Talent vs Skill

Some people possess natural talent. A friend of mine who runs a successful business turned his first profit when he was eight. My musician husband would make sounds with anything he could find when he was a toddler. I was obsessed with drawing as a kid. You could kept me entertained for hours with a box of crayons and a pad of paper. This is still probably true, depending on the quality of the crayons.

This isn’t to say that all of us didn’t have to work hard to become good at what we do. I think talent is mainly a motivator. We feel a sense of reward when we try, so we practice obsessively because it feels good. It is easy to feel like it isn’t worth trying if a technique is difficult to learn. This is doubly true if you are in a class where others pick it up easily, or you compare yourself with an expert. We feel stupid, our inner critic is going off, and our egos are bruised.

I believe this process gets harder as we get age, because we expect ourselves to know everything. We forget what the learning process is like; we forget how it felt to learn how to walk, read, ride a bike or even drive a car. We are so fluent in these activities we are barely aware of the skill required to do them.

Our inner critic gets louder as we age. A toddler doesn’t hesitate to get back up when he or she falls down. There is no inner critic to slow down the child’s process. He or she just gets up and tries again.

It’s not so easy for us adults. We become embarrassed and angry at ourselves if we don’t do it perfectly the first time. I see my students struggle with this in my classes, and I find that the biggest challenge for many people is not learning the skill, but getting the inner critic to shut up so they can try again.

Here are some things to remember when learning a new skill.
1. Don’t give up. It’s normal to feel discouraged if it isn’t working, and the person on your left is doing it perfectly, and the mean voices in your head are yelling at you. Stop, take a breather, and don’t buy into it. Look for a different instructor or book if you really feel stumped. Get curious about the process instead of beating yourself up. Finding out more if it doesn’t work is proof you aren’t stupid.
2. Increase the fun by loosening up. Treating your project like an experiment will open you up to different possibilities. Maybe that giant hat you knitted is actually a bag that needs a strap.
3. Start with small, easy projects. I keep meeting crochet students who want to make a blanket for their first project. This makes me nervous, because blankets are Goliaths to complete, and these students are still developing their skill and confidence. I recommend they start with something simple like fingerless gloves that they can finish quickly. A more manageable project will inspire them to crochet more. That won’t happen if their first project is an asymmetrical monster blanket that they couldn’t finish.
4. Skills are learnable, especially with practice. Math is not a natural skill for me, but I could do arithmetic at lightning speed when I worked in a retail store in my 20’s, and I have regained this skill once I started knitting. Anything you do on a regular basis will become easy and normal.
5. Do not compare yourself with others. You don’t know what transferrable skills a classmate may already have. Maybe they are a repeat student who did terrible the first time around, and now it’s finally clicking together. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Compare yourself with yourself.
6. Recognize your own progress. Your work is probably better than you think. I remember in a watercolor class I taught, all of my students had grasped the technique and were developing their own styles. They were painting some impressive pictures, and they could admire fellow students pictures, but nobody could appreciate their own.
7. It does get easier. It is way harder to learn the most rudimentary steps of a new skill than to expand on a skill you already have. Don’t switch to knitting if you don’t immediately pick up crochet. Stick it out a little longer, and it will get easier. If you really want to learn how to knit as well, wait until you feel comfortable with crochet. The hand-eye coordination you will develop from crochet will make knitting easier. The actual process of learning also gets easier. Mistakes become less of a big deal, and you will bounce back more quickly. It is important to remember that experienced practitioners have felt all the same struggles that you have. I recently led students in a recent drawing class through a challenging drawing exercise. I had my own moment of terror that I would mess up as I did the demonstration. The thing that kept me going with the memory of all the times I had done it in the past. I just braced myself and kept going, and it turned out fine.

A mediation teacher once said, “There is a reason meditation is called a ‘practice.’ We are never perfect at it. We are constantly working on it.” The process of making art and craft projects doesn’t feel like the pretty pages of Martha Stewart magazine. While it can be fun and joyful, it has it’s ups and downs, similar to meditation.

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