Skill 4/9/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Late in the previous millennium, specifically in 1992, just after finishing my doctorate I was living in New York City working on a post-doctoral research position. It was in New York that I finally opted to indulge my art bug and took up acrylic painting. I was a complete novice and had no idea how to begin. For those unfamiliar with New York City, a region of the city referred to as “SOHO” (short for “South of Houston Street”) is more or less the artistic hub of the city, or so it was back then. In the SOHO region was a rather massive art store. It was in that store that I purchased my supplies, paint brushes, paints, canvases, an easel and so much more.

Walking around and collecting my supplies, I finally made it to the checkout where a young woman was helping ring up my desired purchases. Striking up a conversation, I told her that I’m starting a new hobby with painting, and that next week I’ll be in the Guggenheim. (If you don’t know what the Guggenheim is, it’s a massive and very well-known art museum on the Upper East Side of New York City).

Continuing the conversation, she told me that she was an art major in one of the New York City colleges. I felt horrible at the thoughtless quip suggesting that I can get into the Guggenheim Museum without even practicing or studying art. Immediately I apologized, but she just smiled. “No need to apologize,” she said, “I hope you do get into the Guggenheim.”

I asked her if she would be upset if a novice like me would be so successful as she was spending so much effort studying. She explained that, no, of course she wouldn’t be offended. My skills, natural or otherwise, has no influence on her abilities, and she would be very happy for me if she learned that I was so successful.

It’s human nature to be envious when somebody else has the skills we want, especially if it’s natural. Her attitude was not only refreshing, but an important lesson. Yes, some people would have to work to acquire such skills, and for others (not me, of course) it’s just natural. We probably all have those fantasies of being virtuosos with some kind of hidden talent that’s perfectly honed and as yet undiscovered, but the reality is that any such skill takes practice and education. Currently, I’m working with my friend to learn how to write music. This friend is an artist with a marvelous sense of humor. When I compliment something that she had created, she would say, “thank you, I studied art for weeks!”

I like to think that I’m a good teacher. I’ve been teaching since the ‘80’s, so I have a lot of practice, and yet when I’m passing a classroom I liked to stop to listen to the professor. I greatly enjoyed listening to styles and seeing if I could pick up any ideas to incorporate into my own teaching style. No matter how skilled I felt I had become, I always felt I could improve. As I’m learning music, I don’t expect I’ll ever be professional level in my skill, but hopefully it’ll be fun, and I’ll continually grow and learn.

My friend who is a math professor enjoys golf. He never wanted to golf with me, though, because ever time I went golfing I would get an amazing bowling score. We did go golfing once, though, and as I was holding him up putzing around trying to sink a putt I apologized. He explained that I shouldn’t feel bad and suggested that his approach to golf was never to do better than his opponent, but to better himself. He never worried about the score, only that he does better than the last time he played. He was literally competing against himself.

There are lessons in these attitudes. I’ve never been particularly good at sports because I’ve never been competitive. I play for the enjoyment of the game, and the companionship of my friend with whom I am playing. If somebody is better than I am, it’s neither a surprise, nor a concern. And that’s okay. The truth is that I’m terrible, but I have fun. And that’s okay. I love seeing people’s skills that are above mine. In a way, it’s a blessing just because it’s such a joy to see somebody with a true talent using their abilities.

And, yes, my art really is terrible. I tried to draw a stick figure once. It’s now in the Louvre.

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