Monday, August 25, 2008

so why'd you ask, then?

I have this pet peeve.

Say I do something cool: make a dress, write a story, execute a good-looking down posture, whatever. And somebody says to me, "ooooh, that's so wonderful, I could never do something like that."

And I say, "Oh, sure you could, it just takes practice."

"Oh, but you're so talented."

"Well..." (yes I am, but) "this is mostly skill, and skill can be acquired."

"Oh no, oh no I could never... I just am no good at things like that."

Now, if I had any brains at all, I'd just say "thank you!" at the first and not get drawn into this. It just makes everybody uncomfortable, and me mad. I hate it when people say I'm talented; that's like saying I'm pretty--even if it's true, it's a genetic accident, and accounts for nothing. I've known a great many people with natural gifts--at singing, for instance--and they're a dime a dozen. Talent is useful, it can give you an edge in the right circumstances, but usually it has to be bolstered with a great deal of acquired skill and persistence, a.k.a. "work."

So I enjoy it much more when people say, "oh, what a lot of work, great job!" which is what my very wise, and likewise skilled, husband tends to say.

The other reason I hate the, "Oh, you're so talented!" line is because I think people use it as an excuse to be mediocre. The idea of talent is the idea of fate, and I don't believe in fate. "I could never do that" is an excuse not to try.

God knows I've sabotaged myself in some ventures--tai chi competition, for one thing--but I have never blamed the Fates for my bad luck. It was ME--me not practicing, me giving up, me prioritizing in a different direction.

But the part I really love is when this I-can't attitude becomes resentment against those who have done the work and made the sacrifices to get what they want. I was reading a post on Culinate by Sarah Gilbert, whom I much admire for her decision-and-sacrifice-making ability. In brief, she was contrasting the old-fashioned way of cooking (and ergo, homemaking) with the kind of short-cut, "quick and easy" mentality promoted by Rachel Ray and her ilk (yes, Ray is an easy target, but go with the allegory). And someone in the blog comments started scolding Gilbert for advocating less TV and less quick-fix thinking in our lives.

The crux of the attacker's argument: "Some of us can't live that way. Shame on you for being an elitist."

Pardon me while I gag. You can't manage your children without a TV? You can't entertain yourself without American Idol? What this boils down to is, "I don't want to do without my drug/babysitter. The echoing in my brain frightens me unless I have something to drown it out."

Furthermore, the issue of TV/no TV is entirely not the point. The point Gilbert was making was about understanding the methods of preparing food; if you know the process, you don't need all the pre-packaged crap and perky on-air instruction: a little time invested in real education, rather than TV watching, will save you a lot more stress in the long run. These quick-fix TV shows are not designed to teach you skills, they are designed to keep you coming back for more time-wasting. But nobody wants to see it this way. They don't want to admit they are the puppets of careful marketing researchers. They want to defend "My way!" because stretching and growing one's perceptions--not to mention one's skill set--is way too threatening: I may fail, ergo, I better not try, ergo, you're a snotty elitist for making me feel like a failure, shame on you!

I think the reason this really gets my goat is that it puts a tacit but pervasive pressure on people to conform. Women are notoriously self-deprecating, and this is how and why we get that way. For example, because I don't have a TV and can't join in the discussion of the KU game, or this week's episode of The Office, no one can think of anything else to say to me, and I have become more and more isolated in my work group. I get along with them okay, but I'm generally ignored, passed over for promotions, even.

Or in another example, I frequently have people ask me how I stay thin. The answer? A little exercise, a little cooking at home, and a lot of good choices throughout the day--mostly having to do with not putting sugar in my mouth. "Oh, but I couldn't go without coffee/bread/soda," they say, slightly horrified, as if I'd suggested they run around topless. Or else, "It's nice that you can afford good food," in a faintly accusing tone.

