Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's Good to Be Bad

Actually, until last week, I thought I had this “not knowing stuff” thing down cold. The bulk of my livelihood comes from my talking to content experts and then delivering their wisdom to the rest of the world in a way that ordinary folks (like me) can understand. So I’m pretty comfortable being in strange territory. I figure that all I have to do is come with an open mind, sincere curiosity and passionate desire to learn, and I’m 90% there. It’s my job and I love it. It’s great to be paid to learn, and then to turn around and pass that learning on.

So I have to live in a perpetual state of humility, almost always being the one who’s asking the questions. But until last week, I didn’t know what real humiliation is. You see, last week I was the rock-bottom performer in a four-day bootcamp class of all rank newbies -- 40 of them. I was so bad, in fact, that I couldn’t even work up a huffiness when one of my classmates said to me in the elevator at the end of the third day: “It’s funny…you really stand out in class. Maybe it’s because you’re just so bad at this.” The fact that he was absolutely, positively, objectively, inarguably correct took any wind out an indignant reaction that I might have been able to muster up.

It didn’t feel like he was trying to be mean. He was just thinking out loud. The only thing I could say in response was, “Yeah, you’re right.” Word to wise: This is why God made thoughts silent.

So why was I putting myself through such humiliation? Professional development. Here’s the short version of the story: A couple of months ago I was wallowing in my all-time favorite place on earth (my bed), idly clicking the channels, flipping primarily from the Food Network to the Travel Channel. A commercial on the Travel Channel broke through the fog enveloping my attention span, the basic message being: Learn to be a videographer the Travel Channel way! “Learn! Shoot! Earn!”

Well. I’d been thinking that it was long past time for me to learn how to use a video camera and post footage online (I mean, if beer-soaked doofuses can do it on Youtube….). Fortunately my laptop was within reach, under a pile of old newspapers and magazines, so I hopped online and checked it out. The promise: For a hefty chunk of cash (not counting travel, lodging, equipment rental), and the commitment of four days of paying really close attention, I too can learn everything I need to know about the wonderful world of professional videography! And guess what! The course is scheduled to be held in Santa Barbara the last week of October! (Other than the dog-friendly beach in Carmel, Santa Barbara is my second favorite place on the planet.) Sign me up! I’ll figure out the money thing later.

So I show up with the mature attitude that, “I’m here to learn.” I didn’t aspire to be a National Geographic documentarist or even a Travel Channel “preditor” (producer/editor). I don’t need to shoot footage of Andrew Zimmern burping up chocolate-covered scorpions. I just want to be able to record my wonderful interviews with workplace-world thought leaders, so the material looks more like Charlie Rose or Bill Moyers than footage of some unfortunate sun-addled weekend athlete who wrecks his chances of procreation with some ridiculous stunt with his above-ground pool. See? My aspirations weren’t entirely out of the realm of reasonableness.

So we had two assignments during those four days: to shoot two 1-minute videos. The videos that my fellow students came back with were amazing: Harbor cruises with seals basking on buoys, a guitar maker, a guy who keeps kids off the streets by introducing them to the world of skateboarding, an artist, parrots at the zoo, an alpaca farm, a cupcake baker, a haul of sea urchins and a guy eating one right there on the dock (can I just say: ick), a surf fisherman. Forty students (well, 39) each did two fantastic segments.

And now we shall compare and contrast: The first of my two videos was of a picture framer staring blankly into a wall while his computerized matte cutter went round and round. Riveting stuff. (Teacher’s assessment: “Only one way to go from here, and that’s up.”) My second video: A shopkeeper scratching her nose while trying to figure out how to operate a cell phone that a customer had left behind. (Teacher’s assessment: “Well, it’s an improvement.”)

I mean, I was really sweating that second video. And was actually very proud of it until I realized that everyone else in the class had also improved hugely. Damn! So now you know why I really couldn’t get my dander up by my classmate’s frank observation. Just can’t argue with the truth.

While I was driving back to Santa Fe from Santa Barbara (12 long hours with my thoughts, about three months’ worth of NPR’s Fresh Air loaded on my Ipod, and a healthy dose of rationalization), I started asking myself what wisdom I can bring back to you guys. Here’s what I came up with:

• To get good, you have to be willing to start out bad – and maybe even stay bad for a while.
• It’s not about the grades. Now that you’re an adult, it’s about taking onboard the skills you need to fulfill your dreams and potential.
• Now that you’re an adult, candid commentary from an expert isn’t the end of the world. It can actually be a sign of respect. Maybe even good for a laugh – even if it is at your expense.
• It’s okay for others to be better than you, as long as you’re getting what you want and need out of the experience.
• You may not be as smart (or as good, or even as quick a learner) as you thought you were. But as long as you’re learning what you came to learn, that’s what counts.
• To get smart, you have to be willing to be stupid – even, like, really stupid.
• Never think out loud. The person whose feelings you inadvertently hurt may be a popular blogger with a global reach of a quarter million readers. She just might be in the mood to name names...and then hyperlink your name to your email address.

But then probably not. That would be mean. I'm not mean, I'm just baaaaaad.

Would I do the course again? In a heartbeat. I loved it! Can’t wait to start practicing! I might even find my work on the Travel Channel one day. It would be nice to show the teacher that bad can eventually become good. With practice, of course.