An Un-Natural Talent?


Hurricane Sandy hit the NJ/NY area hard–physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

The range of loss was huge–I lost power for a few days but that was all. Most of my friends in Brooklyn were completely untouched, but couldn’t get anywhere while the subways weren’t working. A colleague in Long Island lost her entire house and felt lucky to escape with her life.

One thing everyone shares, though, is the discombobulation.

Every time I see someone I haven’t seen since the storm, the conversation usually starts there–are you safe–who was affected and how. Eventually one of us mentions having difficulty getting back to business or being productive. When I describe it as feeling “discombobulated” whomever I’m talking to quickly agrees–yes, that’s how I feel. Discombobulated.

It’s made me remember that we humans are like dogs–we’re pack animals. Social. Some of us in this region are struggling mightily, some of us not so much, but all of us feel it.  We are recovering together and even though the physical environment for many of us is back to normal, we, as a group, are not yet.

This reminder has made me think about ALL the ways our individual feelings are created by our larger associations–we are also our families, our cultures, and our environments. And those collective connections affect the way we think, how we feel and what we believe.

The Collective Unconscious

For instance, I was listening to an NPR story about differing Western and Eastern beliefs about school and learning–how in this country we tend to believe that someone succeeds in school because they are naturally intelligent, and how many Asian cultures believe that someone succeeds in school through hard work. Intelligence is much less discussed and focused on.

The story described a study that was done with American and Japanese first-graders–they were all given a math problem beyond their grade level to see how long they’d struggle with it.

The American children stopped after 30 seconds (literally) and explained that it was too hard, that they hadn’t gotten to that yet. A classroom of Japanese 6 year olds worked on the problem for the entire hour and only stopped when the researchers intervened because finding something hard, or a struggle, wasn’t a reason to stop.

Interesting difference.

So of course the commentator went on to discuss how there were strengths and weaknesses in both,but I walked away from that story completely enamored with this concept of treating struggle as a normal part of the learning process rather than functioning as a sign one should quit.

Not only because it IS a natural part of the learning process, but because it buys you so much…everything–time, patience, mercy–you don’t have to decide you’re a failure, for instance, if you haven’t mastered something in whatever unreasonable amount of time in which you usually reach that conclusion–it makes you treat all the obstacles in any project as normal.

In terms of creativity and art making, most people I meet think that you’re either a natural talent or you’re not. Which actually doesn’t leave much room for struggle and perseverance.

For instance, a friend of mine confided that she’d like to start drawing again, but she can’t bring herself to do it because her husband is so much better than she is. He also draws all the time.

I reminded her that it would actually be kind of weird (and unfair even) if she could draw as well as he when she never does it and he does it all the time. She smiled ruefully. How can you let yourself start creating if you think that struggle means you should read the writing on the wall and give up?

And if you think about it, it’s actually a kind of weird back-handed compliment to her husband–like, sure, he does it, but he’s naturally good at it, so it’s not an effort somehow–which actually completely disregards his commitment and makes the time he’s put in invisible.

Untying the Knot

Respecting the struggle is respecting yourself. Accepting the struggle is honoring the process.

And yet, when things get hard, it’s so tantalizing to believe, “I guess I don’t have that special knack, that natural talent.” It’s hard to sink into the struggle with loving patience–and one of the reasons it’s hard is because you’re not alone in this belief– it turns out we have a collective cultural belief about ease and talent that makes us judge ourselves harshly and give up too quickly.

It’s hard because you’re not just working to untie the knot of your own confusion and unhelpful beliefs, you’re un-tying yourself from the entire culture’s knot of confusion and unhelpful beliefs.

But just because it’s a struggle to buck the tide of the larger society, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And as our culture ALSO likes to say “If it isn’t hard, it isn’t worth doing.” (Yay for contradiction!)

Do you allow yourself to struggle? Do you expect yourself to be good at something instantly? Do you not like to struggle with art skills in particular because you think you’re should be better at it than you are because you’re arty?

Please share your thoughts in the comments, your experiences might help someone else!

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  1. R.M. Koske says:

    Really excellent food for thought here. I’ve been trying for almost half an hour to comment and can’t seem to put my thoughts in order. In the spirit of not-giving-up, maybe I’ll just drop a few ideas without elaborating?

    My fears of too-harsh “if it isn’t good enough, that’s because you aren’t trying hard enough” attitudes have shaped me to be cautious to only commit to things I’m seriously willing to expend energy on. I’m good at looking at my doctor and saying, “Yes, I should exercise more, but if I promise you I will, I’d be lying to both of us.” Because I know adding exercise would be a struggle and I don’t like doing that to myself.

    I’m not sure I *could* endure through a real struggle. That worries me.

    In creative work, I often respond to struggle by assuming that I’m overtired and need a break. Sometimes this works, sometimes it backfires and I procrastinate about coming back due to fear of the struggle.