What am I supposed to do, stop eating nutritious food just because other's can't afford it? I feel bad for the starving folks in India but I don't have a lot of sympathy for you if you're feeding your kids Pop-Tarts instead of eggs for breakfast. Shall I fill my head with mindless sitcoms so I can participate in water-cooler bullshit? Will that make you feel better about yourself? Start getting fat so you can feel better about the inevitability of your own decline? Harrison Bergeron comes to mind, but if Kurt Vonnegut is too "elitist" for you, go watch The Incredibles again, and pay careful attention to Bob's rant about how not everybody can be special.

When Sit gets on a tear he starts talking about choices--you CHOOSE to be good or bad at tai chi, based on the smaller decision you make about whether to practice every day. He kind of got on my case last week, with some justification, about getting my priorities in order. Of course I know that his top priority is tai chi, and I think he knows I'm crazy-busy sewing right now, but that really doesn't mean I can't carve out twenty minutes to practice every day, and I say that because I am stressing out, feeling cramped, and I need that twenty minutes for my own health, if nothing else.

At any rate, I won't make excuses as to why I can't practice, or resent other people for making the time. There are two guys in my class who both do construction work all day and have 2-3 small children; both of them practice from 11 to midnight every night. One of them is getting noticeably good. And do I resent him for it? No, I shook his hand a couple weeks ago and offered my congratulations. I actually feel rather inspired by him. If I can choose to go home and cook a little fish or chicken instead of stuffing carryout quesadillas in my face, then I can choose to do a little qi gong instead of vegging out in front of the computer. I can choose to pick up my needle or my practice sword instead of turning on the TV. I can choose to get up and pack my lunch in the morning instead of hitting the snooze button twice more.

I guess that's my talent, then--the ability to admit I put obstacles in my own path instead of blaming other people for my failure. That doesn't make me elitist, it just makes me better than you.


AJ Milne said...


My real peeve is people who seem to think stuff just comes easy. Because you make it look that way. Or, because of a lot of history, it *is* that way... but only sort of, and only now.

Instruments stick out. Strings, in general, sure, if you're watching close enough, and watching now, I might seem to learn things *relatively* quickly. But that's built on a lot of history, too. Didn't come from nowhere. Years of singing, years of theory, years of listening, years of suffering on *other* instruments (some of which, honestly, were torture), years of practise (not always diligently, sure, but still, years of practise) on those and on strings, years of lessons, years, in fact, of learning how to learn, and how to practise efficiently. And then there's concentration, patience, focus, and just giving a damn.

And when it sounds *really* good, it sounds like that because you work your butt off to make it sound good. It's actually kind of belittling to have someone say: oh, gee, you're lucky, it's so easy for you.

Sure, maybe it is, relatively. But there's reasons, and I paid my dues. And I wouldn't call it easy, exactly, either... maybe just easier. And this only comes after a whole lot of definitely *not* easy. No, you didn't put anyone else through that, much, if you could help it, so they mostly haven't heard it, don't know about it, probably can't imagine. But it's still there.

Holly said...

AJ-- Yeah, that's another good example.

Lisa-- You're right, compassion is important, and I try not to hold people's mistakes against them. God knows I've made a few myself. But this rant was inspired not by the mistakes that others make, but by those who try to tear others down to their level. I'm not even talking about myself here, although I have been on the receiving end of some of this, in the past.

Compassion is great in polite company, but sometimes you just gotta vent.

Holly said...

Said another way, It's not making the mistake that's the problem--it's refusing to learn from it.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, Holly, this is your blog, so you can mount your steed, however high it may be, and vent to your heart's content. In my several goings to and fro upon the earth(Job 1:7), I have seen many people make mistakes. In some instances, my gut reaction is that those persons should only be knocked in the head and thrown in the railroad cut. After sober reflection, compassion sets in. When I look back at some of the boners I've pulled, I am surely glad that other folks demonstrated charity.
That I am where and what I am is due somewhat to inborn talent, but it also involved a lot of hard work.