Karen Pryor is a renowned animal trainer. In her book Don’t shoot the dog, she has this to say about her craft:
Anyone can be a trainer; some people are good at it from the very start. You do not need special qualities of patience, or a forceful personality, or a way with animals or children, or what circus trainer Frank Buck used to call the power of the human eye. You just need to know what you’re doing.
I love the abrupt twist at the end of that paragraph; Anyone can do this, as long as you know what you’re doing!
The statement is zen-like in its simplicity. And as with all buddhist koans, it has to be experienced for its truth to become fully apparent.
I was once taught a powerful know-what-you’re-doing lesson. I had spent three months all over the Balkans collecting material for a documentary film, my very first one. I returned home with almost thirty hours worth of video, all of which had to be edited down to fit a 27 minute broadcasting slot, which crept closer as my anxiety grew. There were so many stories to tell. In my dreams they all interconnected into one and made perfect sense. At the editing table however, it was all a mess.
Seeing as I was a complete noob, it was eventually decided that a very experienced producer took control of my project.
She went about it in the mildest of ways. Far from deciding for me what story to tell (which I’m sure she would have been capable of), she asked me to take a break from the editing. Instead, she insisted that I go back to the source material and watch it all while transcribing everything that was said. That is, *everything*.
I’d already been through it all countless times and thought I knew the material. I also knew that a lot of it was garbage and would never make it into the final cut. And still, dutifully, I slogged on. Typing out every last “um” and “is the camera rolling?”, until six weeks later I’d filled an entire binder.
Needless to say, it was an immensely frustrating experience. But here’s the thing: as soon as I walked out of the little closet where I’d been isolated from the world, I simply *knew* how to tell my story. From there on out, the editing was less creative agony, more like automatic writing. Still to this day, I feel absolutely great about the end result.
The lesson learnt, for me, cuts to the very core of what it means to know something. It explains the phenomenon described by the research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, that says smart people usually underestimates their capability (while dumb people overestimates theirs).
That’s because being “smart”, to a very large extent, is simply a function of having been disciplined enough to ingest large amounts of data. Once that platform is there, it feels trivial to achieve what was once unthinkable, and it’s deceptively hard to remember all the foot work that went into actually getting to know what you’re doing.