True Experts

by ERIK ORTON

I’ve learned that I like spending time with people who make me feel like things are possible.  This is especially true for things that feel complicated, intimidating or beyond my reach. 

Last week we went to Maui to see the island but mostly to spend time with new friends. They’d invited us over after a video chat a few weeks prior. They made complicated things sound simple.  

Sunrise view from the highest point on Maui.

Sunrise view from the highest point on Maui.

It was an illuminating experience. Our friends grow their own fruit and vegetables on their modestly sized property. In Hawaii growing things is pretty simple. Stick a seed in the ground and let it grow. They grow bananas, oranges, tangerines, figs, pomelo and various other fruits and vegetables. They run their cars off used vegetable oil they collect from restaurants.  

I saw how our friends collected the vegetable oil, filtered it and then stored it in a large container with a fuel dispenser hose attached. They essentially have their own private gas station in their backyard.  How simple is that?

Gardening the banana trees. Each true produces exactly one bunch of bananas. The tree is cut down to get the bananas. Another tree then grows up in its place.

Gardening the banana trees. Each true produces exactly one bunch of bananas. The tree is cut down to get the bananas. Another tree then grows up in its place.

Apple-bananas from a wild banana tree we chopped down. They do not ship well so are only grown and eaten locally. They are sweet bananas with a slight apple tartness. So delicious!

Apple-bananas from a wild banana tree we chopped down. They do not ship well so are only grown and eaten locally. They are sweet bananas with a slight apple tartness. So delicious!

Backyard gas station.

Backyard gas station.

Vegetable oil ready. The aluminum sleeve is the only engine modification.

Vegetable oil ready. The aluminum sleeve is the only engine modification.

The Hawaiian islands are also filled with wild chickens. Our friends’ younger kids were put in charge of catching the chickens in a simple homemade trap with cheerios for bait. The captured chickens were then kept in a coop until enough were gathered. They were then killed and butchered for eating. They taught us the process for killing the chicken, removing the skin with all its feathers, discarding the intestines and keeping the edible organs. This was all done thoughtfully and carefully. Ultimately we carried the chicken meat to the kitchen where it would be prepared as chicken curry. No Styrofoam and Saran wrap in the freezer section.  For those of us who have ever eaten a chicken sandwich, this is where it comes from: chickens.  Simple.

Chicken thighs.

Chicken thighs.

I’ve realized that people who want me to feel intimidated, overwhelmed or scared are usually “experts.” The complexity, intimidation and anxiety they create justifies their existence. I’m wary of experts. A bad realtor makes home buying complicated. They “earn” their commission by creating confusion and then taking care of it all for you. The bad stock broker makes buying and selling stocks feel incomprehensible. They earn their commissions by explaining how complicated investing is and how they’ll take care of it for you. The bad climbing instructor tells you the summit is impossible without their help.  You will need to hire them if you ever hope to reach the top.

I find the best guides and mentors simplify the process, make you feel capable and put you in the role of protagonist.  People that do that are true guides.  They are mentors.

Our true expert and guide, Matt. The islanders called him “Big Red.” He had red hair and wore that big hat.

Our true expert and guide, Matt. The islanders called him “Big Red.” He had red hair and wore that big hat.

Example 1

When Emily and I went to the Caribbean many years ago for our first big water sailing class, our instructor, Matt said, “Who wants to be at the helm?” There were four of us students living together on the boat for a week. It was our first day. We hadn’t even left the dock yet, and here he was putting one of us at the wheel. He had nothing to prove. He was there to guide us through every step, but from the very beginning he was the guide, not the hero. He was not there to show off how much he knew. 

In contrast, I was recently in New Hampshire with a friend. We’d gone up to the White Mountains and hired a guide to learn how to ice climb.  Our guide went to great pains to make sure we know about all of his climbing accomplishments, all the famous climbers he knew and all the routes he’d established. He wanted to be the hero. He would show us how something was done and then quickly move on to another concept. He hardly let us practice or try. And—frustratingly—we never actually ice climbed. He deemed the conditions not right, despite it being a beautiful day with cold temperatures and clear skies. But what do I know? I’m not the expert.

The rope and double axes we never used.

The rope and double axes we never used.

