Skill and Mastery

A few years ago, at a Morris Dance weekend, I saw a woman sitting in one of the common rooms obviously struggling with a piece of knitting. I helped her figure out something, and then went back to singing or whatever it was. When I returned to my chair the experienced dancer sitting next to me assumed I was the student and said, "Getting a knitting lesson, eh?"

And I chuckled in between choruses and said "Not really, I'm an even better knitter than I am a Morris dancer."

Impressed he said "Wow, and you're a pretty good Morris Dancer."

Which was an utterly delightful thing to hear, particularly from this chap. I'm an ok Morris dancer, and--particularly then--I tend to use youth as a compensation for skill. And I don't knit as much now I as used to, and while I don't know all there is to know about knitting, not by a long shot, I'm pretty good. I've been knitting for 8 years, or so and the thing that's keeping me from knitting these days is time, and the fact that I live in a pretty warm climate at the moment. I never see something knitted and think "wow that's too hard for me." In a lot of ways, I think I've mastered knitting.

In some ways that's kind of cool. It's nifty to be able to think about something and say, "yes! I can do this." And at the same time, I can't help but have a little bit of regret for the fact that I spent so much time figuring out how to do something that I can't really use most of the time: I don't live in a climate that really calls for woolens most of the time, I don't have any real interest in being a knitwear designer, and I consistently have trouble finding time to knit amongst all of the other things that I find myself committed to.

Speaking of which, I've certainly committed myself to other things. The dancing, I've spent a lot of time dancing and learning how to be a better dancer. And it's sort of paid off. I'm not great, and I fake my way though far too many things, but I feel competent, and I've gotten some pretty good feedback. And that's awesome. While it's fun and socially fulfilling--and that's good enough--at the same time I'm not sure if it gets me anywhere in particular. I don't really want to play music, and I'm not a very good teacher of dance.

I am incredibly grateful that I started dancing when I was in high school. I don't know if I'd have been able to pick things up as easily without those experiences. As with knitting in college, the early and intense experiences gave confidence and enough base-skill to make mastery a possibility. Had I started not when I did, I don't know that I would have had the patience, confidence, or persistence as a(n albeit-young) adult to learn the things that I do automatically. I can't really fathom it.

Which brings me to writing. And I don't even have a clue what to say there. I'm pretty good--I mean, I definitely have the persistence nailed--but I have no delusions that I'm a great writer. I've been writing forever, and I've definitely been in situations where I've had to edit other people's work and thought "wow, my prose may be flawed, but at least it isn't that." I wonder why writing is different then, at least for me. Am I a better dancer/knitter than I am a writer? Is it simply easier to critique writing than it is to critique a sweater or ones ability to dance socially? Is the fact that one some level the production of text has economic baggage in a way that a waltz so rarely does?


My own angst aside, I was talking with a longtime reader of the blog about employment and changing careers and about figuring what your skills and assets are. Because the transition from "I know how to knit sweaters and write things and dance," into "I have a job writing about Linux-based systems administration," isn't the kind of thing that makes sense immediately.

But when you dig, I think it does: it turns out that writing knitting patterns in a the narrative/Elizabeth Zimmerman-inspired way that I do/did, is very much like process for writing about systems administration tasks. And I think dancing gives you the ability to be nimble and quick, not just physically (which may be of limited use more generally,) but also in social situations. Fixing a contra dance line that's gone awry in the middle of the line has transferable skills. We hope, at least.

The challenge is in making those connections is difficult, and figuring out how to calculate the value that these skills might provide to the world. And isn't this always the case?

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