Grand Delusions

Posted on January 8, 2011


“You can accomplish
anything you set your mind to.”

I grew up with that expression and have heard it a hundred times. The pressure! There are countless things I seem to have no talent for, yet somehow it must be because I’m just not trying hard enough. I’m supposed to be good at everything.

When I was well into my forties, I found myself toying with the ridiculous notion that I could learn to play the fiddle. Ridiculous not because of my age, but because I am the least musical person who’s ever lived. I wouldn’t know a B-flat from a bag of figs, yet here I was buying a violin and books and looking for a tutor. The woman I found was part of a large family of renowned local musicians, and had been living in the area her entire life. Under her guidance, I screeched and scratched and eventually reached the point where, if you listened real hard, you might recognize the tune, especially if I told you beforehand which song I’d be playing.

Six months into the endeavor, my instructor announced that she was moving to Korea. I convinced myself it had nothing to do with me, that she would have gone anyway, and continued to practice on my own. But I soon came to the conclusion that I was never going to have anyone tapping their toes, unless it was from a nervous tremor. And after selling the violin on eBay, I could swear I heard scattered applause coming from the entire neighborhood. The truth was, I had ventured into a world that was not mine. There are people who were born to make music. I am not one of them.

I’ve had similar experiences with painting, chess, woodworking, and ballroom dancing. In each case, someone told me that I could excel if I really tried, if I set my mind to it. But part of growing up involves exploring the landscape and figuring out where your boundaries are. This became more difficult, for a while, after Barack Obama was elected. Suddenly people were saying that every kid in America could become president. Really? Look around. Those grown-ups you see were all kids once. Would you want any of them to be president? I mean president of anything.

On the other hand, it’s probably true that everyone has the ability to be great at something. As a group, we have become proficient at a staggering and ever-increasing variety of activities. There are people who’ve devoted their lives to mastering ballet, figure skating, the clarinet, oil painting, acting, cooking, tai chi, filmmaking, gymnastics, and so many other creative endeavors. I listen to a symphony orchestra and am stunned by the individual dedication and anonymous collective effort. Have you ever studied pictures of crop circles? Every one I’ve seen is a perfect work of art. I look at handmade quilts, Russian nesting dolls, or elaborate sand sculptures and think, “I could never do that. How great that someone else can.”

There’s an artist who creates miniature masterpieces by carving ordinary wooden pencils. I feel happier when I look at his work. I feel the same way when I watch a man smoothing out wet concrete and turning it into a perfect sidewalk. Or a woman who buys a run-down storefront and uses the crazy ideas racing around in her mind to transform the place into a bustling coffee shop.

My friend Priya has a blog called Partial View, which features poetry, essays, and photographs. I’m especially drawn to her writing and its vivid imagery, nourished by connections to literature, philosophy, language, and varied life experiences. Her work is a pleasure to read, in part because I cannot put words together the way Priya does. I feel no pressure to try; rather, I celebrate that she can, and that she finds inspiration in so many places.

Another fellow blogger, Val, creates digital paintings and displays them, along with her writing, on a site called Absurd Old Bird. I’ve tried painting and I just don’t have it. I’m glad Val does.

There are people all over the world creating wildly beautiful things. I’ll never discover most of them, and so I’ll never know what I missed. But for every one I manage to find, I’ll be reminded again that I don’t have to be good at everything, or even many things. It’s very likely that whatever I set my mind to accomplish, there’s already someone who’s great at it. They’ve done the work, and all I have to do is appreciate the results. That includes painting, chess, crop circles, sculpture, ballroom dancing, figure skating, gymnastics, and concrete sidewalks. And most of all, fiddle music.

What a relief.