Sunday, October 6, 2013

On Celebrating Talent

Convalescing from a wicked cold that's beating the crap out of me, I watched a trio of movies about amazing musicians: Joe Strummer, Ginger Baker, and Sixto Rodriguez.  In the films, other musical geniuses were highlighted along the way.  What a delight!  But as Ginger, Jack and Eric talked about people with the gift of perfect time, my first reflexive response was, "How many kids are told they can be a great musician if they just put their mind to it?".

In class this week, yet another student insisted that intelligence has minimal genetic basis compared to effort.  Anybody can do anything if they try hard enough.  I suggested there are people her age still struggling with the alphabet and lamented the ivory tower effect of streamed academic courses.  I don't think it was very convincing.  I'm battling a life-time of programming.  In high-school, I struggled with grade 13 physics.  Both my parents were math and physics profs at U of W, yet with their unwavering help, and the help of my teacher, I still couldn't get my head around that whole inclined plane issue.*  It's just not how my brain works.

And that's okay.

But yesterday I considered a different, and bigger, problem with the message that you can be anything you want:  it allows people to be outrageously self-abosorbed and, at the same time, it denies the specialness of the few.  I'm all for equality, but not like this.  People who have unique talents should be celebrated for how very unique they are.  Suggesting, "Well I could do that too if I tried hard enough," denigrates these talents.  And, for god's sake, get over yourself already!

Something that just doesn't happen so much anymore is the celebration and authentic appreciation of other people's successes.  We're being trained to be so self-focused that any achievement is met with an internal gauge indicating how much more work we'd have to do to achieve that same remarkable thing because, of course, we're all remarkable - supposedly, and we're all capable of doing anything we set our minds too.


And, for me, because this is how my brain does work, it all fit together with this article about a frequent flyer boarding his final flight because of the IPCC's recent report which said this:

We've caused a mess on this planet. And, according to Monbiot, if you calculate the per person GHG emissions from one 2-hour flight, it's greater than the GHG emissions each person typically produces in the regular course of a year of living in a prosperous country.  Flying takes a huge toll on the planet.  If the government cared about our imminent survival, it would shut down all but emergency flights.  Yup, that will destroy the travel industry and have a painful impact on the economy, but we might eek out a few more decades of life.  That's where we're at now.

But the government won't do that.  So it's up to us.  Can we be so otherly-centered as to stop utilizing our own luxuries?   We're in a cultural head-space that suggests our own personal interests and abilities and pleasures are the end all and be all of life.  How dare I suggest people cancel their next vacation?  Or that business trip that could happen over Skype?  But there it is.

Along with learning to celebrate the successes of others comes a burgeoning concern for the well-being of others.  We need to change the lens we look through - turn it around so we stop with the selfies and make it panoramic so we can see everyone.

And it starts with putting a halt to the Ken Robinson schtick of "You can be anything you want."  You can't.  And you should be in AWE of people who do things that you can't do.  Instead of a flicker of downtrodden suckiness because you can't do something as well as another, lift your chin and say, "Way to go! That's awesome that you can do that!  You, over there (and not me)."  And mean it.

*ETA:  It's not a matter that if I really wanted to learn physics and it was a true passion of mine, then I would learn it.  That's an annoyingly common petitio principii fallacy which is impossible to argue against, not because there's a grain of truth - at all - but because it's just not logical.  It goes like this:  If you love it, you'll be able to learn it.  Therefore, if you didn't learn it, it's because you just didn't love it enough.  Just shoot me.  

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