The following is an article provided by Supt. Shepherd of the Victoria I.S.D.
On your marks, get set, go!
I really love the Olympics. I love that it only happens every four years (or five if there is a pandemic). I love the back stories. I love that most of the athletes are not considered professionals, and many have second jobs to support themselves. I love watching sports that I completely forget about for three years and find myself thinking… “I could’ve been a judo expert.” Hahaha. I love the games because the Olympian is a balance between arete and amateur.
In Greek, arete in its most basic sense refers to “excellence” of any kind. Just a quick background here is helpful. In Greek, this notion of excellence is ultimately tied up with the notion of fulfillment of purpose or function. It is the art and act of living up to one’s full potential. Each has a different potential, and each has a different level of excellence. Being your best self is arete.
The thing about amateurs is they often do the things they want to do in the ways they want to do them. They don’t find themselves worrying too much about breaking rules and are not paralyzed by a fear of imperfection or failure. Amateurs move industries with their ideas.
I think our American culture and character is a paradox of amateur and Arete, which is why we all see ourselves in the Olympians. In one sense, we are practical, reasoned, and driven by common sense. We have some expertise and experience. This is arete coming through. In another sense, we are wild, crazy, and have a fairly high tolerance for risk. This is the amateur coming through. As a practical matter though, this requires a profound sense of humility since the amateur must throw themselves into situations where we are a combination of uncertain and ignorant. This leaves us
with no choice but to figure out new ways of seeing problems and fresh ways of solving them. The most liberating thing that happens is when we are free to admit we have reached an inflection point of recognizing that we are not certain of how to proceed. With arete experience, finding oneself as an amateur can be profound. In teams, it is easy to strike a balance by being deliberate about the make-up of the group. As an individual though, this is more difficult.
This idea of a paradox is not unique to the American psyche, however. Zen Buddhists seek to achieve a state known as “sho-shin” (beginner’s mind). The Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Compare this with the quote from Boorstin, “the greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” But to achieve mastery, we must recognize that the true master has failed more times than the novice has even tried. Again, another paradox.
I don’t want for this article to become overly philosophical, but I think this paradox is kind of important. Relying on our mastery alone, our arete sense of expertise, can be a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, relying on our amateur spirit can lead to blind spots. Think of it this way, when we know the answer, we often don’t; and at the same time, it’s hard to know the answer if you can’t even figure out the question. In short, the desire to be a master, with a beginner’s mind.
By Supt. Quintin Shepherd of the Victoria I.S.D.
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