Ever on my way to expertise

In so many areas of life, I’ve risen from beginnership into the wide expanse of ‘intermediate.’

Karen Norris/Staff

“You’d be an intermediate,” the clever, efficient Millennial at the Apple Store said brightly.

She was talking about the free classes one could sign up for. An intermediate, I thought with pride. “I’ve used Macs since they had green text and floppy discs,” I said, eager to consolidate my position. “And I had a Mac Classic for years.”

She smiled at this impossible frame of reference, or maybe she was thinking, “If it’s been that long, why are you still an intermediate?” 

Why indeed? Because that’s what I seem to be: a lifelong intermediate. I get through the beginning level of things fairly quickly, but then I plateau as an intermediate.

I’m an intermediate horseback rider, knitter, painter, gardener, yogi, linguist, cross-country skier, kayaker, cyclist, typist, and pianist (barely). But there are degrees: I’m a better knitter than I am a painter, a better horseback rider than a kayaker.

Why does one remain an intermediate? Sometimes it’s a matter of opportunity: Leaving New England was a blow to my cross-country skiing. Painting stalled when I had a small child in a converted one-room schoolhouse. No longer living on the banks of a river held up kayaking. Horseback riding, too, requires opportunity, an opportunity I haven’t had since childhood, save for visits to a Western ranch where I was considered – intermediate. 

I know, however, that these are merely excuses. A friend I rode with as a child bought herself a retired police horse in her 40s. A dedicated kayaker would not have been deterred by the tangle of crowded highways lying between her and a number of Pine Barrens rivers.

Sometimes, it’s ability. I have taken up piano later in life. I love music, but I can see that I have no particular gift for it. Gardening was another late occupation. I wasn’t a natural at that, either. I got better, but my garden remains a patchwork of sudden enthusiasms.

I confess I’m a little ashamed of being a perpetual intermediate. It seems to imply a lack of focus, an unwillingness to push oneself to go deeper or further. And being an intermediate at a lot of things smacks of dilettantism. Do I lack the stamina to become an expert? Am I too easily distracted to put in the 10,000 hours reportedly required to achieve mastery? 

Maybe I have to accept that, for now at least, intermediate is my sweet spot. I’ve moved past the frustrations of beginnerhood without encountering the demands of expertise. “Intermediate” means that you’re good enough to enjoy what you’re doing. And it’s a roomy category. A beginner is a beginner and an expert is just that. 

But an intermediate can be low, medium, or high. And wherever you are as an intermediate, you can always go forward, try harder, learn more. I can go to those tutorials and get better with the Mac; I can practice harder at the piano and, maybe, in time, play a little Chopin. 

To me, “intermediate” is life’s default position. We are beginners who learn as we go along till we get to be – intermediate. Who of us can claim to be an expert parent, wife, husband, child, friend? At best, we’re high intermediate with much to learn.

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