Wednesday, October 17, 2012

10 Things... About Talent

-Greg Manchess

   2nd oil painting, Castle of Chillon, Switzerland

My first attempt at oil painting was a complete failure. I tried to paint a sunset and had no idea how to mix paint. I thought it would just become what I was thinking. I threw my head in a pillow and screamed, then cried for two minutes. I sat up and realized that all the drawing I had done as a kid would not miraculously give me the skill to paint. I was going to have to learn it.

This really ticked me off. I didn’t want to have to go through the learning process again. I knew from teaching myself how to drum that it would not be easy or fun. But I really wanted to paint pictures. I wanted to know how to paint figures. Good figure paintings were the most interesting to me. If I could get good at the figure, I could paint anything from there.

I understood from that moment that I had no talent and I was going to have to manufacture it in order to learn to paint. This began my studies of neuroscience and the brain. I had to learn how to learn.

Talent is a myth.
There’s no evidence that talent actually exists. Nothing in the DNA studies points to some mysterious gene that can be identified as a talent for art, photography, painting, basketball, pinball, running, medicine, etc. Talent is built, not possessed. If it’s in the epigenetic material, it would’ve been there since the dawn of man. Clearly, Cro-Magnon man did not have a gene for ping pong.

You can’t feel it.
You only see the results. Your brain cannot retain the nerve memory of what it couldn’t do. Once you begin learning something, it feels like it’s always been there, even though, intellectually, we remember the practice. That’s why it feels like you just “always knew how to do it.” It’s also why people point to that feeling as if it were a gift.

Training over talent.
You don't have to trust what I say here. Do your own research. Or trust what pilots follow: Never trade luck for skill. You can wait for your muse to show up, or you can manhandle that muse to submit to your will. Never believe your talent will show up someday. It’s very likely it won’t. But if you train, if you go through the hard work of understanding and observing and practice, you won’t need it.

My muse is fickle. Most times when it shows up it’s an energy-sucking vampire slut. I carry a stake made from training.

Recognize skill for what it is.
Learn the difference between skill and fake knowledge. Yes, fake-it-till-you-make-it helps you learn, but for the love of Pete, know when you are faking and when you are actually learning. Practice is more than just going through the motions. It’s how we learn. At some point, having gone through the motions long enough, we start to get better, and then we innovate those motions.

Look talented.
Practice is the only way we actually build muscle memory. It’s built through the nerves, because memory is not stored in muscles. The brain drives muscles through nerve signals. That’s why brain injuries can cause us to forget how to walk. We have to retrain the brain. (If the muscles remembered, it would be a piece of cake for recovery.)

Let people think you have talent.
It’s great for getting work. Just don’t get pissed off like I do when people call me talented. It negates all the crazy long work I’ve done. Let the other guy need talent. Some people learn faster than others. They concentrate and train themselves to see trouble before it starts, but only because they’ve been through that trouble before, however small, and they record it. They remember what happened when mistakes were made and they correct for them. They make the very conscious effort to fail, correct, and move on.

If the other guy needs to believe that talent will rescue him from agony, let him. It only slows them down. You can eclipse that attitude with skill.

Great artists deny it.
Loads of creative people believe they have a gift for what they do. Frankly, they just have a poor memory for remembering that when they were young, they were training themselves to learn. I’ve followed quite a number of great creative people who will simply tell you they have no talent, never did, and had to work their arses off to get to where they are. Trust those guys.

Study neuroscience.
I’ve never thought talent existed and now science backs that up. There are great strides being made every day in learning how the brain works, and how it learns. And you can read everything about it. The field of neuroscience is at its sharpest cutting edge and we are going to benefit so much from it, we’ll likely forget where we learned it. About 40 or 50 thousand years of it.

Trouble is, we’ll just think we were ‘talented’ as a species anyway. Sigh.

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