Karen Krizanovich: Laugh While You Can, Monkey Boy
Visiting the atelier of a noted artist, I was shown recent samples of his work. I liked the blue one and the red one and the one that looked a bit like Rothko meeting Cy Twombly in a dark alley. When it came to meeting the artist, I asked which of his works he preferred – yes, I probably did say, “uh, which one do you like the best?” But I didn’t expect to be taken to the most boring piece of art in the room. “This one is my favourite,” he said. We both stood looking at it in silence: he in deep contemplation, if not admiration, and me thinking, “Damn, it doesn’t even match my sofa.”
This happens to me again and again. My friend, a famous short story author, loves tales I struggle to comprehend: “Wait a minute, so because the guy died while mowing the lawn, his wife is still thinking about the grass?” Another friend listens to jazz that I can only describe as sadistic. Yet another mate makes challenging food from esoteric cuisines: last week it was cloud fungus ragu. This week, I am thankful that monkey brains are not on special at Waitrose. These are acquaintances of mine who, clearly, understand the world very differently from the way I do to the point of personal disconnect – and yet they are not mad. What’s up with that?
Like the old redneck bumper sticker that reads, “I’m no expert but I know what I like,” I love my own opinions. I stand by them as if they were small children going to school for the first time. I hold their little hands because I have good reason to – I can tell you why, for instance, you never noticed Burt Lancaster’s tie colour change in a scene from the film Local Hero. But when it comes to art, jazz or certain kinds of whacky eats, I’ve had to accept a painful truth: some people know more than I do about things in which I’d like to be a total wiseass. I like knowing more than other people because it makes me feel rather good about myself.
Now I see that real experts understand the world in a profoundly different way. This brings home the heartbreaking truth that merely discerning differences doesn’t make you an expert. It only means you’re sporting an opinion – and everyone’s got one of those. Being an expert is not the same as being an authority, a specialist or a loudmouth. Being an expert doesn’t mean you own the company or that your daddy does. You can Google and read all you like on any given subject, form an informed opinion and still not be an expert. You could win on Mastermind and not be an expert. You could call yourself an expert and be lying.
While I’m struggling to keep up with my expert friends, I wonder if I could be an expert in some field of which I’m unaware. This would mean – deep breath – that I have specified education, training and knowledge. To satisfy naysayers, I’d need the right kind of qualifications (however, new experts thrive without requisite sheepskins, so maybe we can skip that). I’d need to assess the importance in work situations and then, like the nuts, whipped cream and cherry on a sundae, I’d have to improve myself, use my intuition and have self-assurance in my own knowledge. In short, I’d have to not be afraid of my own power.
An expert, non-ironically, as Nobel winner Niels Bohr once said, is, “A person that has made every possible mistake within his or her field.” Or as Werner Heisenberg said, “…someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” This is possible for experts who participate in “deliberate practice”, a sort of striving and enabling that breaks through to new levels of performance. Most of us “accidentally practice”: we noodle away online between tweets and repeated episodes of Breaking Bad and gain literally, virtually nothing. Summing this up I see the closest I’ll ever get to being an expert is understanding Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song and serial dating.
So, as I accept that I shall never be an expert in very many things, I take heart in opinions like that of Mark Twain, for whom an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town”. Will Rogers thinks an expert is, “a man fifty miles from home with a briefcase.” I can laugh all I want now, of course. But I will die knowing that, compared to most experts, even if I’m using my best arguments and wearing my best clothes, I’m a rube with an opinion. Don’t contradict me. I’m on very solid ground, here.
Karen Krizanovich began her career as a Sex Agony Aunt for Sky Magazine and writes for The Sunday Times, GQ and others. When not being admired, she is much sought after.