Monday, April 28, 2008

Talented? I don't think so...

There’s a universal truth that most people just don’t seem to be able to grasp:

“You can’t get good at something that you don’t enjoy doing.”

I noticed this when I first started playing the guitar. You see, I love playing the guitar and I can honestly say that I never once thought of any time I spent with my guitar to be ‘practice’. I wasn’t ‘practicing’, I was just playing and enjoying doing it.

I learned to play the guitar and got good at it because I enjoyed learning it. I remember learning my first chord (it was a C Major) and that, believe it or not, gave me a huge kick. Yesterday I couldn’t play anything and now I could get this lump of wood to make this awesome, recognizable sound. Then I learned a few more chords, and even though it took me 10 of 15 seconds to switch between them, I could play a song goddammit! From that moment on I was hooked.

The reason I stuck with the guitar and actually learned to play it was because it seemed almost effortless. Looking back, the reason learning seemed effortless was because I enjoyed every second I spent with my guitar. I never thought “Crap, I gotta go practice the guitar for an hour again.” Instead I thought “Where’s my guitar? I think I’m going to nail ‘Yellow Submarine’ today!”

My parents never had to nag me to practice…they’d nag me because I’d just played ‘Yellow Submarine’ for the 87th time that day.

A few years later I was talking to one of my uncles and he told me that he’d love to be able to play the guitar. The words began to form in my mouth. I was about to say “Hell, I’ve got an old acoustic I don’t play anymore, you can have that.” That’s when he said the words that stopped me in my tracks. He said:

“How long does it take you to get as good as you are?”

How long does it take? What’s that got to do with anything?

That was enough to tell me my uncle would never learn to play the guitar. He wasn’t interested in learning an instrument, he was interested in some non-existent ‘end product’ he’d never get. He wanted to be able to sit there at family parties with a guitar in his lap and belt out some old favorites. What he didn’t want to do was ‘waste time’ actually learning to do it. I was proven right in the end…a year or so later he went out and bought a guitar and gave up after a few weeks.

If you start to learn something and consider practice a chore, you’re simply never going to get any good. You’re waiting for the day when you’ve ‘learned’ and can forget about practice…and that day honestly never comes.

It’s just like the guy who says he wants to be an author, when what he really wants to do is get interviewed for magazines and sit in Barnes and Noble, signing books for legions of adoring fans. The actual writing part never occurs to them

What it boils down to is this: The person who actively enjoys learning something looks at their progress in terms of how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned. The people who quit are the people who see practice as a means to an end. They don’t look at how much they’ve learned, they look at how much further they have to go.

The problem with this type of thinking is that when you’re brand new at something and are constantly comparing yourself to a master of the art you’re trying to learn, you’re never going to measure up. Sure, you learned to play a simple song that week, but when are you going to be able to effortlessly make the guitar sing?

People who love what they do treasure every moment while they practice. As I said before, it doesn’t feel like ‘practice’, it feels like you’re doing something you love to do.

Basically, my Uncle didn’t see learning to play the guitar as an enjoyable experience or hobby…he saw learning as the boring part to get through as quickly as possible before he could play songs and impress people.

Ok, so it’s true that every person who’s ever tried to learn something has an end product in mind. They might want to draw like Adam Hughes or play guitar like Hendrix. The problem is that they’ve watched Hendrix play on TV and it’s like Hendrix’ guitar is plugged directly into his soul.

These people see Hendrix play and think “I want to do that.” What they don’t even consider is the years and years of practice that let Hendrix play so ‘effortlessly’. Again, they don’t actually want to play the guitar…they want to stand on stage and be surrounded by adoring fans as the music flows directly from their hands with no effort whatsoever.

The thing is, even if you force yourself to stick at something and become competent at it, you’re never going to enjoy it…because rather than playing for the sheer love of creating something and expressing yourself, it’s just more crap you’ve got to go through before you get to where you want to be.

What started me thinking about this topic was my post a few days ago about ‘hitting the wall’ with my drawing and not improving any more.

Well, today I was watching an online video of an established comic book artist sketching for people at a convention. I watched this guy draw pieces of art in minutes that I couldn’t draw in 10 hours on my best day. As if reading my mind, the guy he was sketching for asked, in wonderment… “How did you get so good?”

