Years ago I regularly went fishing with my father, who was and continues to be a real outdoorsman – someone who seems to know how to do and catch anything in the woods, lakes, fields and streams.
I followed along, doing my best, and apparently listening (although that is not what children normally do in my experience) and learned how to cast, toss my bait into the little space between the bank and the shady dock, bait my own hooks and neatly clean my catch.
Now fast forward 30ish years – through university, several international moves, 70+ countries of work-related travel, and not much fishing to speak of – I am begged to go fishing by my own two sons. What do I recall from my childhood learning?
My first observation is that if you don’t use it, you actually don’t lose (at least completely). I can remember how to string a rod, tie on the hooks, sinkers and bobbers. I know that fish hide in shady areas, or swim very deep when the water is too warm. I know that you can’t fish at midday when the sun is at its hottest, and that early morning or dusk is better to catch feeding fish. I also know that if you don’t catch anything in one spot after a while, you need to move your fishing location, and keep moving, until you find the fish.
But, we are still not catching any fish over here, four thousand miles from my father, the resident expert.
I think there are a few things impeding us. First, I think that I am struggling with a new application of this long ago learning – a brand new context. I am no longer walking through high grass to Ohio farm ponds. In this Swiss lake, unlike the Great Lakes and ponds where I fished as a kid, I don’t know much about this lake, its bottom topography, temperatures or depths. I don’t know all the species of fish, I don’t know what they eat (salmon eggs, worms, doughballs?) and when they eat it (not so much the time of day, but the time of year – are they spawning?) This latter would never cross my mind, but when I described to my father that we had seen big carp and couldn’t get them interested in our bait, the first thing he said was “they might be spawning”. I googled it and indeed carp spawn here in late May and early June depending on the temperature of the water. I didn’t know that. Clearly some of it a good fisherman who had fished all over would figure out – like a lifetime practitioner of any field would intuit some things in a new context.
So there’s another thing – I built up some good experience of fishing long ago, but I don’t have decades of watching this water, understanding the fish and their behaviour, and knowing the broad range of tools (baits, spinners, lines) that a veteran fisherman would have (nor the graduate degree in freshwater fishery biology that my father has.) These things come from much more experience, and a lot of trial and error. My father no doubt took all the trial and error out of my early fishing experiences (kids get bored so easily), so some of this I will have to repete myself. And I will have to be curious, instead of irritated, when things do not come out the same as they did those long ago years. I will have to test a few of my own hypotheses, and remember what works when it does. It would also be good to make friends with a local fisherman who might be able to give me some clues to fishing in this particular ecosystem at 46.2 degrees north and 6.15 degrees east.
So what does this tell me about learning? Well, even when learned at an early age you can remember some things and even develop muscle memory for physical activities, like casting and reeling in my case. So you will not start out again as an absolute beginner. As you use this memory, more things will come back, although they might not be exact memories. And early experiences and memories that are good will no doubt drive you to keep trying, even when the new context is different, and potentially produces different results than the past.
For me, when I am experiencing this, I will try to:
- Acknowledge that, although everything seems familiar, I am out of my original context for learning so will pay particular attention to what I am doing and challenge any old assumptions;
- Seek local expertise – get a local “guide” who can help me, and help translate my knowledge into something more appropriate for the current context;
- Try things – which is fun, if I look at it from a that perspective – because I have a learning curve again (even if I didn’t 30 years ago).
Ultimately I guess it’s about relearning. I found this interesting quote by futurist Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
So keep on learning (and relearning), and let’s go fishing!