Resetting ‘normal’: celebrating the power of inexpertise

In 1970 a group of students at the Portsmouth School of Art formed The Portsmouth Sinfonia.  Led by composer Gavin Bryars, the Sinfonia was an orchestral experiment that recruited members on the basis that they were willing to play an instrument with which they had little or no experience.  Beyond that the only rules were that you must show up for rehearsals, try your best to get it right and not intentionally try to play badly.

The results were extraordinary as exemplified in their version of Also sprach Zarathustra.  Their performances became an expression of true novelty that challenged the norms of how classical music could be played, bringing a lot of joy to both musicians and audiences.  (And no doubt attracting some critical judgements from those with traditional expertise!)  It was such a bold experiment that pioneering musician and composer Brian Eno joined the Sinfonia on clarinet and later produced their albums.  However, as the years passed the musicians inevitably became more musically accomplished, diminishing their ability to truly discover novelty together.   The unique spirit of imperfect co-creation was consumed by emerging expertise. Eventually the Sinfonia ceased performing in 1979.

It was a similar interest in the potency of inexpertise that led me to start the Lab in 2015.   The Lab came about as a reaction against the tyranny of expertise that seemed to dominate the corporate world and conferences and workshops I found myself attending.  A world that favoured neat answers and over-simplified 3-step-solutions over messy, inconclusive and often open ended questions.  An addiction to expertise that I couldn’t help feel dampened individual creativity and wanton experimentation.  The basic premise of the Lab was to simply to offer a place to experiment and be experimented on in service of enlivening the human spirit.  A space where people could try out something they’d never tried before with a bunch willing participants and not have to worry about whether it ‘worked’ or not.  It has been a fascinating experiment and, after 2 years of Labs, I have come to realise that I have learnt so much more from hanging out with others who are being playful with not knowing than I have from any expert.  And I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure why!  It’s almost as if there is a different, unspoken psychological and social contract between people at the Lab.  Those leading the experiments do not have any expertise or knowledge to fall back on so there is a different quality of alertness and presence as they guide others through their experiment.  They look more alive which is inevitably more compelling to move towards and support.  And those participating in the experiments appear to be more captivated by their lived experience, drawn in by the shared void of not knowing that is being embodied in front of them.  A mutual appreciation of the good natured struggle of letting go in order to work with true novelty.  I imagine the musicians and (appreciative) audiences of the Portsmouth Sinfonia had similar experiences.

In his book “Everything’s an Offer”Rob Poynton quotes Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine as suggesting that “Letting go is the chief psychological chore of the 21st Century.”  Our fear of losing face, looking stupid or being shamed by others means we are psychologically and socially pre-disposed towards seeking expertise and answers, valuing certainty over possibility.  A stuck pattern that, over time, makes this psychological chore more and more difficult.   I suspect that the rapid advances in technology and 24-7 access to knowledge and expertise deepens this stuckness.  I can’t help but wonder if the way to begin getting unstuck is through a rather counter-intuitive, illogical movement towards shared experiences of not knowing.  Gently moving expertise off stage into the wings and allowing inexpertise to take the spotlight for a moment.

Inexpert 2018 is an experiment to see what happens if we do just that.   A not-for-profit event where 15 speakers have been invited to give talks on a subject that they are passionate about but have no expertise in.   An audience of 100 who know that they are coming to see something imperfect, inconclusive and inexpert.  Think of it as Portsmouth Sinfonia does TED!  The speaker briefing is effectively the same at that which Gavin Bryars gave his musicians over 40 years ago: give a talk on a subject you have little or no expertise in, prepare sufficiently to fully show up from a position of ‘live’ inexpertise, but don’t intentionally try to make it inexpert.   And, I’ve no idea what is going to happen.  For every question a speaker, a ticket holder or a member of the press asks me I only have more questions arising from the dissonance this whole experiment creates.  I’m hoping that the experiment will challenge some deeply ingrained norms and inspire those who attend it but beyond that, who knows?.  All I do know is that, as there is no way for it to go right, there is also no way for it to go wrong.  Whatever happens is all part of the experiment.

My experiences from the Lab have made me wonder if it is possible to create environments in which we are able to socially reset ‘normal’ in order to learn and discover in a fundamentally different way.   Normally, in the corporate world or at conferences or workshops, those lacking expertise stand out as different or deficient in some way.  At the Lab the opposite dynamic has emerged with those coming along to demonstrate their knowledge or sell their expertise standing out as rather odd.  Expertise is certainly helpful in many areas of life, but it brings with it an inhibiting shadow. As the late Shunryū Suzuki once said:  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s there are few.” 


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