Sometimes when I finish a performance or an assignment, a good friend might tell me that they could never play piano like I do, or they could never write a song like I do. They mean it as a compliment, so why does it feel so awkward when they say it?
Some of my least favourite memories of high school are of sports carnivals. It seems that their only long-term value for me is that now I can now use athletics carnivals as an illustration in this post 😛
At our athletics carnivals, there were all sorts of events, and you could sign up beforehand through the Phys Ed teacher. I enjoyed triple jump, discus and shot put, but avoided the 1600m race like it would kill me. I’m not – and never was – very physically fit, so I didn’t want to spend all my time trying to crawl to the finish line, and end up too tired to do the shorter sprints that I enjoyed more.
One year, while attempting the 400m race, I noticed that I was put ahead of everyone else at the starting line. For some reason, the teachers had given me a head-start! The gun went off, we all started running, and for a few seconds, I was winning!
(Yeah, yeah, I know, “for a few seconds”.)
I learnt later why I had been put further out in front. The race track curves in a loop, so the outer racers (like me) have further to run than the inner racers. To compensate, the racers in the outer lanes start a few metres ahead of the others.
Different skills are like different races at the carnival: we can only do so many before we run out of time and energy. The staggering reflects our natural talents – some people can naturally pick up the skill, they use it more throughout their lives, so they start a bit further forward, where the start is easy and they feel motivated and excited to keep going.
Those toward the back of the starting line look at all these racers ahead of them and think, ‘You know what? There’s no way I’ll win this. I’m going to leave now and save my energy for this other race that I’ll have a better chance at winning.’
It can seem like a bad thing to give up before you even start. The people behind aren’t disadvantaged, they’ll just have to work harder to catch up earlier. When we start a new skill, we look at those who have picked it up quickly and wonder what’s wrong with us. But if we stick at it, we’ll pick up the same skills as them, to the same standard. It might just take a bit more work to level the playing field in the early days.
But it’s not bad to give up early. The truth is that we don’t have enough hours in the day to develop every skill. We should prioritise those that we’ll take further – those skills that we’ll use, improve and enjoy throughout our whole lives rather than struggling through something that frustrates us. This is why it’s not wrong to give up a hobby early to focus on one you enjoy more.
When people tell me they could never play piano like I do, they don’t take into account the other races. They speak as though this one “piano” race was all that mattered, and they gave up, and therefore they’re failures.
I wish I could reply, ‘No, you could do what I do. If, instead of getting out-of-school art lessons, you got piano lessons. If, instead of drawing in your free time, you practiced piano. If, instead of doodling in your notebooks, you imagined pieces you could write. Then you could play like I do. Conversely, if I had your experience in art, I could draw like you do!’
Friends, you may not have someone else’s skills, but that doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your own time. Maybe you started a bit further back in the maths race, and felt bad because everyone else was racing ahead of you. So you saved your time and energy on a different race that you enjoyed and went further ahead in.
That’s the right thing to do. Focus on the things you love, and don’t envy other people’s gifts. And please don’t tell someone you couldn’t do what they do. Instead, thank them and compliment them on developing and sharing their gift. It will make the conversation so much more positive for you both.
So, my talented readers, what are some of your gifts?