Tuesday, September 15, 2009

'Til Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away

Ingrid posted a passage on the fridge a while back from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. The relevant passage is quoted here. It basically makes the case that it is practice—massive amounts of practice—rather than talent, that make brilliant musicians. You of course have to have some inborn ability to fit the instrument, but the 10,000 to 20,000 hours of practice, the 20-30 hours/week, that's what does the trick.

The word "practice" came out of a continental usage meaning "striving or endeavoring" into its earliest English use as the carrying out of a profession, especially medicine and law. It quickly spread to mean "The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it" (OED, definition 2a), and then "The habitual doing or carrying on of something" (OED, definition 3a). It has come to connote a regularly repeated activity which is reserved into a protected, private space in life, not subject to conventional human power structures. You don't do it for cash or your household or your family. Practice is about you and something other than you, and no-one else gets in the way.

I decided to become an art major the end of my freshman year in college wothout having taken any art classes. I did it because I looked at all the activities I had been doing that year, and the ones that I just did and did and paid no attention to time passing were mostly working on design and art projects. I figured that was a good indicator of the sort of work I could happily put a major's worth of effort into. It turns out I was right. I was happy to work—to practice—for hours on end.

Now, by the end of the next three years, I had of course come nowhere near the 20,000 hours of practice mentioned above. 3000 I might believe, but that's probably pushing it; I had other classes and activities. And I mostly gave up the disciplines of the studio arts within a couple years after graduating. Turns out I am not so good on self-motivation if there isn't someone (like a teacher or a client or an audience) I'm preparing work for. Just how I'm built. But I got into map-making, and I felt a similar sense of "I could do this forever."

I think map-making is fun.

And I think the key to getting to that 20,000 hours has to be "fun". Either that or some seriously twisted obsessive behavior combined with strong elder-pressure. But if they didn't love doing it, would they keep doing it? If they didn't at least some of the time wake up in the morning and say, "Wait, you're going to pay me to go out and do this? Cool!" I feel that way about map-making still a lot of the time. Ingrid says she feels that way about writing.

As Dr Seuss says, "If you never did, you should./These things are fun and fun is good."

But pursuit of fun also covers a kind of Peter Pan escape-from-reality way of approaching things which is the opposite of what I'm talking about. What is the difference between following the pleasure of a practice that works for you, and following sensual pleasures? The difference is whether the practice requires work from you; whether you are being held up to a standard.

Some friends were over and in the course of the evening's conversation, the question emerged, "so why do you go to Meeting if you aren't a theist?" Which is a good question, a good opening. And one of the answers, perhaps surprisingly, is "because it's fun." Or something like fun. It's fun in the sense that the practice rewards me. I come away with more than I went in with, usually.

But conversely I think of those awful grownups who try to make kids have fun, with a forced-march kind of determination—there was a gift to Roo when he was very small that was a clock that talked in a plummy, Judi Dench English accent, saying "Let's have fun!" when you turned it on, and "Goodbye!" when you turned it on, which at age 1 was about all he could do. Over and over and over. "Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye!" Given who it was from, we considered it a passive-aggressive gift and "forgot" it at grandma's house...

Maybe I'm just avoiding the obvious word because it sounds so over-the-top gushy: Joy. Fun you can use up and throw away, but joy you keep. Maybe I find joy in the work I do, and the practice of Friends meeting, and really much of what I do in my life (OK, cleaning the cat box and balancing the bank statements maybe not so much), without the trumpets sounding and shafts of light from above. Maybe that's what the practice is about.

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