Monday, April 08, 2013

Talent, Skill and Experience

There are three paths to being good.  Being human, you can take multiple paths simultaneously.  So maybe path is a really shitty metaphor here.  But bear with me.  And I'm not going to talk about fighting, at least not right away.

A talented photographer sees the way a camera sees.  For whatever reason, the eye and mind grasp what a thing will look like cropped to picture size, can see not just the trees but the light-and-shadow play in the shape of the trees.  If you have a little talent, see a little differently, you can take some good pictures.

A skilled photographer knows his equipment.  He knows what to do with all the little dials and how to sometimes 'trick' the camera beyond the camera's usual abilities. Further, a skilled photographer has been taught much of what a talented photographer does instinctively.  But knowing does not always equate with understanding, and an untalented but skilled photographer can get technically perfect but completely boring pictures.

I don't mean experience here as someone who has taken a lot of pictures.  The third way to get good, unique pictures is to go to unique places and take them.  Take a shot of something as incredible as the Earthrise over the Moon's horizon and talent or skill do not touch the fact that you were there.  A technically crappy, poorly composed picture of Bigfoot would still be a picture of Bigfoot.

This goes for all art, for athletics and it absolutely goes for conflict.  Maybe it goes for everything.

It's not an either/or.  With a few exceptions it is not difficult to be talented, to work on skills and to go to extraordinary places.  They compound.  But it's not always easy.

Simple fact is that most talented people don't get very good.  My experience is that the kid who gets 'A++' and effusive complements in his grade school art classes never works that hard to get really good.  He is already good enough.  I know very few big strong athletic martial artists who bothered to become superb.  With an edge in size and strength, they tend to get good enough to dominate the people they know and then get lazy.  It usually takes an extraordinary drive, often the iconic smaller/weaker/older technician who can beat the talented individual that shows them there is more.

This is a very human thing.  It's a lot of work to get better, and most people stop when they are good enough.  So talent, without extraordinary discipline or an extraordinary challenge, can become a trap.

The people without great talent but with desire tend to become the technicians.  When others are more talented, you must be more skillful to win.  Most of the really superb martial artists and fighters I've known have been runts with a drive to win.  Small and weak, they couldn't afford to be merely good.  They had to be fantastic to hold their own.

And there are two things that happen here.  One is that much of 'talent' falls under the heading of attributes.  Like strength, speed, endurance and coordination.  Diligent training increases all of those.  There are talents that will be backfilled, for want of a better word.  The second is that with the right kind of training, your senses start to do what a talented person's always did.  A judo prodigy knows the split second when his opponent is about to be off balance.  A non-prodigy will learn that over time.
(And it is really infuriating to have something you have spent a decade perfecting being dismissed as, "Well, of course you can do that.  You're a natural.")

There is a lot here.  Physically untalented people tend to become superb technicians, if they work at it.  Mentally untalented people who work equally well tend to become superb teachers.  They've received so many explanations and worked out so many ways to grasp things that they can often communicate things they may not be able to do.

But, there is a solid difference between being untalented and ... I need a word.  If you have taught for any length of time you know there are certain people that don't get certain things.  I'm going to own it and put it down as, "my skill as a teacher is inadequate," but that's not what I feel deep down.  I take responsibility because that's the only part of the equation I can affect.  And I keep trying.  But it seems there are certain people that can't see what is right in front of their eyes.  Can't change patterns of movement or behavior.  It's rarely physical, it's some kind of mental block.  But they actively fight their own learning, even while putting in hours and hours.

And experience.  Go to the cool places and take the cool pictures.  Go to the dark places and learn about the dark side.  It certainly helps to have talent and skill.  That's how you make it out.  But there is more than that and it compounds.  The experience will teach you, very fast and in big block letters, what details are important.  And you'll pick up a crude version of what a talented person naturally sees. He sees composition and shadow instead of 'pretty flower.'  The experienced person learns a cruder, starker, but equivalent lesson, something on the order of, "I got too close."

It's hard to learn the kind of lessons from experience that you can learn from skill building or training.  Ideally, what you are taught is the accumulated experience of hundreds of experienced people.  There is no way you would have the time (or the luck) to survive that much experience.

But experience filters your training like nothing else.  The devil is in the details but it is experience that tells you which details are important.  That's the nature of the way humans learn and teach.  They add stuff.  They complicate things.  They make things special.  When you move too far away from experience and focus solely on training it becomes hard to tell which of the added information is important, what is really relevant.

Experience also happens at higher stakes and in compressed time.  It not just winnows your training but forges your training and any talent that you have.  Fast, dangerous situations force you to be equally fast and extremely precise.  Your trained skills become sharper, more adaptable and more reliable.  Your talent becomes reliable.  And it can become one of the incentives to keep a talented person training.

5 comments:

nry said...

Superb post, you now have me wondering which route my path takes...I suspect I fall on the 'no major natural talent but lots of training' side!

Flinthart said...

Two ideas in there stand out for me, from experience and observation. The first is the fact that talent can be a trap. I can't agree with that enough, and it's an absolute bitch. It's damned hard to motivate a talented student to do better when they can already outdo pretty much everyone else accessible to them.

You can challenge them, yes. But they have to want to be challenged. If they're not interested in it, you can't make them go further, and that's all there is to it.

The second point that resonated for me was the observation that some people simply don't seem to learn. I respect your stance, taking ownership of the issue -- but again, from experience and observation, I agree with your 'inner feeling' that very simply, some people aren't ready to learn certain things.

If anything, this is even more frustrating for a teacher. It's horrible to watch someone who has so much desire to learn that they will doggedly pursue a drill until they're falling down with exhaustion -- without ever catching the core of it. The only thing I've ever found that occasionally helps is to reframe the central idea. Find new words. New ways of explicating it. New ways of putting the technique into action.

Sometimes -- rarely! -- you can find the "right wavelength" for some of these people. But usually, they simply have to be allowed to persist until whatever it is inside them lets them take the next step for themselves.

Old Bull Lee said...

I will own up to the opposite. Sometimes I run into a technique, drill, etc. that for some reason I just don't get. And I can sense the instructor's frustration.

If it makes you feel any better, sometimes I (and maybe these other people) am working on it alone in a quiet place after some reflection and BAM! it hits me.

Elizabeth Barrett said...

Excellent post. I enjoyed it greatly. As you say, talent can hold people back from really making the effort they should. On the other hand, people can use talent from one aspect of life to make up for lack of talent in another. For example, I am not naturally athletic, so a lot of martial arts techniques do not come naturally to me. However, because I am talented with analysis and observation, I can figure out how to do things pretty quickly. That, and years of experience.

As you say, some people don't learn because they aren't ready to learn. I think the only approach a teacher can take is to "plant the seed" and give it time to grow. Speaking as a student, there are many things that I didn't really "get" until years after someone taught them to me. In other words, those students may not get it now, but if they stay with it, the "aha" moment may come many years later. If you are lucky, you'll see it.

Thanks for sharing your insight!

Trevor Montroy said...

But why are people upset when they learn that they have been lied to? (This question is not necessarily a non-sequitur.)