I was generally considered to be a bright kid. When I was a child and thought everybody’s brain and internal intellectual life was exactly like mine, I didn’t think about it too much, but I observed something about how I learned things. There were a great many challenges, particularly in school work, that I just somehow intuitively “got”. I have no idea why, but I had no great difficulty with them and could quickly pick them up and demonstrate that I was good at them. This happened, for me, with reading, mathematics, designing things, building things, modelling with clay and with my spoken and written vocabulary. It used to drive the other kids potty and made me feel more than a little isolated, at times.
I don’t really understand why these academic and practical pursuits gelled with me quickly, they just did. I very quickly cottoned onto things and could then master them, having worked out for myself how they worked and what was expected of me. I was always into understanding how things, whatever they were, worked. That extended to clocks, cars, electronics, grammar, geometry and even quantum chemistry. Once I figured out how they ticked, I could easily extend that knowledge and work out how to do things with them. Knowing how something works enables you to make predictions about how it might behave, under different circumstance and hence, lets you shape the world, using that knowledge as a tool. I suppose that’s why engineering is something that I could just do, at an intuitive level.
Perhaps my ability to learn quickly was due to genetic inheritance, or because these things meshed with my own already partly developed view about how the world worked. I cannot credit my vocabulary to the English spoken at home. As intelligent as my parents both are, their vocabularies were limited by the fact that English was not their first language. It wasn’t even their second. It was my mother’s third language and might have been the fifth or sixth language, for my father.
They knew a lot of words, from many languages, many of which enriched my own understanding of humanity later in life (there are some untranslatable words and concepts in my parents’ other languages). Unfortunately, the English spoken at home was mostly functional; perfectly acceptable for business correspondence, but not really florid or literary. Poetry was not read in our house. In fact, there were very few books, other than my favourite encyclopaedias and “How and Why Wonder Books”.
I digress. The point I am trying to make is that I had abilities and I don’t really know where they came from. I just had the facility to do certain things without having to try too hard. That was a terrible curse.
It was a handicap because I developed the wrong-headed idea that your gifts were fixed and if you were lucky enough to have them, then you had won the lottery in life and you should be grateful for them, but you couldn’t change anything about them. What I didn’t realise was that you could start from those gifts, or even from no gifts at all, and learn abilities you didn’t have before. This was a crucial and fundamental mistake to make.
Being effortlessly good at many things meant that any time I encountered something that was more of a challenge for me, which I wasn’t instantly good at or which I didn’t fully understand at first cursory glance, instead of being stimulated by the obstacle, I was simply able to ignore it. I was good at other things. Why continue to do something you struggled to do, when you could simply switch to spending more time doing things you were already good at and which came easily?
They say that bright girls are prone to this sort of thing more than boys. When they are faced with a difficult thing to master, they give up rather quickly, assuming that they simply have no gifts in that area. I think this explains why so many highly articulate and literate women insist that they are rubbish at mathematics, even into adulthood, when with a little more tenacity and application, they could discover that mathematics is well within their intellectual capabilities. Many adult women do, indeed, discover that their failure at mathematics as a child was all a hoax and find zeal and love for the subject, later in life.
What I have come to learn, only within the last decade, truthfully, is that your abilities are not fixed and finite. You can pound at something you are initially really terrible at and turn that around. I cite my painting as an example. I didn’t paint at all, until I was into my late forties. As a teen, I was told I had no talent for it. I had no reason to persevere with it, being constantly judged as inadequate, because I could spend my time doing things I was glibly good at. Having worked at my art for the past six years or so, I can now sketch, in paint, direct to the canvas and get a pretty good likeness of a human model, first go. That was formerly a total impossibility, for me.
When we hear guitar Gods play, we assume (incorrectly) that they just fell into it and have some natural ability at being a virtuoso player. The guitar Gods tell the story differently. Yes, they have a love and a passion for playing, but the abilities came later, after much hard work and application. The love of the instrument is what made the hard work of learning bearable. Each one did a lot of practice and sought challenging things to play, which they initially couldn’t play. They all worked at them, painstakingly, until they could play them. Some have even noted, with amazement, at how long it takes to get some of the concepts into one’s thick skull.
This is what limited me as a guitar player and song writer. You get to a point where all the easy things are things you can already do, but the hard things feel too uncomfortable to persist with learning. You can always get by and fake it by playing all the easy, flashy tricks. Unfortunately, that makes for boring playing. It isn’t engaging for any audience to see or hear somebody play something they can play easily, over and over again. What everybody wants is for the artist to take chances, to stretch themselves and to devote themselves to constantly trying to pound the knowledge they don’t yet have into themselves and to perfect the skills that aren’t yet there, even if it’s painful, difficult and takes hours or days (or weeks or months or years!)
The amazing thing is that, as gifted as you might already be (or not, if that’s how you feel about yourself), you can always obtain new gifts and improve on the abilities you already have, but you have to put the work in. You can’t avoid the struggle or the cognitive dissonance that comes from trying to acquire new skills or new knowledge. Playing it safe and sticking to what you are already good at is a bad strategy.
Child prodigies are often overtaken by other artists, as they grow up, precisely because it initially all comes so easily to them and they avoid the hard work of trying to be better, by challenging themselves. They stick to what they know, until all those other artists that were doing the hard graft of being terrible for a long time, until they finally got it and perfected it, over take them. At the point that they encounter real competition, they fail to gain the ground back, because while they have been avoiding the hard challenges and the risk taking, their competitors know nothing other than hard work and disappointment, which they know how to overcome. The prodigy, faced with the same mountain of hard work to do and the constant disappointment of it not coming easily anymore, doesn’t know how to overcome the obstacles. That’s why so many just give up.
The message of this post is that your abilities are largely all about what you work hardest at. Yes, you can initially find some things relatively easy to grasp and learn, but that doesn’t help you and it can even hinder you. Your gifts and abilities are not fixed and the struggle to learn is part of the deal. The pay off, though, is that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough at learning it. You have the capability to be amazing at whatever you choose to be amazing at. But it’s going to cost you a lot of hours, disappointment, frustration and pain. There’s no getting around it.
On the upside, once you achieve “amazing”, you get a lot more choices and opportunities, as an artist. The world loves amazing. At that point, you can either make your life’s work the constant improvement of those skills (going beyond amazing), or you can take on another challenge entirely and become a master at that. You can be anything you want.
You just have to remember that it don’t come easy.