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Inexpert 2018: celebrating the power of not knowing

Mayvin Director James Traeger writes about his experience of speaking at an unusual 'conference', Inexpert2018, which celebrated the power of not knowing.
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Mayvin Director James Traeger writes about his experience of speaking at an unusual 'conference', Inexpert2018, which celebrated the power of inexpertise and not knowing.

Inexpert2018 struck me as a great idea. Inexpert creator, Steve Chapman, describes the idea: ‘In a world pre-disposed to speaker events where we are invited to listen to those with knowledge and answers, Inexpert asked what would happen if we intentionally set out to do the opposite.’

I thought I’d give it a go. I sent in a proposal and was glad to be accepted. Although I now remember that what I sent to Steve had only a fleeting connection with what I actually said. What I suggested was something ‘clever’ about being the opposite of a white, middle aged, middle class man. In fact, I talked about playing tennis. So, why on earth…?

I play tennis most weekends with a group of friends. We aren’t very good at it. But we enjoy it and we take it seriously. Just the type of thing Steve was looking for. As he put it, ‘Inexpert 2018 is about people caring deeply about things they know nothing about.’

When I first started to prepare for my talk, before the tennis idea came, I found myself pontificating on not knowing. How ironic. I just couldn’t escape the ‘clever’ voice I was so used to employing in my work. I was, as my friend Martin puts it, still ‘hiding in plain sight’. This is a disease prevalent in our learning and development industry; how we can make it look like we are learning when actually we know exactly how to craft a clever question, or strike an inquiring pose.

I found it hard to come out from behind my own defences. Then one day, I was playing tennis with my friends. I was losing, again, and getting annoyed with myself, and hating the fact that I wasn’t able to hide my annoyance. The phrase that came to mind was that I was being ‘humiliated by my own temperament’. This is a familiar feeling. As a child, the youngest of three, I could never hide my annoyance at losing a game of… well, anything, and as the youngest of three, I often did lose. And getting upset about it was so shaming, and I couldn't hide my annoyance with my own shame. I now think I developed eloquence with inquiry in order to hide my fundamental shame, as I think most ‘experts’ do.

So playing tennis, in front of a live audience, whilst talking about what this brings up for me. I couldn’t hide in plain sight there could I? Well you can see for yourself what you think. See

I really encourage you to watch the videos of the conference, and not just mine (in fact you can leave mine out). Watch some of the others too. The range of what people did in response to Steve’s brief was so striking, so compelling and so diverse. We talk about innovation all the time. Yet it is rare to see and fully on show here. Take a look.

Meanwhile, at the end of my own shenanigans, I quoted a student of mine, Katherine Semler, who wrote in her doctoral thesis (there you go again!) what I think sums this up so perfectly, that I will leave the last words to her:

And I have learned that not much is safe. Safety is perhaps the most fragile of the things we seek. I look at my children, who cling to the safety of family unity because they must sense how fragile it is. They fight to preserve it, to stave off the threats and ghosts of the unknown. I have learned just how much I have to hide to remain myself. What happens if I stopped hiding? I have not been quite brave enough to try.

I have inquired by testing one life against another. I have watched myself be one person, then another, then the first again, and emerge none the wiser. I have noticed myself not learning, resisting evolution despite myself. I have remained and reinforced some of the ties that bind me. I have ridiculed my own fear and condemned my own cruelty and coldness. I have wondered at my ability to persist in the banal torture of other mediocre players in my drama. And I have felt all along in the rumblings inside me and in my stinging tears that I still think I am good. I long to acknowledge and love the self that is flawed.

Yet how prepared am I to bear these deliberations and foibles for all to see? The easy and apparent answer is that I am not. I am not prepared or willing, in spite of so much inquiry…

And yet my observation is that we keep trying… to bring our whole selves, make ourselves vulnerable, explore the interstices of our weaknesses and wayward penchants in the hopes of making ourselves and each other better. We gather in the magic meeting of sincere, albeit partially hidden, hearts.

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