Thursday, March 06, 2014
It takes a lifetime
Sometimes someone makes a pronouncement that seems so profound that part of our brain locks onto it like it's the secret of everlasting life.
We hold to it so hard that all other ideas on the topic seem suddenly small and ridiculous. I might've mentioned this one before, but here is the best example from my own life: As a kid, I listened to my brother Greg pronounce that songwriting was a much more elevated art than whatever the vocalist does with the song, and at the time this made perfect sense to me. He wasn't just arguing that without the song the singer had nothing to sing; he was arguing that writing is more artful than singing.
I adopted that position for the next thirty years or so until I started thinking about the difference between OK singers and good singers, and between good ones and great ones. Just because most people can open their mouths and make sounds come out in different tunes doesn't mean everyone has access to the art of song. Writing and singing are different from each other, but they're both art. But discarding my old idea, inherited from my older brother, came surprisingly hard.
This season we've been watching "True Detective," the Gothic, Woody Harrelson/Matthew McConaughey series on HBO. It's kind of mesmerizing, particularly McConaughey's strange character, Rust Cohle -- a troubled, bright, philosophical loner. In last week's episode, the Harrelson character asked Rust (a decent sketchbook scrawler) if he thought about taking up painting. Rust says, "It's a little late in the game for that. Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing." (Rust is, by the way, VERY good at his job.)
The idea put my brain on halt. Ever since I was a kid, I've held to the idea that it pretty much took an entire lifetime to get halfway good at anything. I've always been sort of surprised by the fixation on youth, especially in areas such as art and writing, because it seemed to me like the good stuff would come with wisdom, and that -- while age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom -- wisdom requires a certain amount of curing that only time can take care of.
So there I was, listing to Rust Cohle mutter, in his handsomely wise way, what I've always thought and what I now worry about: that there really isn't time to get good enough at the things I'd like to be good at, even if I live another 40 years. It's a paralyzing idea.
In the end, it's not a very useful idea if it stops us in our tracks.
Still, I wonder if it isn't a little bit true. Does it take a lifetime to get really good at what you want to accomplish?