    Re: expecting to be good at things right away: I didn’t think I did, but I’m noticing it more and more, especially if I’m in a classroom situation. If I’m not in the top quarter of “picking things up fast”, I’m upset with myself.

    I’m going to be observing myself with this, pondering it a while. Thanks so much for the post.

    Also, glad to hear that you came through the storm well.

  2. Sarah says:

    Ruth Marie–I love your thoughtful comments!!!

  3. Having been through two rounds of chemotherapy, trying to figure out how to return to the studio or DO ANYTHING I took for granted before was, and continues to be, a struggle. Neuropathy in my fingers has made me learn to do work by sight, not touch. (I can feel little, even the computer keys, thus typing is a real pain…) Remembering processes I knew so well before has been difficult; I have to pick up a piece of art and try and dissect it mentally, as if I was looking at a strangers work.
    But it has yielded rewards~~learning that tiny steps forward, day by day, were enough to get to bigger strides. And with this crazy chemo brain, I look on the bright side, being, I may find different ways to use the same products I have used by rote for years.
    I am no longer afraid to try things. I have no idea how long I’ll have to make art, so I just have jumped back in, mistakes and all.
    Sometimes, the hardest things we have to face will bring out the best in us, if we just have support from friends.
    So glad to know you’re safe, and do give yourself time to readjust to the *new reality*~~it’s always different after anything so life-altering.


  4. Sarah says:

    Oh Anne, thank you for sharing your experiences–your clarity and optimism are always appreciated. I’m sorry to hear it’s hard to feel things with your fingertips–as makers we don’t realize, I think, how much we rely on them to guide us. Giant hugs.

  5. Nancy Monson says:

    Hi Sarah,

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that the essence of human life is struggle and suffering. As Zen Buddhists say, we suffer because we want what we don’t have and we don’t want what we do have. The end of suffering comes with acceptance of what is.

    The storm brought up issues of loss of control over life for all of us and made us confront the struggle.

    In terms of art, I love your comment that we should use the struggle as a sign to continue rather than to give up. I do berate myself for not being better at art than I am, but I am trying to practice self-compassion and accept where I am on my creative journey. I am trying to accept what is, while also trying to experiment, improve…and enjoy the journey.


  6. Laura says:

    I heard that story on NPR too and thought it was fascinating. I always give myself a hard time when I don’t learn something as quickly as I think I should. I am working on that, but have a long way to go. That story, and your blog post, are a good reminder of the importance of letting myself struggle through things.

  7. Sarah says:

    Yes, Nancy, I agree–the Buddhists definitely have this right. The journey is really all we’ve got, and, what’s also hard to remember sometimes is that it’s also a pretty darn spectacular journey–maybe this is hard because we’re such a goal oriented culture as well?

  8. Sarah says:

    Laura, I’m so glad you heard that too. In that part of the story about the first-graders, I was so blown away by how young we learn our cultural priorities as well (I guess because they are taught to us through the individuals in our families) and how some of these cultural notions that we do share/believe/pass on just feel like reality—we don’t perceive them as a priority of our particular culture…

  9. Irene says:

    This article is just transcendent. Pure art: taking something specific, finding the universal truth in it, then expressing it a way others can experience. I’m going to print this out and put quotes from it up in my studio and around the house. Thank you for your words of wisdom!

  10. Sarah says:

    Oh, thanks Irene! You made my day!

  11. Deb Dowell says:

    Oh Sarah you are so wise and wonderful, you make me stretch and see and learn, most of all you make all the struggles I am going through a normal part of life, not something to be depressed about or beat myself up for. I never stopped to think that it is our culture to compare and compete and try to find that ( thing) that comes naturally to us. I have been so busy competing and comparing and being disappointed in myself that I have given up. I sit here bewildered as to why I am letting life pass me by when all I have to do is get up and try…. the truth is deep down I don’t beleive in myself and it shows. I’m not sure how to untie the knots….. and it is heartbreaking.
    I am certain however that sitting here doing nothing is miserably painful, I know from experience that I am not a quiter, that I may get really really tired and worn down but I always get back up and try again after some time. I have within me the power to overcome this struggle, it’s ironic that I just thought I wish I were better at it….. it is very good to laugh at myself especially after I cry at myself. I am laughing now, That my friend is one of my greatest gifts or it’s A.D.D. I’m not sure …. love ya Sarah thanks for sharing Beautiful YOU.

  12. Sarah says:

    Oh Deb, thanks for sharing your struggle here so poignantly! I think we can all relate–and we do have such a competitive culture–and I also think we bounce back and forth–experiencing a contradictory mixture of emotions simultaneously–we find space to have a little mercy on ourselves which lets us dare to create or to keep working on a project that is a challenge, but the competitive, comparing voices are often still there–wondering, doubting, goading–but the mercy helps us make them quieter so they don’t get the final say…we shoo them into the corner if you will! And on the days they do win, you remember those other more merciful voices that you know are truer and you get up and create again. You were born to create–it is your birthright!

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