“… More An Art Than A Science”

[It’s day 3 of my 30 days of writing prose essays. – Owen]

We Americans seem to love “how-to” manuals. I suspect that this same tendency is true many places.

Give us a diet, an exercise plan, a routine for childcare, a recipe, or even instructions on how to run a blog, and we’re happy. We have directions. We are ready to do whatever it is exactly the same way many others are doing it.

We view these things, therefore, much like high school chemistry lab: we have ingredients, we have instructions, and (presumably) if we follow the ingredients exactly according to the instructions, everything will be perfect.

Except — it often isn’t.

The best of depiction of the frustrations of a high school chemistry laboratory that I know of is found in the Potions class descriptions of the Harry Potter series. There, various students attempt to follow the same set of instructions, with incredibly varied results. In addition, as the series advances, you find that the truly gifted students seem to vary from the recipes in seemingly random ways that somehow yield better results. Which is much like life is.

Technique, following instructions, doing things according to recipe — these only get you so far. However, we still look for guides to follow to make everything come out right: fool-proofs, panaceas, and utopias. Even pick-up lines fall in this category.

Interestingly, when transferred into the business world, this concept goes by the name “best practices”, which is a cleverly misleading term for “what other people do, whether it makes sense or not”. This attribution often contains a type of survivorship bias: the other company has survived, so, it must be doing something right. Often, however, companies that have not survived were following these same “best practices”, but we ignore those.

We want the so-called “magic bullet”. Just do x, y, and z, and you will win. Even the smallest amount of reflection tells us that all the others who we compete with can also do x, y, and z. So it’s what is different about us that will ultimately determine the winners, not what’s the same.

That and luck, which we never want to admit.

Having said all of that, there is nothing wrong, and in fact much right, with solving particular difficulties we face using solutions worked out by others as our starting point. Diet and exercise regimes, to go back to my original set of examples, are often perfect for this. What people usually find, however, is that, in the long run, each of these must in some way be adapted to their particular circumstances in order to be either optimal, sustainable, or both.

When you learn an art form, you spend the early years just learning the technique. At some point, however, if you are going to advance, you have to break away from what you’ve learned by following instructions or imitating others and discover what “your” art is.

Which is why identity itself is more an art than a science. We all, regardless of location or age or gender or any other arbitrary determinant, must choose who we will be. We cannot be the best us by copying others or following some recipe, no matter how well it seems to have worked out for someone else.

So, to all of you liberal arts majors out there: next time someone asks you what value the arts have, tell them “exactly as much as humanity has.”

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