Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Based in Kaiserslautern, Germany between Korean and Vietnamese Wars, I served as a still photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps 1956-1957. With an ear for the local idiom SP-Kaiserslautern-1957 (having studied German for two years), I was sometimes mistaken for a native speaker and, off-duty, did my best to look like one. With 30 days of leave a year, I traveled around France, Italy, Holland, and much of the wine-growing region west of the Rhine River. On foot, I roamed the hills around Kaiserslautern whenever I could, while most of my Army buddies played cards, went to the PX, or movies on base. Putting my conscious mind where my body was, I think I got more from my military experience than those of my buddies who carried on as if they were still in the States.

I bring this up because I see so many people hiking the trails of Acadia National Park jabbering away as if they were back wherever they came from. That is, their minds are anywhere but where their bodies are at the moment. Which is why I published ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park in 1998—to show some of what might be discovered by actively exploring the trails along the way instead of manfully striding to the top of the mountain and then back to the car. The point being that we have to actively reach out to the landscape if even a portion of it is to register in consciousness. Looking is the greater part of seeing; without it we are functionally blind.

Which good old Thoreau said almost 150 years ago (Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” in Excursions, 1863):

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. (Page 350f.)

I picture that visual ray shooting out of our pupils, intercepting the scene, reflecting it back into our eyes so our brains can get at it. No ray, no sightline, no reflection, no seeing. I think digital photography is a good reminder that we have to take pains in aiming our cameras (or cell phones) at something if we want to view the image on the LCD monitor. That much is obvious. What we sometimes forget is that the same is true for seeing with our own eyes. Thoreau again:

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more. The actual objects which one man will see from a particular hill-top are just as different from those which another will see as the beholders are different. The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads,—and then we can hardly see anything else. (Page 351.)

That last sentence says it all: we see from the inside-out—not simply what is there waiting to be seen. We need motivation to direct attention toward that which we want to see before we see anything at all. Exceptions to that principle usually demonstrate that, as the frog is programmed to see the hawk, we come programmed to see certain things such as flesh of the opposite sex, food, threats to our children, and shiny new cars. Well, maybe not all of us appreciate the cars, or opposite sex for that matter. Aside from such salient visions, learning and effort are generally required to appreciate the sight of most things nature and culture have on display. Some of us will notice them, many will walk right by. Thoreau says, for example:

In my botanical rambles I find that, first, the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may seem very foreign to this locality,—no nearer than Hudson’s Bay,—and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it, and expecting it, unconsciously, and at length I surely see it. This is the history of my finding a score or more of rare plants, which I could name. (Page 351.)

If you don’t have a mind for rare plants, you’ll never have an eye for them, either. Thoreau’s next sentence: “A man sees only what concerns him.” (Page 351.) Expectancy is destiny. True for us all. We generally see only what we have an interest in seeing in the world around us. To see more, we have to develop an interest in seeing more. We have to be trained—or train ourselves—to see what we’re missing.

I have found that it required a different intention of the eye, in the same locality, to see different plants, even when they were closely allied. (Page 352.)

Thoreau got that right. It takes “a different intention of the eye” so see anything we are not accustomed to look for in our surroundings. Intention is the key word in using our eyes. And ears, and fingers. The nose is different. With molecules actually settling on our olfactory membranes, we smell them whether we want to or not. Where smells have their own characteristic insistence, sights and sounds are more matters of intention on our part. Which is why we generally see what we are familiar with, as long as it’s not upstaged by a more commanding presence. Parents in the audience single out their children in the chorus and have eyes only for them, even though others may be better performers. Attention is in the eye of the beholder.

Which raises the question, if we want to learn to see or hear more than we do now, how do we upgrade our intention? That, of course, is one thing schools are for. If you missed what you wanted to learn then, there are always guide books to trees, butterflies, seashells, birds, music, wines, and just about everything else you want to gaze on, taste, or listen to. Or you can get an advanced degree in intentionality in any number of disciplines such as astrophysics or restaurant management. Of course there’s always the library, bookstore, Internet, museum and any number of institutions to help you live out your desire to see more along the road of life itself. What these aids can’t do for you, however, is the work of applying their message to your particular situation. You’ve got to put in the necessary ten-thousand hours on your own (see Reflection 75: Ten-Thousand Hours).

I got my first camera when I was four years old for a box top and a quarter. I put in ten-thousand hours taking pictures of my brothers, dogs, friends. I became a photographer in the Army, and a photographer’s assistant on the New York scene when I got out. I worked as a photographer at Iowa State University, Harvard College Observatory—and am still at it. I have fulfilled my visual intentions many times over. Then I got into teaching photography at Phillips Academy in Andover, and had to put in another ten-thousand hours learning to be a teacher. Which I really pulled off by teaching learning-disabled students at Landmark School in Beverly, MA. By then I knew classes were a myth of convenience; each student was an individual learner on his or her own. I could spot left-handers and hook-writers and cheek-resters across the room. For any given assignment, I found ways each student could learn from it what she or he needed to learn. I felt pretty good about putting my teaching intentions into practice. Then, thinking I knew how to do it, I turned to writing—and had to start all over with yet another stint of ten-thousand hours devoted to learning how to write by writing the same thing over and over again.

And so it goes. When teacher says, “Listen up, class,” she means for every student to hear her words exactly as she intends them, with no exceptions. But that’s wishful thinking. We are who we are, no two alike. We listen according to our training, experience, motivation, and ability—and are sure to hear a different message than teacher intends. The same goes for looking at pictures, movies, videos, Websites, graffiti, or masterpieces of art. The apprenticeship never ends; there’s always more to see than our eyes can relay to our minds. Seeing is a matter of exploring the possibilities by expanding our visual intentions ad infinitum.

Living in cities as most of us do, what can we see in nature? Sometimes, very little. The story is told of a family from Philadelphia coming to Mount Desert Island for a two-week vacation—and leaving after two days because there was nothing to see. The great outdoors was wholly beyond them. As Thoreau said, “The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are . . . concealed from us all our lives”—and he was talking about rural Concord Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. If we are out of touch with nature today, we are in B-I-G T-R-O-U-B-L-E because nature is what provides our toehold in the universe. My own studies show that sea level is rising on the coast of Maine even as I write these words. Looking blindly from the picture windows so dear to our hearts, we do not sense the dangers lurking off the end of the dock. We don’t feel the crosshairs lined up on our chests, the laser beams steady on our brows—because our intention is to ignore them. La, what is the North Atlantic to me, or am I to the North Atlantic? That double-ended query tells the whole story. Out of touch with nature, we are out of touch with life itself. As I said, expectancy is destiny.

11x14 Camera-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

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