In the realm of expertise, whether it be the audio engineer fine-tuning the acoustics at Abbey Road, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master demonstrating a complex grapple, or the seasoned technology CEO navigating the turbulent seas of the market, there exists a common thread. It is the understanding that the world is a complex tapestry of nuance, and that there is seldom a single, definitive path forward. This understanding, however, often leads to a frustratingly ambiguous mantra: "It depends."
The audio engineer at Abbey Road, for instance, might be faced with the task of capturing the perfect sound for a new, multi-instrumental, groundbreaking album. The artist wants a sound that's raw and authentic, yet polished and professional. The engineer could take a purist approach, using minimal processing and letting the natural acoustics of the room shape the sound. Or, they could take a more modern approach, using digital processing to sculpt the sound to perfection. The best approach? "It depends." It depends on the artist's vision, the genre of the music, the intended audience, and a myriad of other factors.
Luna, the artist, turns to Sam, the audio engineer, her eyes filled with the burning passion of creativity, "Sam, should we aim for a purist approach, using minimal processing and letting the natural acoustics of the room shape the sound? Or should we take a more modern approach, using digital processing to sculpt the sound to perfection?"
Sam, a seasoned veteran of the soundboard, steeped in the lore of Abbey Road, pauses before responding. "Well, Luna," he begins, his voice steady and thoughtful, "it depends."
"It depends?" Luna echoes, her brow furrowing slightly.
"Yes," Sam replies, leaning back in his chair, his gaze distant as if he's looking at a complex sound wave only he can see. "It depends on a multitude of factors. Your vision for the album is paramount, of course. But we also have to consider the genre of the music. A folk album will have a different sonic texture than a rock album or a jazz album. The intended audience plays a role too. Are they listening on high-end audio equipment, or streaming on their phones?"
He continues, "And then there's the question of the instruments themselves. The rich resonance of a Stradivarius violin calls for a different approach than the raw power of a Fender Stratocaster. We might use ribbon mics for the violin to capture its warmth, and dynamic mics for the electric guitar to handle its volume."
Sam then delves into the technicalities, "In terms of processing, we have a whole arsenal of tools at our disposal. We could use a Neve 1073 preamp to add some vintage warmth, or a Universal Audio Apollo for its high-quality digital conversion. We could use EQ to carve out a space for each instrument in the mix, and compression to control the dynamics. We could add some subtle reverb to give the sound a sense of space, or some delay to add depth."
"And let's not forget about the software," Sam adds, "Pro Tools for recording and mixing, Ableton Live for electronic elements, Melodyne for pitch correction, Izotope Ozone for mastering. Each has its own strengths and can be used to shape the sound in different ways."
Sam's response, filled with the intricate details of his craft, underscores the complexity and nuance that comes with expertise. The 'right' answer or approach is not always clear-cut and can depend on a variety of factors. But for Luna, who is seeking clear guidance and a confident path forward, Sam's 'it depends' wisdom, while undoubtedly wise, leaves her standing at a crossroads, overwhelmed by options and unsure of the next step. It's a reminder that while expertise can illuminate the complexities of a field, it can also obscure the path to decisive action.
Similarly, our Brazilian jiu-jitsu master, Renato, in the midst of a training session with his eager student, Marco. Marco, ensnared in the tight clutches of Renato's guard, poses a question, "Master, what's the most effective way to escape?"
Renato, a figure of calm amidst the physical struggle, responds, "Marco, like many things in life and jiu-jitsu, it depends."
Marco, straining against the hold, repeats, "It depends?"
"Indeed," Renato affirms, his grip steady but not unkind. "The effectiveness of an escape is contingent on numerous variables. Your opponent's physicality - their size, strength, and skill level - are all significant factors. Your own physical attributes and conditioning also come into play. The context of the situation, whether it's a regulated competition or a real-world confrontation, can also dictate the best course of action."
Renato elaborates, "For instance, a hip bump escape might be your best bet against a larger opponent, while a shrimp escape could serve you well against someone smaller and more agile. A bridge escape requires strength, a knee push escape, flexibility. Each technique has its own strengths and weaknesses, and its effectiveness can vary greatly depending on the circumstances."
He adds, "And let's not overlook the mental game. Your mindset, focus, and determination can often tip the scales in your favor."
In both cases, the expert is not evading the question, but rather acknowledging the complexity of the situation. They are recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, that every situation is unique and requires a nuanced approach. But this nuance, while valuable, can also be a source of frustration for those seeking clear, definitive answers.
Mentees, those eager to learn and grow, often approach their mentors with a simple question: "What's the answer?" They seek a clear, concise solution, a roadmap to success. But the mentor, steeped in the subtleties of their field, often responds with the maddeningly vague "It depends." The idea, presumably, is that over time the mentee will come to appreciate the complexities of the world and understand that life, like their field of study, is nuanced. The wisest people, the best coaches, the most charismatic managers — they are too steeped in the quantum chaos of thinking from the lofty heights of experience.
But is this really the best approach? Is it fair to the mentee, who is seeking guidance and clarity, to be met with such equivocation? I would argue that it is not. Experts are not psychiatrists, bound by professional codes to avoid giving advice on penalty of malpractice or perjury. They are, or at least should be, guides, willing and able to provide clear direction when needed.
Experts, coaches, and mentors should free themselves take a stand once in a while.
I propose that experts and mentors should approach these questions wearing two hats, and be explicit about which hat they are wearing at any given moment. The first hat is the 'It Depends' hat. When wearing this hat, the expert can delve into the complexities and nuances of the situation, explaining why there is no simple answer.
But then, they should switch to their second hat, the 'If I Were You' hat. When asked, "If you were me, what exactly would you do?" the expert should be willing to provide a clear, definitive answer. They should be able to say, "Given the information at hand, this is the choice I would make, and here's why."
For example, a young entrepreneur might ask a seasoned CEO, "Should I seek venture capital for my startup?" The CEO, wearing the 'It Depends' hat, might explain the pros and cons of venture capital, the importance of timing, the potential loss of control, and so on. But then, switching to the 'If I Were You' hat, the CEO might say, "Given your specific situation, I would bootstrap for as long as possible to maintain control and only seek venture capital when you reach a certain annual revenue, IF you need to accelerate sales growth and it's the only way forward."
This approach provides the mentee with a nuanced understanding of the situation, but also gives them a clear direction to follow. It respects the complexity of the world, but also acknowledges the need for decisive action.
So after Sam provides his shades of nuance — he can say: if I were you I'd use this room mic, that boom, we'll put two of 'em in this corner, we'll mic the snare at an angle, we'll use this exact digital compressor, we'll use this exact pre-amp, and off we go...
And there's nothing wrong with that.