IWL lessons, part 2: The map is mine alone

This is the second of two posts about how my mind has expanded lately. The previous one was on dropping assumptions, embracing transitional spaces, and cultivating the beginner’s mind.

You pick up bits and pieces of treasure and trash, pain and pleasure, passions and disappointments, and you start throwing them in your bag, your big bag of experience. You do some dumb things that don’t work out at all. You stumble excitedly on little gems that you never saw coming. And you stuff them all in your bag. You pursue the things you love and believe in. You cast off the images of yourself that don’t fit. And suddenly you look behind you and a pattern emerges.

You look in front of you and the path makes sense. There is nothing more beautiful than finding your course as you believe you bob aimlessly in the current. Wouldn’t you know that your path was there all along, waiting for you to knock, waiting for you to become. This path does not belong to your parents, your teachers, your leaders, your lovers. Your path is your character defining itself more and more every day, like a photograph coming into focus.
–Jodie Foster, commencement speech to University of Pennsylvania, 2006

I first realized a couple of years ago that there are two ways of approaching information, breadth and depth, and that I fall firmly onto the breadth side. I know lots of things fairly well. I could give a lecture on Asian American or US food history, teach yoga, bake for a crowd, draw anything, write about anything. I can do someone’s makeup for an event and sew a pouch to store the brushes, and I laugh at online-gamer jokes. But I don’t know any one thing with the deep embodied knowledge of long study. I couldn’t give my lectures off-the-cuff; my yoga teachings would only benefit new practitioners. I don’t have an MFA in drawing, painting, or writing. I can’t stop your eyeliner from smearing, I can only sew two kinds of pouches, and I can’t talk to serious gamers. In other words, my understanding exceeds that of the layperson’s, and falls short of that of the expert. This often manifests in a serious inferiority complex when I’m talking to people who really do know what they’re talking about. I once saw these people referred to as “guys with spikes” — people whose knowledge concentrates itself noticeably into certain areas, like spikes on a line graph.

We live in a world that values spikiness. We’re taught to specialize, to admire the world’s greatest x. There’s reason for this. It’s important to focus, to learn things with care and not skim over shallowly like a bird in flight just touching the lake surface with its toe. Expertise is awe-inspiring. Think of acrobats, cellists, chefs, scholars, climbers —  mastery leaves us breathless with the sense that what we’ve just experienced is the closest we can get to magic. We don’t give that level of respect to people who do lots of things. We call them dilettantes, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Plus, depth is teachable. Not that teaching is ever easy, not that everyone can become a master, but it’s straightforward to say, “Okay, this person wants to learn x, so I’ll show them everything I know.” How does one teach breadth without it just becoming a grab bag of this’n’that? When I was in college, we all had to fulfill a breadth requirement of at least one class each in seven different fields. I can’t say I got much of a taste of life science or international studies, but I did find some new topics that intrigued me (alternative medicine, nonviolence), and pursued my own additional reading in those. To me, that is the true meaning of breadth education — to find our own points of contact and then follow those wider (and deeper) into the world.

Purple knitted hyperbolic plane

Knitted hyperbolic plane

I have so much admiration for the guys with spikes, but I don’t seem to be built that way. When I was writing my artist bio for the IWL anthology, I struggled to capture my art and outlook in concise description. I don’t feel truly interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, because those terms imply that I’m not only fluent in a single discipline but have found ways to merge it with another — like demonstrating mathematical concepts with crochet. I was trying to think of a word that means across/between/beyond, and came up with transdisciplinary. It seemed too pretentious to coin a term, but I looked it up and it already exists — and the wikipedia entry exactly articulated the reason I wanted to include the word in my bio.

As a perpetual outsider who’s always been uncomfortable with choosing sides, it’s very exciting to take ownership of an identity like transdisciplinary. It recasts breadth-based knowledge as a strength, not a sign of superficiality. But simply seeing it as a strength doesn’t make it so. Without depth, the danger is that a breadth of interests will come across as scattershot rather than cohesive. For breadth to be an asset, it’s vital to create strong, meaningful connections between interests — to knit them together, however loosely or tightly, into something new, original, and highly individual. Which means that unlike depth, where it’s possible to teach the same content to everyone, in the case of breadth each person will chart a different course based on their individual pattern of connections. Where breadth is strength, the map invents itself as you travel.

Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.
–Alan Keightley

Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.
–Antonio Machado