Monday, October 27, 2014

What's Natural?

I was watching my son play soccer the other day. He is not a natural. Field position, speed, initiative and attack do not come to him intuitively on the field. When he gets to the ball, I can see him thinking through the things he has been told about what to do next. Sometimes it takes me back to my own childhood, to the trauma of not understanding the game and not wanting to be there, on the field, on the spot. There is a big difference, though. He does want to be there. He asks to play. He's chatty and bouncy on the field (to the frustrated looks from some of his fellow players, who would like him to get his head in the game or at least know where the ball is). I have never insisted that he play soccer, or any other sport. I make it his choice, and thus far, he chooses to play. If he chooses to stop I might get my fall Saturday mornings back.

What does it mean to be a natural at something? More importantly, what does it mean to not be a natural, and do it anyway? I play the banjo. I sing. I sing harmony. I love the banjo. I love singing. I am not a natural. While I have gotten much, much better over the years, I have to work really hard at it and I am constantly coming up against limits in my ability.  There are lots of places where I am going to have to work harder than others to improve, and levels I probably won't ever get to.

I didn't start playing music for myself until a few years ago. My life has always been full of music, but in seven years of playing the piano I never quite got it. I guess I wasn't ready, or it was the wrong instrument, or the wrong teachers. No one introduced me to the idea of playing music as a casual social activity, separate from standard notation and scales. When I was a teenager and people I admired played music for fun, I felt like I had already missed my window and was destined to be a consumer forever. I felt left out. As a young adult, I was envious of the people in my life who would sit and play music together, but it still took me years to start to believe that I could participate. Sometimes I wonder where I would be as a player if I had let myself take it up as a teen and be bad at first; what would it have been like to learn to do something for the joy of it, without feeling self-conscious about my competence? I still struggle with that question.

These days, it feels like everyone wants to be a tech entrepreneur. Certainly, if you are a tech entrepreneur you are more successful than everyone else because you were making millions in your twenties. If you lack aptitude and interest in programming, you are a has-been in the "old" economy. Computer technology never spoke to me, though. I am happy enough to use it, but, like a car, when I can't get it to do what I need it to do then I find an expert and put it in their hands. I keep thinking that I want to learn more about computers, I even went so far as to buy a pc instead of a mac so that I could (haha) learn open source operating systems. Alas, mostly I just get frustrated when it acts like a creaky old pc and search the internet in hopes that someone else can solve my problem.

Given that, I am unlikely to found a successful tech startup and finance my way to happiness. I often lapse into thinking that people who start businesses that gain traction in the marketplace are almost passive, or pre-ordained, as if they are struck by divine inspiration and driven by an unerring compass to navigate the vagaries of their chosen field and the market. Naturals.  I don't actually know a single person who has built a business or carved out a career that way, however. When you are passionate about something, or even just genuinely interested in it, that doesn't mean it's going to fall into your lap as soon as you start to work at it. The most natural thing, I suspect, is to make a lot of mistakes and have some successes, and hope that what works is sufficient reward and motivation to keep trying. It's about making your own luck, and knowing that you are doing what you are doing by choice; that you intend to be there. Finding the path and making the path are two parts of the same process: the process of being open to what we really want.

I don't have to be born a natural to find a path, naturally.

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