T-A-L-E-N-T on a triple word score?

22 October, 2010 | | 6 Comments

Funny old thing, life.  You hear a lot about “natural” talent, or “raw” talent.  We then spend quite a bit of time talking about how that’s really a misnomer, or really just an expression people use to explain a level of talent that they, themselves, can’t quite imagine.  That “natural” talent is nearly always the product of untold hours of practice, of blood, sweat, tears, and brutal effort.

There’s a famous story about a Japanese painter, in the days of the samurai, whose name I no longer recall.  He was asked one day by a wealthy patron to paint a landscape with certain elements that the patron wanted.  The painter sat down with the man and talked about what he felt the painting should evoke, what elements should be highlighted, everything he could ask to find out what the patron really wanted.  He then told the man to come back one year to the day.  The wealthy man was a bit put out, but understood that this was a famous painter, after all.

The year was long, and the moon took its time waxing and waning, but 12 months later on that same day the patron came back to the painter’s studio and inquired about the work he had commissioned. 

“Oh yes, you.  One moment.”  The painter grabbed a fresh, clean scroll, unrolled it and began.  In moments, the landscape of the patron’s dreams came to life before his eyes.  The process took no more than 30 minutes, and seemed like seconds to the amazed man. 

“Wait for about 20 minutes for it to dry,” said the painter, and turned back to his other work. 

“I must ask,” started the man, “this is a masterpiece, and everything I dreamed of – but why did you make me wait the year before you created this miracle before my eyes?”

“Ah.  Come with me,” said the old painter, and led him into a back room.  And there the patron saw 364 drafts of his painting, the first only an evoking image, the last nearly the same as his own, and he got it.

Me, I get it, but I’m convinced that’s not ALL of it.  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Sure, practice, practice, practice, but I maintain that you don’t just build that practice on a dream, or a desire, or even a burning need.  There has to be a flip side to that coin – you have to be building on a base of talent that you just HAVE.  Experience and knowledge and passion and practice, practice, practice are required for the very good to move to great, but if they’re not built on a foundation of “raw” talent, I think we seldom see that move, from very good to “great.”

I bring this up, of course, because I’ve had a couple of instances poke me in the eye recently, and I think it’s worth noting.  As parents, part of our job is to notice and nurture those areas where you see a shiny bit glinting off the sunlight of our children’s lives (a la Looking for Bobby Fisher, for example).  My friend J_ noted to me a while ago that her daughter is drawing things.  She’s been doing this for a while, and now she’s in her serious teens and posting her art on DeviantArt.  J_’s comment to me was, “She has whatever it is that you have to be born with to be an artist.  The rest is up to her and luck.”  I’ve seen her daughter’s work; I assure you, this young lady is an artist.  Making a living at it, of course, is another story. 

I was talking recently to a friend who’d asked me to review her new book – a hell of an achievement on any level.  What I told her was that I read it looking for two things – second, is it a good story that will capture the reader and make them want to read more, want to buy the book, want to tell their friends; but first – is the author a writer?  Period.  I’m looking for a quintessence, a je ne se qua, that quality of having “it” that you often can’t define except by its lack.  I was happy to be able to tell my friend that she had it; she is a writer.   Whatever it is that you have to be born with, she has it.  Again, making a living at it, of course, is another story. 

The Reigning Queen of Pink, Grand Duchess of Fluff, Lord High Protector of Barbies, and Baroness of the Hummingbirds is not always noted, to be quite honest, for her deep insight and intellect.  I do not wish to imply that she’s not bright – she is – but her topmost muscle is not always the one that gets the most exercise, shall we say.

Yeah.  Until you play, of all things, Scrabble with her.  The girls and I played tonight.  Don’t get me wrong – I won.  Of course I won, I’m over 40 years old and I have, if you’ll excuse me, an 85,000 word vocabulary.  I’m also experienced, conniving, and ruthless.  And yes, I helped her.  But I didn’t help her nearly as much as she thinks I did. 

