the (not so) american dream

It’s easy, you know. It’s all Flashdance, pick-up and play, sudden success easy - that’s the American Dream. The funny part is that it is as un-American as slavery. The sad part is that this "dream" applies equally everywhere and to - almost - everyone. I’m talking about being good at something; being a capital M, Master - musician, painter, mathematician, athlete, doctor, whatever. The difference between today and the past, when it comes to mastery, is that our culture is so connected, news spreads so fast, that we have taken something that takes an inordinate amount of time and made it even more difficult to learn by trying to fit it in a small box labelled “Instant Gratification,” and, in the process, continued the lovely Cult of the Genius.

The problem is craft. And there are two different schools of thought on it. Two different languages. Incompatible languages. Incompatible because an unprepared person will confuse the two and take both for truth. Think of it like the confusing oddities of the English language, like this sentence: “Read rhymes with lead, and read rhymes with lead; but read and lead don’t rhyme, nor read and lead.” Or: “The bandage wound around the wound.” Or - a personal favourite: "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” When it comes to craft, those two languages are: mysticism - or the more popular, palatable: talent - and, hard work - for which, problematically, there is no popular, palatable word.

Okay, so the problem is not craft; it’s the way we, the language with which, how we come to think about how we, approach craft. We have this admiration for “that girl” because, when you see or hear her sing/play the piano/paint/dance/do something impressive - pick your own adventure, we’ll say: “Well, she’s just so talented.” Or, when we talk about someone who’s, say, really good at physics, you might volunteer: “Well, it comes naturally to him; that’s just how his brain works.” And that’s horseshit.

Our everyday language reflects how we think about the world. We make connections and conjectures, we notice patterns and extrapolate from them to set a future course of action or to understand something. But, fundamentally, we are easily deceivable because we are flawed data taking devices. It’s why magicians can so easily fool us. The hand is not faster than the eye; it is merely more subtle, or, the eye is prone to being easily misdirected, distracted, massaged into missing something, or, worse, filling something in that it does not see. While this language is fine, of sorts, for everyday use because it helps us more easily navigate personal life, it doesn’t encourage us to think critically, analytically, as objectively and rigorously as possible about reality. It’s why gambling works: if you’re on a hot streak, you “feel” like you’ll keep it going based on past patterns; if a basketball player’s been scoring every shot, you “feel” like he’ll land the next one. The problem is that this is incongruous with reality. Just because something’s been happening, doesn’t mean it will continue happening in this manner.

So, being taught - by parents, friends, society, etc - all our lives to think in this manner because that is what comes most easily to our brains, we create and rely on these mental structures and then apply them to understand the rest of the world around us where we shouldn’t because we haven’t learned how to think differently and how to differentiate between when you should use one mode of thought and when another is appropriate. And so we get the rise of the Cult of the Genius. We see someone who does something really well, say, plays guitar masterfully, and we praise them - idolize them - for their talent.

And here’s the confusing bit: we praise them for their talent because their talent is what we saw. Not the process whereby they acquired that talent. So we equate talent - and its highest abstraction: genius - with being really good at something. This is further reinforced by the fact that, inspired by what you saw, you go and buy a guitar, try and learn to play, and then get frustrated because you’re terrible at it. You’re terrible because, you self-justify, you’re not talented - you don’t display the skill to perform that skill - like the person you saw. So you put it down and, in later years, when the conversation comes up at a dinner party, you, over the rim of your wine glass say, “Oh, I’m not musical. I tried when I was younger, but I had no talent for it.” What you should be saying, however, is: “On, I tried learning guitar when I was younger and didn’t display a natural aptitude so I didn’t continue learning when I became disheartened."

Because that’s the - painful? hurtful? - truth that is easier to deny than admit. Certainly there are different types of intelligence, and diverse types of learning styles. And, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some people to whom certain things come more easily. But hard work beats out talent any day. Mozart was Mozart because his father hounded him to develop his talent - his very earliest compositions are quite uninspired, according to music historians. Talent will let you fake it for those that don’t know what they’re talking about; as soon as you meet someone who does, they can see right through the talent to the hard work beneath. Imagine how different, refreshing and interesting it would be if a concert pianist, before beginning playing, sat down and showed the audience how he practiced, slowly, ponderously, meticulously, attentively, and that that is why he’s on stage rather than anyone from the audience, and not because he’s naturally gifted to sit and play some difficult piece without difficulty. If the audience saw how hard making something look easy was.

The truth is that becoming what we would call “talented,” takes a lot of effort, time and frustration. What you are doing is not just skill acquisition, but improving, perfecting, and furthering a skill. Anyone can achieve mastery in any skill. Not anyone will be a true “genius.” But those are rare enough that you don’t have to worry about it. Want to learn programming? Playing piano? Cooking? Math? Chemistry? Painting? Languages? Writing? A sport? There is no example anyone can give that is not a learnable skill which can be acquired using various learning methods that work for you, given enough time and dedication.

So…. what would you like to be talented at?

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