… is everything. I know there’s a lot to be said for brains or muscle or guts. They’ve all got their place. But brains can be short-sighted, muscle atrophies, and guts are sometimes just another way to say stupid. (The difference between stupidity and bravery is often the outcome.) Experience, however, like an extra ten years on a scotch, is the difference between good and great.
That’s not to say that literal years are synonymous with experience. They’re not. Accumulating years on this spinning ball of dirt doesn’t mean you’re experienced. Simply accumulating them in any particular profession doesn’t mean this either. Experience isn’t a party favor handed out to those just drawing breath. It must be sought and must come with reflection resulting in growth and a developing understanding of the ever-changing worlds around us.
Having spent ten years as a teacher, I know that no matter how mediocre I was at the start, I only got better with experience. I made a lot of dumb mistakes. We all do. (Maybe we don’t make the same mistakes, or the same amount of mistakes, but you know what I’m getting at.) Mistakes are what help you learn what not to do, and more importantly why, and hopefully you only make them once. (Hopefully.) You need to make mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes fuel experience. And in any given field, be it teaching or publishing or bartending or life, the mistakes are what make you better. Behind the bar, I didn’t pour a bad mix twice, but I poured a lot of different bad ones once.
I remember one heady pour of experience from when I was a kid: the stars I saw the first time I was in a fight with someone who actually fights. Not the pushing, shoving, wild air-hook punching of most elementary school fights, but the real bloody deal with purposeful punches that connect and an opponent who’s got older brothers and who had to learn to fight as a matter of daily bread. Getting your ass kicked is a very special serving of experience. If you’ve never had it, I highly recommend you go out and get it. It’s so choice.
Craig was a kid who moved into the neighborhood without much notice. His family lived in a house set far back off the main road surrounded by coops of one kind or another and what I remember as being a lot of dirt and chaos. Of course, I only gleaned this as Tony, my neighborhood friend and oft-times worst enemy, and I rode our BMX bikes past his house. We knew little about him or his family. He was an outsider in a neighborhood with a lot of outside to go around, outside that Tony and I felt belonged to us.
My run in with Craig was quick. There were some words, some posturing, some scared-kid-playing-tough-guy talk, and a lot of egging on from Tony, who seemed to verbally propel me forward into a confrontation with a kid who wasn’t really doing anything to us. A kid who may or may not have been refusing to budge off the dirt hill where my bike was left briefly abandoned, but who was certainly not budging when Tony volleyed taunts and heckles and possibly rocks at his head. My “friend” Tony, who was now sinking further behind me as his insults continued to fly.
I don’t remember how it physically started. Ascending the dirt hill, I do remember a quick moment of doubt when I saw Craig square off with his hands up in front of his face, measured and ready, in what I’d later realize was a boxer’s fighting stance and what I’d realize in just another second was not the first time he’d had to crouch into it.
I also remember a ringing in my ear and a quick flash of light as a guided right hook landed on the side of my head. The warm, syrupy thickness of blood seeping into my mouth. Then another flash. I may have sky-hooked a sad shot or two, maybe tried to rush in with my head down, most likely got hit a few more times. And then it was done. I was walking backward, red dripping between the fingers cradling my mouth. Craig was moving off in his own direction, back to his dirt and chaos. Tony stood finally quiet. I think I was more thankful he had finally shut the fuck up, only now registering the chatter that had existed throughout the brief fight, than I was thankful that the fight was over. I bad been beaten by a kid who knew what it was to fight, actually fight. I learned later he spent his afternoons fending off blows from older brothers who were disgruntled or angry or bored or all three. He had been through this before. Craig had experience.
I now had some experience too. I had experienced letting myself get pushed into a fight with an unknown entity and getting my ass handed to me. I learned that it’s best to assume the unknown opponent is more experienced than to be surprised by your own ignorance. If you’re prepared for someone better, you’re at least ready for it when it comes. And lucky when it doesn’t.
I came home from the fight with a loose tooth, a split lip, and visual memories of Craig’s poise under pressure, his almost boredom while beating me. I wasn’t done yet though, as I had one more experience provided courtesy of my mother. When she heard what happened, that I had gotten into a fight with the new kid down the street, she grabbed my arm, turning me on my heels, and marched me back down the block, down the dirt road, right up to Craig’s front door. Made me knock. Made me ask to see Craig, and his Mom. Made me apologize. Apologize to Craig, the kid who had just laid down a bit of a beating on her son.
Another experience to remember and a new piece of personal knowledge won through it: losing a fight you start doesn’t make you the victim. (It does make you an asshole though.)
I could have avoided all of this by doing the “right thing.” I could have saved myself a little humiliation, a little pain and discomfort, and a week without eating candy bars for fear my loose tooth would come out in the caramel. Sure, I could have done that.
But it’s easy to be “good.” It’s better to be experienced.