August 6th, 2006
Sometimes I think talent doesn't exist at all. And an article in the August Scientific American looks at some research into the expert mind.
I used to say "persistence is more important than talent."
Over the years, though, I've modified it. My first question was what about all those people happily typing away at stories and poems, always daydreaming and always bad, filling up slush piles so earnestly? What about the photographers taking every workshop and class they can and never getting beyond technical perfection? They certainly fill the requirement of "persistence" in this case.
Then it became "persistence and a love of the craft is more important than talent." That is, you had to love the demands of the craft external to your daydreams.
Now the article points me in a different direction. It's not a love of the craft but being in a place just beyond your grasp, just beyond your comfort zone, that is an important adjunct to persistence. From the article:
[K. Anders] Ericsson [of Florida State University] argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.In addition to this effortful study, you need to make the act a daily practice. And you need to go back to it when you don't want to. When the challenges are daunting, the work is dreary, the very act of trying to be creative is depressing.
When a creative teacher has talked about going into the dark places of the soul it's tended to scare me off. What if I wasn't really able to go there? What if I uncovered a centipede nest? What if, worst yet, there was nothing there?
Now I see that place as being like a muscle tear -- the kind of tear that means you've gone just beyond your limit and will actually build stronger muscles. I remember standing outside Raven after a clown class, and thinking to myself, man, I'm glad I don't drink or do drugs anymore. That was a precipice, a turning point from which I could have leaped, or turned back to safety. I missed the next couple classes, and turned back to safety.
"Effortful study" and "daily practice" add up to persistence in this case. These are directly related to the creative act, but there are other things just as important to becoming recognized as an artist.
One important early affect is the self-perception of being taken seriously. I remember leaving one of the first Night and Low Light sessions and realizing that they took me seriously as a photographer. This self-perception is more important than whether an objective observer would say that so-and-so was being taken seriously. I know I was taken seriously as a writer in my youth, but I wasn't aware of it at the time.
Early success is important, too. But this early success can be circumstantial, as it is with soccer players:
Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better. (And sidebar graphic.)
Another thing more important than talent is not worrying about originality. It's easy to confuse originality with novelty, to think that just because something is novel (making collages of graffiti, for instance ;>) it's original in the sense that it says something new or adds to our perception of the world.
What I think is more important than originality is to commit fully to the ideas you have, and go where they take you. I think the true source of originality in a mature artist is that, when they were much younger, they explored every idea that presented itself to them.
There's more, too. Getting the work out to be seen is more important than talent. Learning when to let go of work is important, too. Perfectionism can be a crippling ideal.
Learning your pace is important, too. Doing everything at the last minute can provide focus and commitment to decisions that would have been second guessed if there had been more time. Too often, though, I think it becomes a self-justification for failure, for not getting it together or for presenting slap dash work.
One of my clown teachers talked about a partner he had worked with in the past. The teacher arrived for their shows hours ahead of time, laid all the props out carefully, laid all the costume changes in order, checked and double checked everything. This was the only way he could feel prepared for the show.
The partner, as you might guess, arrived at the last minute, threw on his makeup, and always had to run for his costume changes and props. Mind you, the partner was never late for any curtain or cue. It was their different working styles.
Well, I've carried the ideas for this essay around in my head for several weeks now. And it's time to head to the pub meet. Hah!
This is all very much in line with my thinking lately. There must be something to it because my writing is improving.
Robert Olen Butler (who is also at Florida State) has some similar things to say in From Where You Dream, too.
Glad to here it!
You'd probably enjoy the whole article.
Nice post, thanks for the heads up on the article.
I hope you find it as useful and illuminating as I did.