I’ve been obsessed with the idea of talent recently. Talent versus skill, and is there a difference? I tried to think about anyone I know who’s talented in a field who is “a natural.” I couldn’t think of a single person who has come by their talent without a ton of work. I know race car drivers who are the fastest guys on the track who are barely old enough to drive. They’ve been doing it since they were 10 and spending a lot more time behind the wheel than I can.
I know a truly gifted mechanic, who’s just good with his hands. After spending three years studying under him and trying to become handier myself, I can say this is all learned. The problem with learning from someone who has studied their craft for 30 years is that they are so good, it’s now second nature to them.
In my life, I look at my skill with computers. I have a “natural affinity” with them. But what people don’t see is the 14-year-old me reading the DOS manuals late at night trying to get the computer to do what I wanted to have it do. I spent a significant amount of time learning, and I still do. Am I a fast learner, or just more stubborn than others? I used to lie to my boss that I knew how to do such and such a thing, go home after work, stay up all night learning the thing I told him I knew, and then go back the next day and start the project in front of everyone. To them, I looked like I had known it forever.
It was just a matter of perception. From their viewpoint, I was much better than they could have been. They didn’t know that I spent hours learning the material and that I was completely faking my confidence. After a day or two, I would be pretty good, because the learning curve for most things is steep, you get good quickly. Mastery is a different story.
How many times have you heard that you need to learn, learn, learn to stay ahead of the curve in your job? I can say that this has always been the case. I’ve been doing this for 24 years, so it’s hardly a new idea. I do think the young have a huge leg up on learning something early on. There is something about the young brain that can grasp more quickly and get better easier than when you get older. Maybe because our brains are full of crap by the time we’re in our 40s, maybe because the biology just isn’t there to back us up anymore. We’re slower, but that doesn’t mean we’re not good at what we do.
Talent is simply the amount of time someone has put into something focusing on being better. When I played soccer, I spent six years practicing before I was “gifted.” That’s hardly a gift. The same with computers, the same with golf. I spent a lot of time getting good, practicing in my backyard, where no one saw me, to get where I was at the height of my “talent.”
Now, I see my daily writing as the mental equivalent of going to the range and hitting a bucket of balls every day. It’s the same as me dribbling a tennis ball around the house with my feet, learning better ball control, it’s all those things wrapped up into one because it’s the number one thing I focus on these days.
If you want to be good at something, go do it. A lot. Practice, learn and practice some more. You will get better. Will you be as good as someone who has 10 years of practice ahead of you? No, not initially. But, as the learning curve flattens out, and it always does, you will catch them more quickly then they outrun you, especially if you’re putting in the daily work. There is a tendency among professionals to stop spending the same amount of effort it took to get to where they are once they have achieved it. In other words, they stop learning, they stop working as hard, this is when you will catch up to them a day at a time.
But realize, you will never be Stephen King. You will never be Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. These are individuals who got to their peak state and kept working hard to stay there. Those type of people will always stay ahead of us. And when we’re looking at something in the arts, it’s a different story altogether because art is subjective. You may write something that is better than something Stephen King wrote. But who’s going to be that judge? And how would you know it was better? Art is more subjective than sports or computer programming, or other skills that can be learned and displayed.
Writing is even more challenging in this aspect, because what is great writing? That’s another theme I’m obsessed with these days. What makes a piece of writing great? And again, by whose judgment is it great? We have to consider repeatability when we look at great artists. It’s possible to write one great work. It’s possible to paint something that moves people. But to continue to produce great art takes a deeper commitment and understanding. That’s my goal to be someone who can repeat the production of something really good. I’ll save great for others to judge. I don’t write for other’s acknowledgment (OK, that may not be true), I write for myself, because I have to, because it keeps me even-keeled most days. I feel good when I write. Granted, It’s probably because I’m emotionally stunted and can’t express myself well any other way, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
So go practice your art. Go make yourself better, and know that by doing so, every day, you will be better than 90% of everyone else who will give up and not push through on the bad days. Not to mention the content they won’t have to sift through to find the diamond in the rough. 500 words every day for the next 20 years is 3.6 million words. That’s a minimum count. My current average is somewhere more like 1100, which is more like 8 million words. That will need to be shaped into books, stories, etc, but the vehicle is there for me to produce now. I just have to figure out what to produce.
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