“That pose you did — it’s like poetry. I could never do it,” a woman says to me after our morning yoga class.
I’ve practiced yoga on and off for at least 17 years, and there are some poses — King Pigeon among them, and the ludicrous feet-behind-head (my stupid human trick) — that I can easily do. In Bound Angle (or Cobbler, or Butterfly; the names vary), my knees flop onto the floor. I sit in Lotus pose casually, rather than simple crossed legs. In short, my hips are naturally open, perhaps by build, but more likely because I have been practicing my “stupid human trick” consistently since I was around 11 years old.
Of course, there are plenty of poses in yoga that I can’t do, mostly due to my tight shoulders, occasionally to my tight runner’s legs. There are poses I probably would be able to obtain, but decided against because the cost is too great; I could probably do Virasana (in common parlance, “the W sit”) without a block if I worked at it, but it would loosen my knee ligaments to the point that I couldn’t run. So I don’t.
So often in life, I hear variants of: “I can’t do this amazing thing, and the only reason they can do it is natural talent.” In other words: If you can do something well, it’s because you were born to do it, and you can figure this out very quickly in the time it takes to pick something up. If you’re not good right away, might as well drop it because you’ll never be good.
And there is a corollary: If you can’t be the absolute best at something, might as well drop it. Why take up running if you’ll never be able to place in a marathon? Why take up the guitar if you’ll never be good enough to get a record deal? Anything you do must be for a purpose — for money, honor, the esteem of others.
I’m going to give you one of life’s best-kept secrets — and a truth that’s hard for many to swallow: All of the above is bullshit. In fact, it’s such a huge amount of bullshit that it can attract flies from a square-mile radius.
Bullshit is, however, useful fertilizer and I urge you to turn it into the ground as you plow the field of your abilities and skills.
Of course, there is such a thing as natural advantages. Sometimes these are obvious; if you have the genetics to be 7 feet tall, it’s probably easier to excel at basketball. But what if you don’t consistently play or practice your game? Then you’re just another tall guy.
The social circumstances we are born into can be seen as innate advantages or disadvantages. The player from an affluent home may be able to afford the costs of travel leagues and extra coaching; a would-be player from a poor family might be forced by his family’s financial need to drop out of school and work in the fields.
Some natural advantages are less obvious. What if you do play and practice, but your birthday is in November and the cut-off for the kids’ basketball league is in January? As Malcolm Gladwell explores in Outliers in regards to youth hockey players in Canada, birth date can be a huge natural advantage or disadvantage. Players with birth dates right before the cut-off are almost a full year older than would-be players born later in the year, and thus larger and more developed; they are accepted into leagues and build on these opportunities, one after the other. The younger would-be player just aren’t afforded the same chances by the sad fact of their birthdays.
So, yes, natural advantages do exist — but they’re not necessarily innate. Someone born later in the year may be a fantastic hockey player, if given the same opportunities as his earlier-born peer. A young field laborer in Nigeria might have been an engineer if she had been born into a family in different circumstances.
The importance of time
What really makes the difference in acquiring knowledge or skill is time, and Gladwell gives a precise measure: 10,000 hours. If you put 10,000 hours into something, you will master it.
A personal example: I write well not because I am innately talented, but because I have read and written a great deal over my lifetime. My elementary school teachers were always impressed by my preternatural ability to understand the workings of language, and probably chalked it up to talent. Truth be told, I just read a lot at home due to my innate curiosity. I read kids’ books, ransacked the local library and then my older brother’s textbooks. By the time I was in third grade, I had certainly amassed those 10,000 hours reading beyond my assigned level. I also wrote stories and poems from an early age, which impacted my school work.
My incessant reading and writing led to other opportunities: college and ultimately a Ph.D. in English, for which I had to write a book (which is, essentially, what a dissertation is in liberal arts). I followed that up with a career in journalism, with daily deadlines.
In other words: I’m a good writer because I’ve written a hell of a lot. If you write a lot, you’ll be a good writer too.
The same goes for pretty much anything, from doing yoga to learning a language. The more time you spend on it, the better you get. And by time you get those 10,000 hours, you’re doing Reverse Staff pose, you finished that novel, or you have that black belt in aikido, or you’re at the top of your professional field.
The importance of interest and motivation
People resist — even vehemently so — the idea that they can excel at what they put their time to. Why is that?
To some, I think it feels like an imposition, another thankless task at which to toil. They would rather do other things, which is fair. They’re not enjoying the guitar they said they would practice, or a hot television show seems just more exciting than hitting the books yet again. “I’m too busy at work,” they grouse as they surf Facebook at home and binge-watch Orange is the New Black.
Now, there certainly are people who can’t afford to get those 10,000 hours because they’re juggling three jobs in a gig economy, or taking care of toddlers or the infirm. I don’t discount that. But these people usually aren’t the folks complaining “I can’t!” because, let’s face it, they’re too genuinely busy to complain. If you’re struggling to meet your lower-level survival needs, you don’t have time for that self-actualization stuff; that comes later, when your life is on firmer footing.
If you’re surfing Facebook or watching the tube, you have time to pursue your passions.
“Passions” is the operative word here. You need to genuinely enjoy an activity to keep at it, and acquire the skill. I genuinely enjoy singing, have made time in my life for voice lessons consistently during the past 15-plus years and practice almost daily. As a result, I sing like an opera singer and I’m pretty damn proud of that.
