smart people: an allegory

A little while ago, my wife’s car died in the parking lot of a video store. It’s an older car, a hand-me-down from her grandfather who pretty much drove it to the store and back once a week for a decade. It had been making all sorts of funny noises for a while, so its not starting all of a sudden wasn’t particularly surprising. But my wife had just gotten dental surgery and half of her face was numb; she didn’t particularly want to deal with calling the tow truck or finding a mechanic to figure out what was wrong with the car. She walked home, and along the way called me. The car became my responsibility.

Now, I don’t really know anything about cars. I know enough about cars to know that they are fairly simple machines (especially older ones like ours) powered by something called an “internal combustion engine.” If I understand it correctly, this engine takes a substance that millions of years ago used to be called “dinosaurs” but is now called “gasoline” and lights it on fire, causing a series of explosions (or combustions) that make a bunch of gears move or pistons go up and down thus making other gears and belts turn all of which eventually leads to my wife driving herself from the dentist to the video store. I know that there are some belts in there under the hood, and I’m under the impression that these belts are glorified rubber bands because, like their smaller cousins, they are prone to getting old, drying out, and snapping for no reason. There’s a tank there under the hood that’s filled with what looks like a highly toxic liquid called “coolant,” but I have no idea how this liquid “cools” anything. I know that automobiles have batteries, but for some reason they also need a contraption called a “starter.” I am not at all clear on what the relationship is between the battery and the starter; my flashlight has a battery, but doesn’t need a starter. Something else must be going on.

If I had the time or the inclination, I could probably spend an hour or two on Wikipedia and learn a bit more about this internal combustion engine. Being a pretty smart guy, I’m fairly sure that most of that information would make some sense to me, that I would be able to get a pretty good understanding of how this simple machine gets my wife from point A to point B. But having a rudimentary bit of knowledge about how the machine works isn’t going to help anyone. I might be able to diagnose the problem, but that would just be an educated guess based on the last time I sat behind the wheel of a car that wouldn’t start and it made a similar noise. And even if I did accurately diagnose the problem, I’m sure as hell not going to be able to fix it.

Lucky for me, lucky for all of us really, there’s a class of individuals out there who know a whole lot more about automobiles than I do. After making sure the feeling was coming back into her face and that she hadn’t accidentally bitten off her tongue, I went to pick up my wife’s car. This involved calling a tow truck, having the tow-truck-guy confirm that it wouldn’t start and needed more than a jump, and then having him tow the car to a mechanic that got good reviews on the Interwebs. The mechanic was great. He reminded me very much of the neighbor in Office Space: relaxed, straightforward, and honest. When he explained to me the myriad things wrong with this piece of machinery, he didn’t talk down to me. And when I went to pick it up the next day, the cost was below what he quoted me.

As long as the world keeps driving these machines around, the world needs mechanics. No matter how great your car runs now, sooner or later it’s going to break. A glorified rubber band is going snap, a piston will stop piston-ing, some former dinosaur is going to get all gunked up and stop exploding right. And, eventually, the car is going to stop altogether and no mechanic, no matter how good he or she is, is going to be able to fix it. It’ll be taken to a scrap metal or junk yard, and its pieces will be broken down and turned into some new simple machine getting some other guy’s wife from point A to point B.

The only way to avoid the short-term suffering of having a car stuck in a video store parking lot is take it to a mechanic. As long as we keep driving these machines, as long as these machines keep breaking down, the world is going to need people who are trained in knowing how to fix them. The world needs specialists. The world needs smart people who know what they’re doing when people like me, who don’t know a carburetor from a hole in the ground, come into their shops.

It goes without saying that anyone can become a mechanic. And, as long as we need them, we should encourage people who have an interest in doing so. But it also goes without saying that not everyone who wants to become a mechanic will actually succeed at doing so; and of those that do, not all of them will be good mechanics. Some may be able to fix all the pistons and belts, but they’ll be mediocre at best. They’ll overlook something that, to a superlative mechanic, will be obvious. And you’ll find yourself back at their shop in no time. Other sub-par mechanics will be sub-par because they are, frankly, dishonest, taking advantage of the fact that most people don’t know how their cars work but need them anyway and will pay anything to make sure that they keep running.

But just because there are mediocre mechanics and charlatans doesn’t mean that we should do away with the lot of them, not while there are still so many cars out there. Those who aren’t able to become mechanics, take heart. Chances are, there’s some other field out there that, once you try it, you’ll be amazed at how right it feels. Instead of being a superlative mechanic, you’ll be a superlative dental hygienist, cellist, pilot, teacher, parent, whatever. The world needs all of those folks, too, and we need those folks to be just as smart.

In some ways, I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m a specialist in one, very limited (and not particularly universally helpful) field. But I can’t tell a carburetor from a hole in the ground. There are plenty of mechanics out there who are way smarter than me. And my wife is extremely grateful for that.

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