I came in a close second, only because I went out first and left her holding a “J” that she couldn’t dump.  Once she has a vocabulary to match, she’s going to be brutally good at this game.  She’s walked in on my on-line games, looked at my letter block, and said, “Oh, you can spell thus-and-such word”  – and left me gobsmacked.  She was right, and I hadn’t seen it, and it was a six-letter word out of the seven letters I had in front of me. 

So when it comes to the nature versus nurture debate, I’m firmly on both sides.  Knowing all the words is nurture, just like learning to play the piano or learning to drive a golf ball all the way down the fairway.  Knowing how to organize a mess of symbols into multiple recognizable orders of words, knowing that these notes will sound better if I play those notes first, knowing how to drive a golf ball straight down a fairway – you either can, or you can’t.  And if you can’t, no amount of practice, practice, practice in the world will make you Tiger Woods, or Mozart, or da Vinci. 

Raw talent.  It can’t be learned, and it can’t be taught.  Now, are there Scrabble scholarships?

6 Comments
  1. orange says:

    searching. it’s *searching* for bobby fischer. jeez.

  2. orange says:

    also ps – i’ve met another scrabble demon such as the rqop – english was not his first language, which made it even more breathtaking. he’s a dna researcher. whatever makes her be able to see things in ways that other people can’t will take her far. she can exploit niches that will be invisible to others, and she will dominate. graciously and charmingly.

  3. orange says:

    in fact, try her on this – http://fold.it/portal/

  4. NoTalentHack says:

    Oh sure, burst my bubble. I’ll dance with Baryshnikov in Swan Lake yet. You just wait and see.

    On the more serious side, it is interesting that you use the words “knowing” and “learning”. There are those who would argue that cognitive skills do have to be taught (or at least learned); as they become internalized they become automatic and look more like innate gifts. A couple of authors to look into are Howard Gardner (” Multiple Intelligences”) and Dave Baldwin (“Snake Jazz”). I’ll let you do the Googling. My gift is for linking things or people that have likely never before been linked. And probably never again will be.

  5. Big Ugly Man Doll says:

    You would make a fine, fine Odette. I can actually picture you covered in feathers… Oh, wait, wrong dream. Sorry.

    And while I think you’re right to an extent, I believe that the learned cognitive skills that lead to the perception of “innateness” tend to be examples of “very goods” who train to “great.” That the cognitive skills can be learned – and re-learned – is I think pretty well established in the literature surrounding both Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury. None of it suggests to me, however, that any amount of practice will make me Bobby Fisher or Mozart or Tiger.

    The crux of the discussion comes down to the notion of the level playing field – “All men are created equal.” Jefferson lied, whether he meant to or not, because we’re NOT all created equal. Some people roll the genetic dice and come up boxcars – and most don’t. It’s not fair, and as I’ve trained the Human Tape Recorder to say when asked, “it didn’t say ‘Fair’ on the label.” The best we can do as parents is to notice those areas where our kids do seem to show some natural inclination toward greatness – in whatever subject or venue – and help them in that move from “good” to “great.” Assuming, of course, that they want to do so – just because I have this incredible gift for putting things on top of other things doesn’t mean I want to go national with it.

    Speaking of parents, finally, my condolences on the passing of Alexander Anderson, Jr. He will be missed.

  6. NoTalentHack says:

    “Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat.”

    I feel obliged to keep the fine art of debate alive, albeit on life support. I’ll try to combine Mssrs. Gardner and Baldwin’s theses into this: there are a multitude of intelligences out there, maybe enough that, with enough practice, everyone has a shot at winning the world title of something four times. Maybe its the PGA Championship, maybe its the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things’ World Cup. Sure, Glenn Gould isn’t going to outshoot Tiger Woods (being dead for 28 years will weaken your stroke, for one thing). But then again, Tiger probably can’t build a stack 22 things high the way you can.

    On the other hand, you can refute me with this. This evening, a Google Instant search on “Tiger Woods” yields the following four topics: “(1)Divorce, (2) Divorce Settlement, (3) Cigar Guy, and (4) Net Worth”. Not one of those is golf; I guess some are blessed with more genius skills than others.

    “Oops. don’t know my own strength.”

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