The artist laughed like the answer was obvious, and in a way, it was. He said:

“I’ve been drawing every day since I was six years old. I fill a hundred page sketchbook in a matter of weeks. When I finally got hired by Marvel, I’d be working on a book and for most of the year I was putting in a 16 hour days 6 days a week. The reason this looks so easy is because I’ve drawn this character from every possible angle about a million times. It’s practice, there’s no ‘big secret’ to it, it’s just practice.”

It hit me because the answer was so simple. The reason I wasn’t improving was because I was comparing my drawings to drawings done by people who’d been creating artwork professionally for longer than I’d been alive. I was a typical ‘student’ artist, but I wanted to be Leonardo DaVinci.

I was the drawing equivalent of the guy sitting in his living room with his first guitar and a copy of ‘Guitar Playing for Dummies’, getting frustrated because he’d been playing for weeks and still didn’t sound like Hendrix. Yeah, my drawings weren’t perfect, but it was because I’m still relatively new at it. When you think about it, the very idea that I could produce artwork of the same quality as established professionals after so little practice is just plain ludicrous.

I realized I’d fallen into the same trap. I found myself going online looking for tutorials and hints and tips that I imagined would be some sort of ‘magic bullet’ shortcut to competence. Just like I talked about before, I was looking at my own drawings in terms of how much further I had to go rather than how far I’d come.

This was a real ‘eureka’ moment for me. I pulled out my sketchpad and a pencil and started drawing…and did it for the same reason I first started. Because I enjoyed doing it, not because I wanted to be able to draw like Jim Lee or Adam Hughes.

The best part was when I looked back at my sketches, I could see a definite improvement. Even now, I can look at something I’d drawn a year ago and something I did this week and it’s hard to believe they’re even by the same person.

Again, the difference was that before I’d look at one of my sketches and think “Shit! This looks nothing like I wanted it to! I suck at this!”…whereas now I look at my sketches and think “Ok, this bit is a little off, how would I fix that? What do I need to focus on?”

As everything I’ve said so far points out. The only way to improve at something is to enjoy the learning process and not see learning as an unpleasant means to an end.

Just as a bit of an afterthought, this is why I absolutely hate being called ‘talented’. I remember playing the guitar for members of my family and I’d hear people say (more to buck up my ego than anything, I admit) “Wow, I wish I was talented like you.” I’d hear one of my cousins get called a ‘talented singer’ or another be called a ‘talented drummer’.

The problem I have with the T-Word is that it implies that what you do is effortless. The idea that someone is ‘talented’ implies that that person has some intangible, ethereal quality that ‘normal’ people don’t possess.

It completely ignores all the hard work and effort that you have to put in. It seems almost dismissive in a way. “Oh, he can play the guitar? Well, everyone knows he’s talented.

I’ve been called talented a few times at various different things and every time I’ve felt like screaming. I’m not ‘talented’, I don’t have some ‘gift’ that means I can do something well. The reason I can do those things well now is because of eleven years of practice, learning and deliberately trying to improve.

The way I see it is that every great musician picked up their instrument for the first time with no clue how to play it. Every great artist started out with stick figures and ‘box and triangle houses’. They became good at their art because they found that’s what they liked to do and were willing to put in the massive amounts of time and effort to improve…not because they were ‘blessed’ by some non-existent ‘talent fairy dust’.


OzzyC said...

I get that you need to practice, but I also believe in some measure of talent. Some people are more gifted at guitar than others. With that said though, I have more respect for the person with mediocre talent and a lot of drive than I have for someone with a lot innate ability and no desire to learn.

As far as looking online for inspiration, I think of it as learning tips and tricks from several different teachers. I still have to put the tutelage to use, but it can certainly help.

Paulius said...

Oh, I've learned a ton from books, online tutorials etc.

My problem, and my point about why they can be a bad thing, is I was spending 95% of my time reading and only 5% of my time actually drawing.

Tutorials and books help, but their purpose is to enhance your practice, not replace it

Kato said...

Insightful post as usual.

As an analog to your complaint about being called "talented", I used to dislike when kids in school would say I did well in class because I was "smart". "Smart" is usually a compliment, but the way it was being used belittled all the hard work I put into my studies. I didn't do well in school because I was "lucky enough" to be smart, I was smart because I studied my ass off.

It's funny that you should comment on spending 95% time reading and only 5% on the actual art. I've been learning to paint miniature and have dabbled with it a bit over the past few years. I recently wanted to "get back into it" and spent a lot of time reading advice and tutorials and fretting over "Well, how do I do this?" or "How do I do that?" And when I finally sat down to paint it sorta dawned on me: I'll figure it out as I go, learning by doing.