Example 2:

Last year I wanted to do a big wall climb in Zions National Park. We walked into a climbing store to get some last minute pieces of gear. The owner of the shop began to grill me on details of the route.  Did I have this? Did I have that? If I didn’t have this one piece of gear, I’d never get up the route. My confidence began to falter. After taking a class from him (he’d intimidated me enough to justify his existence as a guide) he laid out a road map of several years that would allow me to some day climb El Capitan. I’m glad I didn’t listen to him.

I contrast this with my friend who has climbed El Capitan over a dozen times. He told me, “You could totally do it. It’s not rocket science. You just have to think clearly, be steady and keep moving up.” The guide in the gear shop spends most of his day selling gear. My friend climbs a big wall a couple times a year. In fact, he just climbed El Capitan again last week.

Me practicing aid climbing just outside Zions National Park

Me practicing aid climbing just outside Zions National Park

Calder’s crew up on El Cap last week. Photo by Matt Galland (I think).

Calder’s crew up on El Cap last week. Photo by Matt Galland (I think).

Why do I want to overcomplicate things?

So when someone starts to explain to me whey something is difficult, I immediately get suspicious. What are they selling? They may be selling a product. Or they might just be selling their own ego. Either way, they want me to buy it.  I know I’m guilty of this. When people ask, “How do you write a musical?” I’m tempted to delve into the frustrating years of blood, sweat and tears the process requires. But I could say, “You can do it. You just have to be steady and write songs and a story that have a beginning, middle and end.” That’s all it is. Why do I want to overcomplicate things?

I love being around people who are capable and competent and would rather set me up for success than set themselves on a pedestal.  I trust people when they say, “Oh, you can do that,” especially when they’ve done it themselves.  They often then go on to explain simply and clearly how it’s done. The rest of the noise and complication is either an expert trying to validate their expertness or myself trying to justify why I can’t or shouldn’t start.

On Maui we stayed in a house that was beautiful and basic. The walls were single layer wood. There was no air conditioning. The doors and windows opened to allow the trade winds to blow through and keep it cool. The stove and hot water ran off a propane canister. The water heater was mounted to the outside wall and clicked on when hot water was called for. The electrical wiring was simple and straightforward. The whole house had four breakers.  It had a tin roof and ceiling fans. It felt like a house that didn’t require an expert. 

Single wall construction: tongue and groove walls with cedar strips covering the seams, and a tin roof.

Single wall construction: tongue and groove walls with cedar strips covering the seams, and a tin roof.

No insulation and lots of natural light.

No insulation and lots of natural light.

The electrical connection.

The electrical connection.

I worry that I’m forgetting my to trust my own capabilities.

When I was young, my dad taught me how to change the car oil, replace brake pads and I even helped him replace the engine in our big Dodge van. I did all the maintenance on the old VW Rabbit I’d bought with my own money. My dad designed our second story kitchen extension and three layer deck. I helped him build both. We planted our own trees, put up our own fences, repainted the house and even grew a small garden. This was in the suburbs of Washington D.C. After twenty years in NYC I’ve gone a little soft. I don’t even wash my own car. Someone else changes the oil and we call the super when something breaks. Not good.

This past weekend I was pleasantly reminded that we are smart and capable. We can figure things out. We can grow our own food. We can prepare our own poultry. We can build our own homes. We can find our own fuel. Experts can be helpful, but they have their place. I most trust experts who instill me with confidence and who clearly and simply convey their knowledge and wisdom. If they can’t convey it simply and clearly, I don’t trust they really know what they’re talking about. A true expert can distill something to its essence so it can be shared.

So where does all this lead us?

One of the things our friends explained was how they lived in New Zealand twice.  It wasn’t complicated. You just had to do this, this and this. We’re not planning to move to New Zealand, but we are going there to visit. We’ve been wanting to go for years. And we’ve had plenty of excuses in our heads. We were making it complicated. We now have airfare, a house sitting gig and we’re figuring out the rest. So far, things are shaping up nicely.  We’ll be sure to keep you posted on how it all goes.

In Maui we spent time with true experts. I want to fill my life with true experts and mentors and see where it leads us. And I want to be an expert and mentor for others.

Mother’s Day in Maui.

Mother’s Day in Maui.

Looking down into the central valley of Maui.

Looking down into the central valley of Maui.