Hubris and Humility

My wife is a seasoned pediatrician. Through a decade of private practice and parenting, she has honed a skill set in primary care that is as impressive as it is nuanced. In many ways, she is a cartographer of kids, able to read the topography of toddlers and the fault lines of adolescents with equal skill. But like any professional ten years into a dedicated career, the visible skills spring from nurtured talent. Many providers-in-training, though, cannot appreciate the terrain at the beginning of their journey.

Last week, a student approached her about a shadowing opportunity. This young professional, still lacking a year of formal education, wanted to invest one hundred and twenty hours in my wife’s office learning to practice pediatrics. Fifteen days of a dedicated rotation to the clinical care of kids, learning to track their progress and map the road ahead. When my wife asked about the student’s expectations, the trainee’s confident response exposed either a lack of self awareness or an under-appreciation of the complexities of the field.

“I think I’ll shadow you for the first few days. You know, to learn the ropes,” responded the student. “After that, I’ll just see patients independently. I’m really good with kids.”

Clowns are good with kids, too.

To be fair, a decade pursuing any endeavor tends to level the peaks of unearned confidence and the valleys of insecurity. In 2003, I began to write my first novel after reading a book that I interpreted to be a hardbound copy of inelegant writing describing two-dimensional characters suffocating under a limp plot. I can write better than this, I thought. I really like books.

My path seemed simple enough: I would re-read a favorite novel to see how good writing is done. I got this, I thought, so I embarked on a ninety-day first draft. With minimal preparation, I pecked out a hundred-thousand words of under-researched prose, uninteresting characters, and an unimaginative plot. What’s worse, at the end of my three-month sprint, I thought I had created a book for the ages. I mailed out thirty-seven queries to agents and editors.

A universal chorus of literary rejection sang an unambiguous tune to me that year. Whatever writing talent I may have had was not enough. Whatever enjoyment I may have had reading books could not supplant the need for practice. So I read more. I wrote more. And my writing grew.

I still read plenty. I still write often. In fact, learning how to write well has given me a backstage pass to appreciate the nuances of well constructed books. I enjoy seeing how an author expertly introduces a character and makes me not only root for her but also wonder about her days after the book’s conclusion, as John Green does in The Fault of Our Stars. I smile at the elegance of compelling plots, as Lee Child has done every time since Killing Floor. I am haunted by perfect endings that hand out gut-wrenching justice, as Ann Patchett did in State of Wonder.

Reading is not just entertainment. It is education. It is also the humility that counters hubris.

I got this?

Not even close.