We humans are a funny lot. We think we have the world by the tail and then someone like Edison comes along and makes this statement to prove us all wrong. Around the turn of the 20th century, when Edison was inventing all kinds of useful things, it was even suggested that the U.S. Patent Office be closed permanently because every possible thing had already been invented. In retrospect, that may have been a little shortsighted.
More than anything, I think Edison was talking about his motivation when he made this statement. He was driven by curiosity and a need to understand the world. Clearly, he was a genius but he never let himself be satisfied with being smarter than everybody else. As long as there were new discoveries to be made, he wanted to make them.
It really comes down to the difference between expertise and exploration. Of all the so-called experts I have encountered in my life, most of them had stopped exploring. They were satisfied with their status and the initials that followed their names. Resting on their laurels became an occupation and they quickly lost their acumen for whatever discipline they had previously studied. I can remember one occasion when a consultant tried to tell me something about my graphic arts business that was just idiotic. I quickly pointed out the reason it wouldn’t work in my industry and then he admitted that he knew little about photography but was just applying something he had used with another client. He could have learned something from me, if he had still been curious, but his title got in his way and he was sure he knew more than me.
That’s what Edison was trying to tell us. It’s the exploration that makes life worth living. The never-ending journey of discovery that yields more knowledge and more questions. We will never have one without the other and we shouldn’t want it any other way. I know I learn something new with every foster child I meet each day. I deal with all ages, races and maturity levels and it’s up to me to find a way to work with every single one. There is no instruction manual or training for the work I do and frankly, I like it that way. I suppose it might be useful to have a Master’s Degree in Social Work or Counseling but then I would probably rely on chapter and verse too much. I really don’t think the book has been written that explains what I’m dealing with each day.
Here’s the part I want you to remember. Every job is unique and equally challenging if you see it as a quest for exploration not expertise. Don’t let yourself stop learning and never stop asking,”Why?” If you still need more encouragement to take up my challenge let me paraphrase something the rocket scientist, Werner Von Braun, once said, “Basic research happens when I don’t know what I’m doing.” See, real geniuses know they don’t know everything and that’s what keeps them going. So the next time you’re fumbling around and frustrated by your ignorance just repeat after me, “I’m an explorer not an expert and I will never stop trying.”
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