I have been reading a lot lately about becoming a better writer. Also I have read several interesting biographies of famous people. Right now I am in the middle of Julia Child’s biography, Appetite for Life. All this reading has caused me to think about learning, growing and achieving our goals. What makes a person a good writer, a great chef, a well educated person, a master teacher?
In high school I had a teacher that told us, almost daily, he didn’t care so much if we learned everything about his subject, he wanted us to learn to think. I graduated high school in 1982, and that still bothers me, have I learned to think? What does that mean, really?
The title of Julia Child’s biography is very interesting to me, Appetite for Life. Julia is known for her TV shows and cookbooks about French cooking, yet she did not originally plan to be an expert in French cooking. She was not a good cook, or even very interested in food until she met her husband. He introduced her to the pleasure of good food, and the adventure of new tastes. She, following her curious nature, delved into new flavors and developed an appreciation for the sensory joy of eating. From that starting point she rose to become the expert and author of such books as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She spent years on PBS with her cooking show, and millions of American women fell in love with cooking and the joy of food through her influence.
So, what character traits did she have, and what traits are found in people that learn, that become masters in their fields? I am not an expert, and really I don’t know, but from the biographies I love to read several traits come to mind. The first one is the Joy of Life. As a home educator I wanted my children to enjoy learning. We always felt a sense of excitement when it was time to go to the library. What rabbit trails of learning would we end up following that day? One interesting book would lead to another, and the excitement and joy of discovery would push us farther. Apathy is the opposite, the lack of interest or care in anything. Too many students sit in classrooms, doing their work in order to earn their grades, performing in a task simply because it is expected. How many people face life in the same way?
Passion for a subject flows from the joy of life. We taste a new sauce covering our vegetables, or try a new exotic fruit. We hear an unusual piece of music or read a mystery novel that takes place in an unknown country. Curiosity, and a desire to learn develop into a passion as we pour through the books, or try new recipes. Passion is the force that pushes us to learn more, to thirst for a deeper level of understanding and knowledge. A person passionate about a musical instrument is not just going to practice the required one hour a day, they are going to push, work and sleep and dream the music. That passion is what separates a master of their craft from a hobbyist. How do we spark that passion?
Humility, or the lack of arrogance, has to be an important trait as well. A humble person knows he has more to learn, there is always someone that can teach him more. We never have to stop growing and learning. The central theme of nearly every graduation speech I have ever heard has to do with graduation being just a beginning, a step up to a lifetime of learning. A person can be a master at his craft, and still, if open to it, learn new things.
Perhaps the most important trait is the willingness to let our joy of life, our passion, and our humility, drive us to work hard to develop the skills we desire. Somehow when I was young I got it in my head that a person was either smart or wasn’t smart. A person was born a good student or he wasn’t. I felt guilty if I worked extra hard to prepare for a class or to study a subject beyond the “normal” level, whatever that may be. I don’t mean I didn’t believe in study or hard work, but that because I had to study extra hours my knowledge wasn’t legitimate. I had this idea that my smarter friends who just knew how to do algebra or just understood French history, that they were actually intelligent while I had to work and study to gain my knowledge, and therefore my intelligence was earned, not a gift. It was if I felt that if I had to work that hard to learn something I had cheated.
How many people have said, “I am just not that smart, I have to really work to learn something,” and have meant that as a negative trait. The people that we look to and think of as experts in a given field are generally people that have worked hard and put in the hours to achieve that level of ability.
I took piano lessons as a child and I practiced every day, one hour a day. I thought that because I had some talent I would become a great pianist, even with a minimum of practice. Recently I read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. One of the studies profiled in the book was based on musicians and how many hours were spent practicing compared to their level of ability. Music students at a University were divided into three groups, those that were just good music students, those going into teaching of music, and those that were at the top of their craft and would be performing music. Each of the students answered questions about when they started music lessons and how many hours per day they practiced. All of the musicians started at about the same age, and at first spent the same amount of time per day in rehearsal and practice. As they got older and more involved in the music, the number of hours changed. The best musicians spent more than double the number of hours per day rehearsing their instruments, to the point that a clear corollary could be seen. The number of hours spend practicing determined which group the musicians fell into. The gifted ones were the ones that invested hours into their craft.
This should be obvious, and yet it is not. We love the myth of the talented untrained artist that on a whim pulls out a typewriter and creates beautiful poetry. We know that to learn a new language, to play the violin or to paint a masterpiece we must put in the work, training and study, but how often do we start, realize it is difficult and say, I just don’t have that talent?
Perhaps there is a level of inborn talent or IQ that we are born with, but that talent represents a platform or a starting place. Hard work, study and practice are the tools that you add to the platform, and from that base we build our own structure of ability.
What makes a person good at a skill? Working at that skill. What makes a person work at that skill? Passion, interest, desire to improve that skill, or to know more about the topic, or the desire to create and share in that art. I want to be a writer. I must write. I want to play the piano. I must practice – a lot. I want to have knowledge about nature. I must read books, go outside, observe and be a part of nature, and ask questions. I want to be a good student – I must study!
Hard work, an investment in time, along with passion, joy, humility and curiosity, these are only a part of the recipe. Somehow, the challenge issued by my old science teacher, to learn to think, is the necessary final ingredient. When you figure that one out, please share your knowledge with me!