Perpetually Groping – The Search for Uncertainty
“Albert Einstein admired (Niels) Bohr for ‘uttering his opinions like one perpetually groping and never like one who (believed himself to be) in the possession of definite truth.”
Richard Rhodes Making of the Atomic Bomb
Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone to 3 professional conferences. As a licensed mental health counselor, the state requires me to amass 30 continuing education credits or CEU’s every two years. As a hopeless procrastinator, that usually means I have to pack most of those hours in to the last couple months of each two year cycle. The CEU requirement is not unique to the field of counseling. Most professional careers require some variation on the continuing education theme and most professionals have the same ambivalent feelings about the trainings and conferences they’re required to attend.
As anyone who’s had to earn CEU’s will tell you, the quality of these offerings varies tremendously. Some of the trainings and conferences I’ve attended have been invaluable. For instance, I’ve learned more about Autism from the incomparable Elsa Abele and her workshops than from any other source. By a long shot. I’m proud to call Elsa a mentor and a friend and I cannot possibly recommend her trainings highly enough. Also up there on that elevated plain is Jody Sleeper-Triplett, whose training on executive function coaching taught me a whole new way of working with teens and young adults.
Elsa Abele’s (left) workshops on Autism and Jody Sleeper-Triplett’s trainings on Executive Function Coaching are the two best continuing education experiences I’ve had.
On the other hand, some speakers are “considerate” enough to provide all your learning for the day in the first 5 minutes of the training. In that abbreviated time period, you learn that your day is going to be a complete waste of time – other than the CEU certificate you get to take home at the end. Gary Steinberg, my fellow director at Academy MetroWest, has often said that if you finish your day at a conference or workshop with 2 or 3 new factoids that you can use with clients, it’s been a successful day. That sounds about right.
During the three conferences I’ve attended recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern in my reactions to the speakers. I’ve found that my receptiveness often has less to do with what the speakers have to say than in how they say it. Specifically, speakers who present their ideas with an air of unshakable certainty in their value and importance have been rubbing me the wrong way. Even if the speaker does not come right out and say it directly, when they imply that the approach they’re espousing will lead to sure-fire success, or even something close to it, my guard goes up immediately. About a month ago, I attended a conference organized by a prestigious Boston-based practice (who, in the interest of diplomacy and at great cost to my limited self-control, shall remain nameless) whose work I respect a great deal. While some of the conference’s offerings contained everything I look for in continuing education, the ones that focused on the conference organizers’ model of intervention rubbed me the wrong way. This happened despite the fact that I like the approach they use in working with kids and attended the conference with the specific goal of learning more about it. The speakers who described the intervention took on a dogmatic tone that created the impression of hucksters peddling a one-size-fits-all cure for all the ills of childhood. When audience members cited problems they’ve had implementing the model, the speakers’ responses always seemed to suggest that the fault lay not in the model itself, but in the imperfect way it had been implemented.
I guess what I’m looking for is a little humility – a recognition that, regardless of a practitioner’s experience, working with people in a helping capacity requires a recognition of, and respect for, the limitless range of individual differences that people bring to the process. Theories and models are valuable ways for clinicians to conceptualize their work but it’s a big mistake to become too confident in the effectiveness of any model. Doing so shows a disregard for the notion that people are not automatons. They can and do think and behave in ways that confound even the most beautifully conceived models. Think about the quote at the top of the page from Albert Einstein. In the realm of science, you don’t get a lot “harder” than physics. It’s not a field you usually think of as being mushy and subjective. And yet, the trait he admired most in his colleague, Niels Bohr, a pioneer and Nobel Prize winner in his own right, is Bohr’s willingness to acknowledge and even embrace the uncertainty of his own ideas.
When I start working with a new family, I try to conceive the work as the start of a new journey we’re taking together. My value as a professional lies in the fact that the journey is likely to be similar to the ones I’ve taken with many other families in the past. I try to apply the lessons I’ve learned from those adventures at the same time but not to the extent that I stop listening for new ones or that I assume that those past journeys somehow place me in a position in which “I know better.” The subtitle of this blog is Thinking Out Loud About Quirky Kids. Thinking out loud is usually what I’m doing when I’m talking to parents about their kids. Just as Einstein described Niels Bohr, I’m “perpetually groping,” as odd as that sounds. That trait is probably the only one I have in common with Bohr or any other theoretical physicist. But it seems like a good starting point to me.
Rhodes, R. (1987). The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster.