Cultivating A Skill Gets You Something Greater

Noticing the conversation between people and their daily surroundings

By Diane Mehta

Tao Ruspoli’s new movie, Being in the World: A Celebration of Being Human in a Technological Age, explores the tension between being spontaneous and being rational. In a nutshell, it celebrates skillfulness. As you develop a skill, you start by absorbing the rules. As you progress, you leave the rules behind and reach a level of skillfulness that’s part of your nature. Call it flow, rhythm, or muscle memory.

What the cooks, musicians, speedboat racers, philosophers, and poets Ruspoli interviews have in common is the awareness that expertise is a feeling of immersion.

“One of the most important components is being able to completely immerse yourself in the music at the moment,” says the jazz pianist Austin Peralta. “I don’t have to rely on just everything I know. If I listen to the other guys, at the moment, I can come up with new things on the spot,” he says.

The movie is a riff on Heidegger’s hammer, the idea that it’s through mastery of a skill—be it carpentry or cooking—that we achieve something greater. It’s when we use a hammer as skilled craftsmen, for example, that the hammer’s essence is freed or revealed. The hammer is its relationship to the nail, the wood, and the fingers and ideas of the person gripping it— our being is context-bound, says Heidegger.

Similarly, “The guitar, like any instrument, is a conversation between the guitar player and the guitar,” says a flamenco guitarist to Ruspoli.

What does it mean for you?

Any skill is a conversation. A brilliant statistician has that conversation with numbers, which he cuts countless ways in Excel. A master salesperson has that groove with clients. An engineer dialogues with an empty space between the two land masses that will bookend the bridge he builds.

What gets created, says Heidegger, is art—call it innovation, a byproduct of your best-honed abilities. But first you have to care about something enough to work at it and that’s where you find meaning in the world.

That skill is also contextual—it’s not a bunch of rules you learn but the ability to go beyond the rules. “Cooking is like religion. Rules don’t make a cook and sermons don’t make a saint,” a New Orleans chef tells Ruspoli.

Why do we need skills? We have computers.

Rules are important because Ruspoli’s movie is an unapologetic comment on our technological age. It’s a foil to Transcendent Man, the new film about the futurist Ray Kurzweil—who believes that given the exponential pace of technological progress, humans and machines will merge by 2045 and machines won’t just crunch our algorithms but will do our intellectual work.

Let’s say that by 2045 computers are able to render a pretty good simulacrum of who we are but in computerized bodies (like cyborg #6 on Battlestar Galactica and with any luck as good looking). What makes us different? We’re more than a collection of molecules, neurons, memories, and information. We’re people who care about things.

“Life is made most meaningful when you respond to meanings that are independent of you,” suggests the philosopher Iain Thomson. “This is a point that goes back to Kierkegaard [who] said that if you think all meaning comes from you then you can just take it back, you’re a king without a castle. You’re a sovereign of a land of nothing.”

Language ruins the conversation

In business, we tend to boil things down to language, an expression of what we feel. So we run surveys and focus groups and ask people what they believe in, give them taglines to react to, and check off what they’ll do in a circumscribed set of choices.

The problem with this approach is you can get only so far with what people tell you. What Ruspoli makes clear is that being is doing.

There’s a whole ocean of feelings and decisions people make based on circumstance, an impulse, a memory, a relationship. Actions are language-less. The real conversation is taking place between people and their daily surroundings. It’s up to us to listen.

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