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Experience Isn't a Dirty Word

Observational Sketch, Süleymaniye CamiiJuly 2010, Istanbul

A piece that I read on Medium recently called "Experience Slows You Down" kind of bothered me for a while. I agreed to some extent that experience doesn't automatically make you an expert. However, the author misses the point that experience is valuable when it's done with intention and attention. I'm reminded of two principles in karate that I return to often - shoshin, beginners' mind, and renma, the act of polishing.

Shoshin is akin to what the author described in his piece. I try to approach every project as if I've never done it before. It doesn't matter if I'm doing kata - a series of predefined moves - or working on a site design, or planting a garden. The worst thing that I can do is to say to myself, "oh hey I know this already so it's all good." I run the danger of making the same mistakes, doing things by rote and not actually solving the problem at hand. Maintaining my awareness is what's crucial, not that I've never done it before.

For the month leading up to earning a black belt, you're asked to switch back to a white belt and attend white belt class to remind oneself of what it felt like when one started and had no preconceptions. When I start with beginners' mind, I'm often led to insights that I would have missed otherwise. I try to keep curiosity and playfulness at the forefront and realize that the more I know, the more I find out that I don't know.

Experience becomes valuable through the concept of renma, or constant polishing of technique. Take whatever the essential building block of the medium is - a punch, sketching from observation, setting type, practicing scales - and do it ad infinitum. A deeper understanding and skill level gradually develops through repetition. Since last year I've hand-rolled thousands of tortillas. To some it may appear to be drudgery. But through doing it with attention, I now know exactly how hot the grill needs to be, what the optimal temperature the dough should be for rolling, and how long it takes for the dough to puff up to fluffy perfection. I wouldn't have been able to acquire this information any other way as it's a long process of trial and error. But now I can be confident in our choices for a permanent set up that will give us tortillas of the same consistency, taste and quality. In doing things like this, I aspire to even a thousandth of the skillfulness of a chicken yakitori master we had encountered in our travels in Tokyo - a man, well into his 60s, who effortlessly and gracefully rotated skewers with the flick of his wrist until each piece of chicken was charred to perfection.

John Singer Sargent: White Ships 1908, Watercolor

The great artists and designers that have left a cultural legacy understood these principles. They weren't geniuses who were born fully formed, they worked extremely hard at their craft and had the ability to have an open mind that enabled them to come up with interesting, insightful ways to communicate. I was just reminded of this with some of the watercolors that were on display at the JS Sargent show at the Brooklyn Museum - you can see a huge difference in the mastery between an earlier, tentative piece and the Carrara quarry paintings a decade or two later. I'm inspired all over again to put these principles into practice. 

It's the intersection of beginners' mind and polishing technique that I believe one has the ability to achieve a deeper understanding and that creative solutions come about. And by no means do I think this is easy to achieve! It's something I strive for every day but I know that my attention wanders. Often.