February 1, 2012

Tapped for Greatness

A friend of mine is going through a difficult time and asked me for some advice. I hope he/she doesn't mind that I am responding publicly. I chose to share my response on this blog for two reasons: I am hoping that others will be able to help us and offer advice in the comments. Secondly, perhaps other people are suffering from a similar problem,  and this post and subsequent comments may help them as well.

My friend has been dealing with a lingering state of depression and anxiety. He/she was able to pinpoint some of the causes of this condition in an email:
How can I hold my head up high even though I am talentless? I walk around and see so many people who are so good at so many things, and then I say to myself, "Did you ever stop and think to yourself that you have no talents that rise above the mediocre?" Then I feel bad about myself. Why shouldn't this make me feel bad? I need to know how other people exist in the world, once they realize they aren't "tapped for greatness" or "masterly in X"? I'm not extremely good at anything, so what right do I have to feel extremely good?
Wooh! Deep breath. I want to write a thoughtful, understanding and tender post. I have been thinking about little else  today, but as I sit to actually scribe the half baked ideas I have been carrying around all I day, I am drawing a blank. The place most of my ideas began today were with my daughter. You see, she is not really really good at anything yet. She is five and a half. Most of the students I teach are not really, really good at anything either.

The question I kept asking myself is- what would I say to her or them, if they came to me with the same problem? I would probably say that labels like good and bad are arbitrary markers we place on skills and talents and processes and products. They are as useless as terms like success and failure. We should judge our skills by how they enrich our lives and the lives of others. 

I have never been a big proponent of the concept of talent. The idea that some people are born inherently "good" at something rubs me the wrong way. We are as "good" as the amount of time and energy we put toward said skill. Yes, I know the Mozart argument, and I am sure there are some freak genius who are simply born with "it." But their inborn talent should not make the rest of us doubt or question the value are own attempts make. We can either choose to shoot 100 free throws before going home or we don't, but the level of success with any given skill has to be proportional to the amount of time we invest in said skill. Having said that, maybe we don't all need to be Michael Jordan. This concept of being the best is very American, and I one I have discarded long ago. I don't need to be the best. I am fine just doing.

I am a big fan of the amateur.  I am mediocre at many of things: I can take decent photos, I have been playing guitar for twenty years but can't carry a tune, people say they enjoy my writing, but it is riddled with grammatical mistakes and is often too raw. I would not say I am a good photographer, guitar player or writer. I struggle with being a dad, son, friend, and teacher. I can't cook. I am not athletic at all. What I am trying to say, is that if I did an inventory of the things I feel I am "good" at, it woulnd't be very long.

So why am I not mired in anxiety and depression? The answer: the things I am not good at bring me joy. I do not see the guitar as a ladder to climb. Sure I would like to get better. Yes, I enjoy playing on stage. I wish I could be on stage more often. Hell, I wouldn't mind being Eddie Vedder, but I do not play the guitar to be good. I play because it brings me joy. Alone in my room, fingers on strings, voice barely audible. I take photos and hammer the keys on this blog because it makes me happy. There will always be better photographers, better writers, better people, but I cannot concern myself with what other people do. I need to keep moving at my pace on my path.

I know it may be too simplistic and perhaps the whole life journey Zen path thing has grown tiresome, but I see it all as a journey. We are here for eighty years then poof! Gone. That's it. I have no time to waste worrying about why I am not good enough on some imaginary scale. I want to learn and grow and explore and find people, places and things that excite me. I will fail. I will succeed that is fine. It's all I got. I do not compare myself to others or try to compete. I simply do. I am.

So if Kaia came to me and said that she isn't good enough at anything, I would tell her to forget about trying to be good and just find things that make her happy. Do what you love and don't worry about whether or not you are good at it. Maybe you will find a talent and maybe you won't, but you cannot stop because of some arbitrary evaluation. Find a batch of things and people that make you happy and nurture them.

Saw this video from one of the comments and seemed very relevant:

The irony is that this friend is talented in so many fields. I just hope that he/she can begin to see that and understand how much joy and inspiration his/her work and ideas bring to all of me....Maybe the rest of this post should be in an email.

What advice do you have? Please leave some comments. I am sure you can help.

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