It's the age of talented people, which has an unfortunate byproduct: it's also the age of people who think that they belong in the age of talented people. This is the era of "you are wonderful and significant because you're you and you are an individual," but it's also the era of "we deserve the greatest" and "we deserve it now." These mentalities are hardly compatible. I here wish to address these things, because they've been weighing heavily on my spirit lately.
The greats weren't great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot. -Macklemore
I do not boast in the things that I can do well, because that is a frivolous endeavor. Monkeys do not brag that they can pick up objects with their tails with exceptional adeptness, fish do not comment about their particular ability to breathe underwater, and babies do not call attention to the fact that they are especially good at crying through the night, so I do not see any reason for me to say, "my, I'm good at playing guitar" or "what golden-throated words those were!" for two reasons: 1. These are the things that I was given (commanded seems a little strong) to do 2. Calling attention to things done well is nothing but vanity; it's both an insult to myself and to the One who gave me something to do.
I'm not to be a man given a good hammer as a gift who says, "watch how well I hammer with this hammer that isn't even mine to begin with."
We live in this time when it's not just acceptable (apparently) to call attention to beautiful things, it's practically expected of us, because eloquence or physical beauty or charm or a musical ear are misconstrued as things we have earned.
This is misconception one: we are deserving of the things we do well and must therefore flaunt them. We must strap on whatever it is we're good at and show it off in front of people looking to be impressed by something.
Misconception two: Being gifted is enough.
And the toe-stepping begins.
I'll offer two different situations (both involving music simply because that's what I know best, but feel free to extrapolate them into other areas - the application will be the same) in order to color this outline in a little bit, and then do my necessary clarification afterwards.
The first has to do with compiling musicians into a band. The most stressful time working for a church was when one group of musicians graduated from high school and replacements had to come in for the youth band, because it meant that I had to make the necessary announcement if nobody had stepped up of their own free will: "Anybody interested in auditioning for the band, gather after this for a brief meeting."
You can imagine the collection. They'd assemble: guitar players and bass players and drummers and singers and pianists, all not just excited, but expecting something. Like showing up was qualification for making the cut. Or: I'd hand out a chord chart and I'd be the bad guy because they didn't know how to play one of the chords. We've been told so often that we can do anything that we expect to be able to do anything, and we blame anybody but ourselves when we can't.
Here's the thing - the raw talent was there. These drummers could keep beats. These pianists could listen to music and play it. But playing together with other musicians is a practiced skill that is not easy to learn, and playing live in front of people is an even greater step than that; knowing how to play an instrument simply does not cut it. Playing together does not happen overnight and it doesn't come without significant effort, frustration, and practice. But nobody sees this part of it - they see people who do it seemingly without effort (an attest to the amount of time they've put into it, no doubt), and expect the same result for themselves. They are, after all, extraordinary, right?
Situation two. More like situations, because it happens often. I'll be with the band in Someplace, Nowheresville and we'll have just finished a set. Sweaty, tired, and standing at the merch table, we'll talk to all who come up looking for pictures or to buy a t-shirt or a cd or get something signed and inevitably we'll get this: "You are so talented!" Or "God has really blessed you." Hear me first: in no way will I ever say, "God has done nothing. This was all me," because without a passion that I believe is Divine and without the spark that has been breathed by the Creator, I would have nothing. But be careful discrediting something that somebody has crafted for the sake of misdirected piety, or else eleven years of intensive study in solitude (in a room with nothing but a metronome and a piece music), thousands of hours of learning to play in front of crowds, and all of the time most people spend cultivating relationships and growing communally instead spent developing aspects of an individual tone, voice, and expression become superfluous and wasted. Now pile my experience with all of the equivalent experience of the other members of my band, add the hours and trials and frustrations we've put into it together, and the numbers become a little bit overwhelming to suffice with a "you're very talented!" We really appreciate it, I promise - but there are a lot of talented people in the world. We've worked too.
Some of my favorite things in the world are YouTube tutorials. I have found on there everything from tricks for memorizing patterns of particular modal passages on the guitar to DIY methods to print circuit boards at home to lectures from prestigious Universities on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. People are combining their collective knowledge into what I affectionately call the Brainshare, which can be accessed at the flick of a thumb on the screen of one's smartphone.
But lately, this Brainshare has begun to terrify me, because it's created a generation of "give-me-now"s. For instance, we see a tutorial for "10 easy blues licks" and assume, once we've learned them and can play them flawlessly, that we can go and play a blues gig. Learning something is only in very small part learning how and in very large part learning why. Play the guitar like you're trying to sound cool playing guitar or because you think it's a neat thing to do or because you saw John Mayer do it and you want to sound like him and you'll sound like someone who's playing guitar because you think that playing guitar is cool. However, play guitar because you've found out how it's the only thing that can put into communicable ideas the very language of your soul and suddenly there is a difference that is the distance between Ocean shores. You still need to do the fundamental things like scales and memorizing chord shapes and things like that, but it's through the deliberate, intentional time spent learning it that something in the rote and time sheets sparks a fire that warms you from the inside out. It gives you no choice but to play, and makes the long hours of practice things of joy.
The Brainshare also scares me because it has given us the idea that we can do not just anything, but everything. I fell for it: This summer, I worked with a friend who was a legitimately exceptional magician. He showed us some card flourishes, some sleight-of-hand, some false shuffles, some simple tricks that he'd twisted into an original style, and I was transfixed. I asked him to show me just one flourish so that I could get a handle on the way that it's done, then I'd practice learning more so that I could do the things he could do. He gave me the smile I think I'd have given me were the roles reversed but politely obliged.
And I practiced all day, every day. For a week. Okay, a little bit less than a week. I found myself getting frustrated when I'd drop a card or mis-shuffle or get hung up on a step of the flourish and I'd say, "I understand it! I can get what I'm supposed to do, so why can't I do it?"
It's because things are not meant to come overnight. Learning something doesn't take a week; Wes had been doing it for years on years on years. He'd read books on card tricks and Houndini and debunked TV magicians and had committed himself not to learning the art of magic, but to not being able to do without it.
This qualification for mastery restricts us, and that's offensive to people who have been taught that limits are for the birds. But listen: limits are so freeing. How massive a burden would it be to know that there is nothing in this world you can't do? That the only the thing that is prohibiting you from learning something is yourself? That's a path that leads you to self-depreciation. Try this one on for size. You can't, nor should you, do everything.
Doesn't that feel better?
Stop looking at American Idol and thinking that success comes overnight (because the ones who win that thing are 100% of the time never true "overnight" successes. They'd put in their ten thousand hours before that audition came). Stop believing that being talented is enough to satisfy the Creator who gave it to you in the first place - He wants you to foster it and to make it grow and to then turn around and say "look at what I did with what You gave me!" Discover that thing that you can do, whether it's making a garden grow or putting together a motorcycle engine, and make it yours.
Learn to embrace the freedom that comes from "you can't do everything" and use it to make the things you've been given to do thoroughly amazing.