I always think about people with really obscure talents, like in the Olympics, all of these sports that I’ve never heard of. How do you get to be so good at something that most of the world doesn’t even know exists? Take curling for example, right, it’s really popular in Canada, and so they’ve got really good curlers. The US has a team, but are American curlers really any good?
What I mean is, we’ve got a huge country, much bigger than Canada. Shouldn’t we have a bigger talent pool to draw from? Statistically, yeah, but curling isn’t super popular here, and so we’re kind of stuck with the people that happen to be involved in the top level of American curling.
I’m a big believer in practice, that if you keep at something, over and over again, eventually you’ll get better, and then finally you’ll be able to master whatever it is you’ve spent so much time practicing. At least, I hope I’m a big believer, because I keep telling that to myself as I sit here at my computer every day and write out blog posts and short stories. Don’t worry, I think in my head, so what if everything you’re writing out is garbage? You’ll get better eventually. And yeah, it keeps me going for a while, the idea that someday I’ll look back at everything I’m doing today, I’ll barely recognize my work in these crude, early stages of my writing career.
But whereas I don’t think that anything can happen without practice, I also kind of believe that there’s got to be something else, a natural talent within. You look at certain sports or professions, even at the professional level, there are always a few examples of an even higher level of ability. I’m talking about LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky, William Shakespeare and Mozart, whoever is truly great at curling and whoever else is similarly amazing at luge or skeleton.
You look at examples of a prodigy, someone who, at their peak, is just in total command of their chosen activity. Surely they wouldn’t have gotten to where they were without a lifetime of practice and dedication. But there’s something else, a natural predisposition to excel. And you think about it, it’s total luck.
Think about Wayne Gretzky, look at hockey. How crazy is it that somewhere along humanity’s history, a bunch of people started strapping metal blades to their feet in order to push a hard rubber disk on ice with long sticks? OK, that blows my mind that hockey, or golf, or any of these complex sports developed the way they did into international pastimes.
Right, and then you have Wayne Gretzky, he’s arguably the best player in the history of the sport, he happens not only to have this natural ability to thrive when given the opportunity to practice and play, but he’s also bestowed the good fortune of growing up around hockey, having parents that were able to make sure he had hockey equipment, access to coaching and ice facilities.
Wayne Gretzky could have been born in Africa or somewhere else where hockey isn’t played and he would never been exposed to the one thing that has made his life so remarkable. What if everybody has a similar natural talent? It’s not inconceivable. In some alternate timeline, there might be a sport where humans attach wheels to their heads and roll around upside down while trying to slide giant cubes into various holes in the ground using only their elbows.
That’s obviously a crazy scenario, but in the unlikely event that such a sport were to ever take off, how would I know that that wouldn’t be my unique talent? And that’s just too bad, I’m born in this society where headslide, or whatever you want to call it doesn’t exist, and so unable to find an outlet to use my insane headsliding talents, I kind of drift aimlessly through life, waiting tables at night, hoping that if I sit here every day and type words out on my computer, I might someday have a career as a professional writer.
I’m kind of thinking myself in circles here, the ideas that I’m trying to express are getting tangled up into fantasies of being a professional athlete, of being a professional anything, really. It’s important to stay grounded in the present. I’ve already spent a pretty good chunk of time committed to writing every day, really hoping that I’ll get good at what I’m doing, that my skills might lead me somewhere where this will have all been worth it. But it’s hard not to put aside those lingering questions. Is this really what I should be doing? Is there some other path or activity that, if I set myself out to master, might I not have a better shot at being the best?
Maybe bowling. I’ve never really given myself a fair shot at becoming a professional bowler. Or hang-gliding. I could be the best potential hang-glider in all of history. Or bull-running. Or mountain climbing. There’s no way I’ll ever figure it all out.