But I did it because I wanted to; I genuinely enjoy practicing, and writing songs, and all the things I do surrounding music. So I put the time in.
On the other hand, I’ve said for years that I wanted to learn Gaeilge and even Old Irish, languages that would benefit my practice as a Keltrian Druid. I take Gaeilge lessons from my local community college from time to time, buy the books, say I’m going to practice at home and never freaking do. End result: I don’t know Gaeilge, although I tinker with it from time to time.
It’s not that I don’t have a “talent” for language. I passed my AP exam in Spanish with flying colors back in high school; I learned how to read French in one summer for graduate school. I had goals and motivation fueling me then: Passing that AP exam means I already filled my foreign language requirements by time I hit college, allowing me to save time and money. I need to have reading proficiency in two foreign languages for my Ph.D., hence the summertime French lessons.
Learning those languages was a priority for reasons of my education and my future. Gaeilge? Much less so. I don’t actually need to speak it in ritual except, maybe, for a few key phrases. People don’t speak it as a primary language, so it’s not like I can use it for a mundane purpose. I don’t really have the motivation to learn Gaeilge, so I don’t. It’s not that I can’t.
To put in the 10,000 hours, you have to have the interest and the motivation. Sometimes motivation alone is enough, in the case of a job, but even then you won’t perform as well as someone with both interest and motivation.
The next time you tell yourself “I can never do that wonderful thing,” I want you to pause and assess. Is it true that you can’t? Or that you won’t because you don’t have the interest or motivation to practice?
A lack of desire to do something isn’t a personal judgment; it’s just a statement of fact. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to excel at everything you do. You can sit back and enjoy a good singer, or watching a hoop-dancer. You can dabble and play around — sing in the shower, hula-hoop at home — not to excel, but to the level of your enjoyment and interest.
It’s okay. Life doesn’t issue you a report card, or force you to eat your broccoli when you prefer spinach.
But what if I can’t be the best?
There’s that pesky thought pattern again: If I can’t be “the best,” it’s not worth it.
“The best” is always an external measure: The Olympic medal, the platinum record, the painting on the museum wall — the recognition of others. But there are many people who may be “the best” but never get recognized for their skills or abilities. External success depends on so many things unrelated to “talent”: skills unrelated to the field in question (say, social skills). Networking and connections. The surrounding culture. In short: the availability of opportunity.
And here is an unalterable fact: In a world of seven billion-plus people, you’re never going to be the best at anything. Ever. At all. There is always going to be someone better than you — and it’s not a problem.
Being the “best” is an illusion — and, ultimately, completely worthless. You don’t have to be the best; you don’t even have to be good. I suck at aikido, but I do it anyway. Why? I get something out of it: Challenge, a furthering of my abilities and my boundaries pushing me beyond what I thought I could do. It doesn’t matter if I ever get a black belt or can do ukemi without the guidance of my arms.
If you have passion, interest, desire, do it. Practice and dedication help you grow as a person, no matter the art or skill or field in question. Doing something you enjoy is enough; you don’t need a medal, or a personal best, or any recognition at all. You don’t even need to be good at it by anyone else’s measure. Real rewards, just like true initiations, are internal. The ritual is nice, but ultimately it’s just fancy icing.
And no matter what it is, you will progress if you put time in. I have been involved in aikido for slightly less than two years, but I recently passed my fifth kyu test. I can do ukemi without breaking out in a cold sweat or quivering in fear, although they still need a lot of work. I may never truly master ukemi, but I know I’ll get better if I continue to put the time in.
But you’re just bragging.
Whenever I give someone the “you can do this too” talk, people often accuse me of bragging about my accomplishments, whether it’s writing, music, aikido or whatever. It’s true: I do a lot of things well, although not perfectly, and I’m working on other things. Like anyone, there are things I suck at: riding a bicycle, home repair, a lot of the soft skills involved in human relationships. I’m pretty sure that I could improve on those things if sufficiently motivated, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Talking about what you’re working on or what you do well isn’t thoughtless bragging. Yeah, no one likes someone who talks about themselves all the time, but you are allowed to talk about yourself. You matter. Your desires, dreams, goals and practices matter. You get to talk about them if you want to — even if you’re not objectively “good” at them.
Humility, in this sense, comes from our culture’s Christian heritage, in which we are all debased, sinful creatures begging for the mercy of the divine. Our actual Pagan forebears were quite different; they boasted about what they could, would or did do, because their mastery was a positive reflection not only on themselves, but their culture and their gods. I often wonder if cultural Christianity is responsible for the low-grade depression that’s so typical in our culture, the perception that we — by fact of original sin — are born worthless.
As Pagans, sin — original or otherwise — isn’t our bag, so drop it. The Gods enjoy seeing you work at something you enjoy; it’s akin to a parent proudly posting their kid’s drawing on a fridge.
If you want to do something, practice at it — as long as you enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, find something that you do. If you don’t really want to do something, that’s okay; you don’t have to. Once again, find something that you do enjoy instead. If your interests change, that’s fine; that can happen in life. Once again, find something you enjoy. (Have I said that enough? Pleasure is not the devil, especially if you’re Pagan. We don’t have those crappy Puritan hangups.)
Don’t worry about the external measures: whether you’re the best, or good, or (yawn) what those other people think of you. (Who cares what some snarky soulless asshole on the Internet thinks? Why does that asshole even matter to you?)
If you like something and want to do it well, keep practicing. You’ll improve. Short guys can play basketball well, too.
You can do this.