Monday, October 19, 2009

The Three Most Dangerous Words in the English Language: "I know that"

The Three Most Dangerous Words in the English Language: "I know that"

How open are you to learning new things? While I've no scientific proof of this, I'm willing to bet that those who succeed are much more open to new ideas and possibilities than those who think they already know everything - or that their way is the only way.

When you say "yes" - or at least "maybe" - an endless array of possibilities belongs to you. When you say, "I know that," you are not only saying "no," but you are digging in and proclaiming, "You can't teach or give me anything new because I'm already all full. There's no room for any new|different|inspired ideas." It's as though the metal shutters slam closed with a reverberating "CLANG!"

So imagine being 20 years old and thinking you know everything. Perhaps it's just a human right of passage, a phase we all go through. I have relatively few regrets in my life, but one of them is that I didn't listen to my college advisor when he told me I needed to take more poetry. "No, sir, I don't. It sasy right here in the course catalogue that I can graduate with my degree in nonfiction writing with two poetry classes - and I've taken two poetry classes."

My advisor put on his glasses and examined the line I pointed to with my know-it-all index finger and said, "Well, I'll be damned." He knew he had lost the argument, but he tried valiantly to change my mind. His exact words were, "You will regret it later if you don't take more poetry."

And my know-it-all response was, "No, I won't." I hated poetry and was terrible at writing it. It was boring and I just didn't see the point. So, at the time, from my very limited vantage point, I thought I knew how I would feel in the future. Was I ever wrong!

Turns out, sometimes it's a good idea to listen to the older, wiser advisors in our lives. Particularly since this advisor happened to be none other than Richard Shelton.

Richard Shelton is an Arizona writer, poet, and emeritus Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona. He has written nine books of poetry; his first collection of poems, The Tattooed Desert, won the International Poetry Forum's U.S. Award. His 1992 memoir, Going Back to Bisbee, wond the Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1992, became a New York Times Notable Book, and was selected for the One Book Arizona program in 2007. In 2000, Shelton received a $100,000 grant from the Lannan Foundation to complete two books. You can practically count the living poets who get paid for their work on one hand - so this accomplishment alone is astonishing!

If that weren't enough, Shelton's poems and prose work have appeared in more than 200 magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and The Antioch Review and have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Polish, and Japanese.

Back in 1974, Shelton established a writer's workshop at the Arizona State Prison, and a number of books of prose and poetry written by men in Shelton’s prison workshops have been published. His latest book, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer details this experience. It won the 2007 Southwest Books of the Year award.

So now I can't help but wonder what I could have learned from this man, if I had simply had the common sense not to think, "I know that." While he doesn't come to the top of my mind as one of the people who's been most influential in my life, I really wish I'd heeded his advice back then: "You need to take more poetry." My life is great now - but it could be richer, fuller, more lyrical, and filled with much more beauty and joy if I'd known to avoid the three most dangerous words in the English language. The good news is that it's never too late to start learning something new!

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