special fertilizer? I love to garden, but my yield and my flowers are less than I would desire. Thanks a lot!!

I thought about her question that whole day, but didn't respond because I wasn't sure what to say.  

The next day she sent me the same message. (Becky is nothing if not persistent.) I realized that evasion or procrastination would not work in this setting, so I called her right away to confess that I was unclear how to answer her. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: So, what's happening, Becky?

Becky: I'm disappointed and getting frustrated with the results of my gardening. Everything I raise seems to be puny and I'm not getting much yield. I was hoping you could give me some pointers. You seem to get great results.

As she was speaking, my mind flashed back to some past successes I'd had in the garden.

Me: Becky, are you familiar with the term "unconscious competent"?

Becky: No, what does it mean?

Me: It means someone who is successful but who does not know what caused his success, or at least he lacks sufficient understanding to teach someone else how to duplicate that success.

Becky: Oh no. Are you saying that's what you are? I find that hard to believe.

Me: Yes, I'm afraid so. Since we moved to Harmony in 2007, I've had gardens in three locations. I first started gardening at the Pratt's community garden and rent-a-row. I'm pretty sure they had had their soil tested. Nancy and Allan told us to add lots of peat moss before turning over the soil, and then to work in a balanced granular fertilizer during the growing season. When I had a garden in the Harmony community garden and in my own backyard raised beds, I just did the same thing. Usually it worked, but sometimes it didn't.   

Becky: So when it didn't work, you couldn't see that you'd done anything differently?

Me: Not that I could identify. That's what's frustrating about being an unconscious competent - it works great when it works but you don't know how to fix it if it doesn't.

Becky: Then what do you think I should do?

Me: I would say, go get your soil tested and follow the Extension Service's advice. They're the real experts. Sorry to be so unhelpful.
* * * * *


In certain theories of education and learning, there are four levels. Learners or trainees tend to begin at stage 1, called "unconscious incompetence," in which the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.

They pass through stage 2, "conscious incompetence," where they become aware of their deficiency in the skill area,

At stage 3, "conscious competence," the person can perform the skill reliably at will but needs to concentrate on it in order to perform the skill; the skill is not yet second nature or automatic.

The fourth step in this paradigm is called "unconscious competence." This signifies the ability to do something well without thinking about it. The skill has become almost automatic. In most learning models, "unconscious competent" is said to be the highest level of achievement.  

However, I disagree with that point of view. To me, there's another step, a fifth level. This highest level is the ability to not only do something well and intuitively, but to also explain to another what you're doing and why, and to figure out how to progress and improve your methodology in doing it.  

Dr. Lorgene A. Mata looks at it the same way I do. He wrote:  

I believe the highest level of competence learning is not level 4, "unconscious competence", but a higher 5th level. At this level, the person has not only mastered the physical skill to a high degree that does not require conscious execution of the skill but he also comprehends the what, when, how and why of his own skill and [is thus] able to improve on how it is acquired and learned. He is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient.  

Dr. Linda Gilbert echoes these ideas:

This "fifth stage of learning" indicates a stage where you can operate with fluency yourself on an instinctive level, but are ALSO able to articulate what you are doing for yourself and others. Many people never reach it - we all know experts who can't tell you how they're doing what they're doing.

* * * * *

So back to my own gardening.
Although I have reached Level 4 - unconscious competent - as evidenced by my ability over the years to produce some wonderful vegetables, I have not yet reached Level 5, which I call Mastery. At the Mastery level, I would be able to grow large and abundant crops just about every time, and I could adjust my horticulture whenever my approach was a little out of kilter or I found myself in a somewhat different environment. And just as importantly, I could explain to Becky (or anybody else) what they ought to do to achieve the same results I have.

I am not there yet, although to an outsider I might appear to be.  

Knowing that about myself is what made me reluctant to return Becky's call. I didn't want to reveal myself as an Unconscious Competent when she thought I was a Master Gardener. That would require climbing down from my pedestal and acknowledging my shortcomings. Oh vanity!

Sorry, Becky, I can't tell you how to fix your problem. I learned a successful pattern of fertilizing from the Pratts, but if that approach doesn't work, I'm lost. At Level 4, I have not yet figured out the what, when, how and why of gardening success, especially as it pertains to soil types, soil deficiencies, and soil additives like peat moss, fertilizers, and the like. Add to that the challenges of dealing with ever-changing populations of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and gardening remains difficult for me.  

When it comes to vegetables, I can grow 'em large and beautiful (sometimes), but I can't teach others how to grow 'em that way. As Dr. Gilbert described it, I'm one of those so-called "experts" who unfortunately "can't tell you how they're doing what they're doing."

In my next Wednesday Wisdom, I'll talk about "REACHING LEVEL 5: THE MASTERY LEVEL."