I’ve recently been reading a book called “The Talent Code”.
The first amusing thing is that the author makes no reference to a ‘talent code’ and it’s obvious that the publisher tacked on the title so as to get a slice of the DaVinci Code readership action. Furthermore the author seems to be just the kind of person who would despise the Da Vinci Code.
The book uses research in psychology and neurology to argue that talent is not something you’re born with, but is grown through determination and practice.
I’ve always felt that this was the case. Throughout my life, the kindness of others combined with my own arrogance has caused me to believe that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. Excepting a major physiological impossibility, anything that you want to do, you can do, and the only price is effort.
It got me thinking about what advice I would like to give to myself about how to hone talents, and achieve achievements, and I came up with a few things.
1. The only way to do something well is to do it badly.
The most useful practice is where you’re on the very edge of your ability. When you’re constantly making mistakes and correcting them you learn much more quickly than when you repeat something you can already do.
The first hurdle that stops people from becoming really good at something is when they become disheartened by their mistakes. But if you’re doing something badly, and you can see that it’s bad, you can be sure that you’re developing much faster than someone who is not making mistakes.
So do things badly, and not only that…
2. Do the things that you’re bad at.
Whatever your field, there will be things that you like doing and things that you hate doing. If you hate something it’s probably your weak area, so really focus on it. It sounds simple, but acknowledging your weaknesses is an incredibly difficult and rewarding thing.
I’m bad at drawing circles. I can draw a line so straight that a Queensland priest would personally provide it with a marriage license, but I suck at circles.
So for the last twelve months or so I’ve been regularly drawing circles of about 2-3cm diameter, over and over.
This kind of thing:
For the first 50,000 or so, I couldn’t really see any quality difference. Even now there’s only the vaguest hint of progress.
But the funny thing is that over the last twelve months every other area of my drawing seems to have gotten better due to practicing circles. It’s a wonderful thing to spend a while fighting the hopeless fight against your weaknesses, only to come back and realize that your entire game has lifted in ways you didn’t even think were possible.
So do things you're bad at.
3. (The most important) Just do it.
As far as I’m concerned there is nothing else to talent. You put in the hours and you will progress, you won’t even have a choice. Putting in regular time is best, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you spend the time.
It’s a good analogy to think of talent as a muscle. Physiologically they are actually very similar. Exercising is the only way to become stronger.
This might sound a bit odd, but I have a gridded exercise book in which I cross off a square for every hour of creative work that I do. Over the years the amount of time that I would have put in with the sole purpose of finishing out the half hour is probably a ludicrously large amount.
If you don’t (apparently) have a secret accounting fetish, get creative in other ways. If you’re working on drawing, writing, or generally being great, then you could spend some of your working time studying Calvin and Hobbes. If you’re a musician, listen to something you would normally hate, and find something good about it. If you play an instrument try singing a melody before you play it. If you play a sport, get a skipping rope and skip the shit out of it. Focus on perfecting one tiny nuance, or go the other way and ponder the meaning of your practice’s existence.
The key is to keep mixing it up, keep it interesting and keep surprising yourself.
Achieving something hinges only on your desire for it. If you can acknowledge it, want it, and most importantly, suck at it, then it will happen.