Doing what comes unnaturally

I was given a nugget of wisdom this week that left me scratching my head. The friendly advice was that you should only ever do what you are naturally good at. The person  explained to me that it’s a waste to spend time on anything for which you have no natural talent. For some people this advice might be insightful and helpful. But I feel that nothing could be more dangerous to the creative mind. 


There have been many exceptionally talented people in this world who reached incredible success. I don’t believe however that the same is true for creative people. Talent is fluky, it often avoids any sort of rhyme or reason. Being good at one thing guarantees nothing else. For example, theoretically  — due to my excellence in music — I should be good at math as well. I have, however, so little talent for math as to be laughable. Despite other examples of talented musicians/mathematicians many musicians I know are poor at math.


For the creative mind, challenging ourselves to do something we are bad at, however frustrating it may be, allows us to explore the potential of our creative power. If you only ever do one section of one thing, no matter how well you do it, there will always be something missing from your work. My favourite example of this is Eric Whitacre. Whitacre is famous for his minimalistic choral compositions full of cluster chords. He has become very good at writing a single type of sub section of music. His music is beautiful, but entirely lacks the depth or content of his contemporaries. Arvo Pärt, a composer whose style Whitacre clearly has drawn from, has been and continues to be unequivocally driven to try new things. His music ranges in both style and genre, and captures something that is always missing from Whitacre’s work. A friend of mine who jokes about Whitacre once saw I was working a piece by Whitacre and said “Oh, I see you’re doing that one piece by Eric Whitacre.” He paused, and quietly added “they all sound the same.”


Okay, so maybe a composer is “better” if they try different styles, what about something more concrete. Think about this. If an artist wants to get better do they draw what they are best at or worst? Obviously if they only ever practice their best subjects those will get better, but they won’t be a better artist. I’m not suggesting that the artist go and become an expert basketball player, although maybe what they really should be doing is getting outside and getting some exercise.


What I’m saying is that to be well rounded we have to do what we are both good AND bad at. Not to mention the interconnectivity of creativity with numerous other disciplines suggests that the best way of getting better is not just doing what is directly related to your field, but also totally unrelated.


If for no other reason experiencing things that don’t come easily can help you to appreciate those that do.


So, by all means, get out there and do something hard. Challenge yourself to do something that you have no talent in, and see where it takes you.


Duncan: I think this piece needs a bit more work. It’s a bit wordy and there are some gaps in evidence. I’d be happy to take a look at the next draft, if you like. Love, mom