One of the hardest conversations I have ever had with either one of my children is probably not the one you think it is. It’s not the sex talk, or the drugs and alcohol talk, or even the “it’s impossible for someone to consent to sex when they’re incapacitated by drugs or alcohol” talk. No, the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with them is the one where I explain that they are not geniuses. Or prodigies. Or even whiz kids. At best, I tell them, they are very talented amateurs. Which means that they, like the rest of us, are going to have to work.
This idea is very difficult to convey to them because it is contrary to one of their most cherished beliefs: the belief that if you have enough talent you don’t have to put any effort into being successful. This is also known as the belief that your success or failure is simply the result of a lucky or unlucky draw from the genetic lottery. That some people are better than they are at certain things because “they’re just good at that stuff.”
I’m not arguing against the notion that people have talents and skills that lean in a certain direction, but rather the idea that successful people become successful out of luck. Because, as Thomas Jefferson supposedly said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
In order to get this message across to a classroom full of children, I once brought them every draft of a book I had spent the previous year working on, including the finished work. It was a ridiculous amount of paper—well over 2000 pages all told, every page filled with corrections. As I dropped every draft into the towering stack with a thud, I told the students that this (thunk) was what a book (thunk) really looked like (thunk thunk). And then I dropped my slim novel, all bound and pretty, right on top.
I was hoping to benefit from both the picture and the “thousand words” (actually several hundred thousand words) approach. At least as a writer (one with no regard for trees, apparently) I had some kind of visual proof of all my hard work—it would have been even harder to make my oint if I was a composer, or an athlete.
I don’t know if I was successful: the majority of the students’ eyes passed right over the absolutely monumental pile of rough drafts and went straight to the finished product, because that was the part that looked the most familiar to them. That was the part that looked like books they see in the bookstore.
The irony is that you only really know when you’ve put enough work into something when other people think you’ve spent no effort at all. When the the party, or the presentation, or the novel or the performance comes off without a hitch, and people all smile and tell you “you’re so good at this.” And you smile back and say “thanks,” but what you’re really thinking is, “yeah, I am—but I also worked really hard.”
Sometimes I think that the worst thing that can happen to a kid is to have a natural aptitude for something, whether it be music or football. Because eventually their natural aptitude is going to take them as far as it can, and after that they’re going to have start putting in some work. Meanwhile, the other kids, the ones with no “talent,” are already used to putting in the effort, and so never experience a hiccup in their progress.
Actually, I think that’s the reason so many “talented” kids quit things: they’re not prepared for the fact that after the talent, there still comes work.
Lots of it.