What’s the biggest predictor of childhood musical genius? Innate ability? Hours of practise? Parents are musicians? Nope.
The single biggest factor is whether the kids see themselves as long or short term committed. If a child self-identifies as very long term committed to music ie. sees themselves as ‘a musician’ even though they aren’t, then this far outweighs other factors. To put it into perspective: a child who calls him or herself ‘a musician’, who practises a mere thirty minutes a week will outperform any child over any time period who practises an hour and a half a week but who doesn't self-identify with the idea of being a musician. Practise doesn’t make perfect. Perfect plus some practise makes better sense. You need the self-image first, not last. Don’t we all know this…despite its counter-cause-and-effect feel. It’s the way the real and mysterious world works. Nicholson Baker wrote how he called himself a writer even though he hadn’t written anything. I called myself a poet long before I wrote any half decent poetry. It was the image of being a poet that kept me going , but more than that it gave a scale and context to my efforts. How many pop stars call themselves musicians and then learn to play their instruments? Loads.
This insight about youthful excellence by the way comes from the superbly suggestive and informative ‘The talent code’ by Daniel Coyle. It’s full of great stuff.
Anyway- back to the main idea. We can see that ability or great talent is, in fact, an act of impersonation. Is it any surprise that great actors turn out to achieve high standards in reality- Robert De Niro was considered by real boxing champ Jake La Motta to be ‘in the top 10 boxers in America’. This was after intensive coaching for his role as… world champion boxer Jake La Motta. Stephen Fry, in his autobiographical novel ‘The Liar’ gives a clue to his multi-talentedness- the book’s theme is that the hero despite his high achievements always feels like a fraud who is merely acting the part, and will be found out at any moment, in other words, he acts the part and then becomes it.
The clue for potential polymaths is to find out the key to self-identifying with any talent they want to achieve. This is where intensive training comes in. I did aikido three times a week for an hour at a time- but I still didn’t think of myself as a martial artist. I upped that to five days a week for five hours a day and everything changed. Over a year I got a lot lot better. But it wasn’t the practise, or only the practise, it was the fact that this was what I did so this must be what I was.
By meeting and becoming ordinary friends with people who do what you want to do you learn how ‘they aren’t that special’ ie. they are human after all. Which means you can impersonate them and become that role too. Why are so many top tennis players eastern European? Because just by coming from Czech/Serbia/Croatia you are already halfway there. I mean if you’re Brazilian you must be good at football right? This may be half humorous, but it's more than half-true.
Now, the big question is, is there a way to switch on the ‘I am a…’ button so that mastery of a subject is assured? I think there is. Start with the following:
1)Immerse yourself in the subject to one level above that at which you wish to compete.
2) Make ordinary friends with people doing what you want to do. See what they do in their regular lives not just when they are doing what they are doing best.
3) Do your thing – practise conjures up the wrong image- what I think sums it up better is ‘apply your own creativity to your own improvement’. You have to jump higher. Figure out your own way to do this first. Seek help too, wherever you can find it, but in the end you have to personalise your improvement, ‘find your own way’ to do what everyone else is doing ‘the standard way’- if doing it the standard way doesn’t come naturally at first (and it may later).
4) From the beginning call yourself ‘a writer’, ‘a poet’, ‘a photographer’, ‘an athlete’, ‘a pilot’. Do what you have to, in terms of improvised sleight of hand to half convince yourself, three-quarters convince yourself, to be able to convince others at a party, say, that yes you really are that role. And then you’ll become it. If that’s what you want.