Friday, August 10, 2012

Touching the plate

Hot plate
PVP is copyright Scott R. Kurtz.
Have you ever seen this happen?  I have.  Well, not literally with a big blue troll, and not always in a Mexican restaurant, but I've seen people surreptitiously prod a hot plate with a fingertip as soon as the waiter turns away from the table.  I've even heard a few people hiss and complain of burned fingers after they did it.

It's certainly not that they weren't warned.  You'd have to be either stone deaf or a blithering idiot not to take note of the multiple verbal injunctions you get when a sizzling platter is borne to your table and laid before you like a sacrificial offering.  But for some people, a word to the wise is insufficient.  It doesn't matter if they've been strongly advised against laying hands on a red-hot cast iron skillet; they seem to need the empirical evidence of a blistered fingertip to conclude that, why yes, the plate is indeed very hot.

So why do they do it?

No, let's be fair.  The real question is, why do we do it?  Because you may never have gone near a hot plate in your life, but I'm certain that at some point you received some well-thought-out advice from a person with more age, wisdom and/or experience than you -- advice that, for whatever reason, you blithely chose to ignore.  Maybe you even got burned by that choice later.  So why do we sometimes ignore the attempts of other people to save us from unnecessary pain?

There's certainly more than one reason.  For instance, some people may ignore good advice because they think that somehow they're the one rare exception to the rule.  If, despite all the divers alarums of family and friends, you choose to marry someone who drinks a lot and is physically abusive because you're certain that person will change once you're married, you fall into this category.  (You also fall into the category known as "stupid."  I'm sorry, but the courtship period is the time when your would-be spouse is going to be the most polite and well-behaved of your entire relationship.  If it's not working then, it's sure as shootin' not gonna work later.)

Or sometimes people ignore advice because they just don't want it to apply to them.  I was like that.  My mother urged me many times to take better care of myself.  I knew we had a strong family history of type 2 diabetes, that I was obese and over 40, and that I'd had some abnormal blood glucose numbers in the past, and yet I continued to eat whatever I wanted and avoid exercise, hoping that somehow the family scourge would pass me by.  It didn't, and now I get to live with the consequences -- for as long as I can.

And sometimes people ignore advice because it cramps their style, and it's just more fun to do what they want.   If you're eager to hang your upper body out the window of a moving car, party with friends who have a history of drug use, or get it on with someone you've barely met, the last thing you want to hear is the myriad dangers associated with such risky behavior.  You might even, in a fit of pique, claim that the person warning you away from such activity is trying to ruin your life.  And then you might have an experience that lets you discover just what "ruining your life" really means.

It's human nature for us to want to do certain things, regardless of the advice we receive.  But the difficult, frightening, painful experiences we go through, despite the best advice to warn us away (and assuming the experiences don't kill or maim us), are sometimes the only way we learn.  When it comes to the human brain's ability to retain crucial information, 35 vaguely-recalled verbal warnings about the dangers of a hot plate don't hold a candle to one exquisite memory of blistering, lingering pain.  That's not an experience you're going to be keen to relive any time soon, and so you've learned something.  Wouldn't it have been better to learn from someone else's painful and embarrassing experiences, rather than your own?  Probably.  (That plus insane humor may be the key to the popularity of the Learn From My Fail site.)  But if you're going to insist on making your own painful mistakes, the least you can do is learn not to repeat them.  As has been pointed out by more than one person, one classic definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and hoping that this time things will turn out differently."

So then, what about the people who seem to have ignored advice and triumphed over conventional wisdom?  There are plenty of these in the U.S.  We usually call them inventors.  In all probability the Wright brothers got plenty of unsolicited advice: that man was not meant to fly, that if human flight were possible someone would have figured it out already, that their experiments were hugely dangerous and might kill them.  But actually, the Wright brothers didn't ignore this advice -- instead they factored it into their calculations.  They didn't just try to cobble together a successful flying machine through trial and error, the way other would-be flyers were doing at the time.  Frankly, they didn't have that kind of money.  So instead they conducted a series of careful experiments, and in the process they discovered all sorts of useful information about drag and lift and how an airfoil changes in flight.  This information allowed them to design, build and fly a glider that, though far from the safe commercial airplanes of today, minimized danger to the pilot.  There were still risks in their plan, but the Wrights carefully calculated those risks and measured them against the expected rewards, and decided to go for it.

The key difference, I think, between being an innovator and being a statistic is the ability to look realistically at all aspects of the project: what you're trying to achieve, the dangers you face, and the worst thing that can happen if you fail.  And you can't know that without accepting advice from others who have gone before you, and who may know a couple of definitive ways not to do it.  If you refuse to recognize other people's experiences as valid, if you refuse even to hear whether there's benefit to their wisdom, then you're being very foolish indeed.

Some might even say you're touched.

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