Surely You're Joking

"If you want to master something, teach it."

- Richard Feynman


I don't remember which of the comments in yesterday's thread made me remember that quote, but I've been thinking about it for a solid day now.


And wondering (because I'm a negative sonuvabitch) about the darker side of that aphorism.


The light side is obvious: as a working instructor consistently performing skills at (ideally) "demonstration quality" achieves a second-nature faculty for those skills.


Some months ago I had a student who kept wiggling their feet as they performed a valve drill, which moved them around in a slow semi-circle when they should remain stationary. In an effort to demonstrate that fins have no place in a valve drill I took mine off and demonstrated the entire drill finless. A goofy party-trick with no practical application whatsoever? YUP! But it proved the point and the student started reliably sticking the landing on the drill.

And I was relieved it did. Because as I was taking my fins off I had a moment to think, "This is either going to be awesome, or I'm going to look like a complete douchenozzle," because I'd never tried anything like that before. But, my demonstrating valve drills many times a month for years made it pretty easy.

If you want to master something, teach it.


But. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. The path to the dark side.

Imagine your local lake or quarry or shore dive or wherever Open Water classes are taught all the time. There's that one choice spot that the oldest shop in the area always has a big trailer set up to accommodate 10 students every time you’re there? You have walked past the same grizzled, veteran instructor going through the same script week after week, season after season, year after year, predictable to the point that you could probably deliver their lecture at this point.


This person is the master of their domain. They're the senior instructor at their shop. They've got platinum instructor status or whatever, having trained a gajillion divers throughout their career. Fuck my “no fins” trick, they can actually demonstrate many skills in their actual sleep (and sometimes have on rough mornings). And they, somewhat-rightly, have the admiration and reverence of their symposium of adherents. They are, after all, The Maestro.

Of certain things. Not of all things. Just certain somethings. They’ve been teaching the same way for a very long time and have unquestionably mastered the somethings that they teach.

Those somethings are the things they’ve been engaged to teach, to the great appreciation of the students who will (assuming this is a solid instructor) tell them how wonderful they are.


A funny thing happens in our heads when we’re told, over and over, how wonderful we are: we believe it. Further, any implications that challenge that self-image are… … … not welcome. I was at Dutch Springs quarry in Pennsylvania taking my very first CCR course. This was 2007. Rebreathers were not exactly cutting-edge, but they weren’t yet as prevalent as they are now. Recognizable, but not an anomaly. My instructor and I walked past just such a congregation where a fixture of an old-timer OW instructor was holding court. Eerily, the whole class went silent as we walked by. We were still right there, in obvious earshot, but the moment both our backs were to the entirety of the class the instructor piped back up. “Those? Those are rebreathers. They are SUPER dangerous and you are going to want to stay as far away from divers using gear like that as you can!” And here I am all, “I’m still right here, Cuz!" My instructor waved it off and explained, “Just get used to it.” Of course these days rebreathers are all the rage and most everyone, at least, is a friend and dive buddy to a rebreather diver or ten. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to swallow my words when someone says, “Oh, you dive one of THEM? You got your will made out?” However — as I write some of the things I write and I get some of the nastygrams that I get about how I am a pompous, blowhard of a tech diver trying to force ideas down people’s throats who should just be allowed to just go diving according to XXXX’s Open Water Standards, which are perfectly safe as evidenced by the fact that they, the writer, have trained plenty of students and as far as they know no one has ever had any problem at all ever — it turns out that ideology of plateaued mastery is still out there. Which should come as zero surprise to anyone.

If you want to master something, teach it.

These folks have mastered diving. Because they teach it. And the existential fortress of cognitive consistency they have built for themselves over years keeps its portcullis securely shut against any threat to foundations of that mastery, any challenge that they, just maybe, could imaginably continue to grow as divers and instructors. Which is folly.


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