Thursday, 18 August 2016

Confessions of a Late Worker

Occasionally I receive "Dear Auntie Seraphic" emails from high school students, which I don't encourage as I don't think the under-18 set should be writing to random grown-ups on the internet without their parents' knowledge. They want advice about dating, and I tell them this is for later, their job right now is to study and explore the worlds of mathematics, languages, art, geography, etc. and--by the way--they should  share my email with their mothers or, if they don't get on with their mothers, their favourite aunts.

I have never received a request for advice from a child, which is just as well, but the advice I wish I had got when I was, say, seven was "Talent is just the icing; work makes the cake."

Be it far from me to blame the Parable of the Ten Talents for an overemphasis on personal, unearned ability in the training of the young. I was going to blame a misunderstanding, a wrongful equation of the "ten talents" (by the way, a talent was an enormous weight of coins worth approx $500, 000 US in total) with "God-given abilities", but it would appear that the traditional understanding of the Ten Talents is indeed an exhortation to use your "gifts". (If I am wrong on this, I would very much welcome a correction.)

We are brought up to admire and feel awe for "gift", for seemingly effortless ability. It seems infinitely more precious than stinky old hard work. "She makes it look so easy," we sigh, especially if we ourselves have attempted whatever it is and failed. I am overwhelmed with mingled admiration and envy whenever my husband pronounces French "R". He can purr in the back of his throat with such ease, I bang my head on the dinner table in dismay. Meanwhile, he barely speaks a word of French. It seems a shame that I, not he, have been bitten by the polyglot bug, but there it is.

Perhaps there are exercises for greater control of the back of the throat. And this sentence shows the essential difference between Child Dorothy and Adult Dorothy, for Child Dorothy would not have thought of that. She would have said "I guess I'm not talented in that way" and given up at once. My whole childhood was a long recitation of things I was not talented at: swimming, figure-skating, ballet, piano lessons, gym class, hockey and eventually maths.

Nevertheless, I was singled out and separated from my peers for the school board's "Gifted Program", which meant I spent one day a week at a different school as a guinea pig for educational experiments. Scholastically, I was considered "Gifted"--probably because I had good manners, above-average facility in verbal communications and had not yet--at the age of 9--come up with a bump against x + y = z.

It was very bad for me to be marked out as a Special Snowflake, alone of all my peers. The resentful peers spent the next three years cutting me down to size, and I coped by floating in my teacher-supported daydream of superiority--when I wasn't berating myself for my inability to dance, play piano, enjoy gym class, etc., etc. Despite these physical infirmities, adults thought I was mentally GIFTED in away my classmates weren't, and this set me apart. (We were encouraged in Gifted Program to discuss being marginalized for our giftedness and therefore to wallow in self-pity.)

Fortunately, I really did have a easily won, God-given ability to write stories, and as unpopular as I was, I held my classmates spellbound--there really is no better word for it--when I was asked to read one in front of the class. I tended to write them at the breakfast table the very day they were due; those flashes of inspiration do, in hindsight, seem heaven-sent.

What was missing in my mental make-up was a belief that I could master any skill (or most skills) through concentration and hard work. I just didn't believe it. I didn't connect my brother's skill at the piano with the hours and hours he spent playing. (As an adult, my brother finally bumped into the glass ceiling separating the highly gifted amateur and the world-class professional, a story I'd love him to write about.) He had the ten talents. I had one--and only one.

I wish I had known then that a talent really meant a half-million dollars, not a single shiny coin.

My inability to believe in the power of work continued, atrociously, into university, and I would have been suspended from my undergraduate program--I, the Gifted--had I not switched from Classics to English and used my mostly unearned, God-given talent to write last-minute essays that wrung As and A+s from apparently grateful professors. (God bless them.)  My subsequent M.A. program was a bit of a nightmare, as for the first time in my life, I had to read really, really hard stuff, i.e. Freud and Lacan, and somehow comment intelligibly on what I was later assured was unintelligible.

So when did I finally learn to work? Appropriately enough, at work. At a proper 9-5, first doing incredibly boring office work and then doing rather more interesting, if routine, government office work. But also--and possibly more importantly--in a gym, lifting increasingly heavy weights (starting painfully at 5 lbs) and running on an increasingly fast treadmill. It was at the gym--at the ripe old age of 25--that I saw and knew that effort brought improvement.

I really had no expectations other than growing stronger and (above all) losing weight. I had no ego about weights. I didn't despair because the big guys around could lift 200 lb weights whereas my hardly-used biceps could barely manage to curl five pounds. This was quite a contrast to my high school anguish that my poetry was, next to that of T.S. Eliot, utter rubbish.

Then the same went for boxing, at which I trained for up to 3 hours a session, three nights a week. I had no God-given talent for boxing--I knew enough about boxing to know that--but I could do it out of sheer practice and determination.

Sheer practice and determination improved my languages, too. After gym, work and boxing gym, or nights the boxing gym was shut, I worked through an Italian textbook, a French textbook, a Latin textbook and an Ancient Greek textbook. In short, I did the kind of work I ought to have done as an undergraduate. Eventually I put aside French and Greek and focused on Latin and Italian. My great reward came when I toured Italy with a Contiki tour group and actually spoke Italian. (This alienated me from most of the tour group, in which a strangely adolescent dynamic flourished, but I did not let that ruin my enjoyment and set off on priceless solitary adventures.)

"You were never talented at languages," someone once said to me--rather devastatingly--but it's true. God didn't give me the ear for them, and I wasn't sent to French immersion, and I just plodded through elementary school French classes like an obedient donkey, assuming (wrongly) that this would eventually lead to fluency. Not to get all Pelagian about it--note how we even curse hard work with accusations of heresy--but whatever foreign-language communications I can make came from sheer, determined, forehead-wrinkling, tooth-grinding graft.

Above all the things I wish I knew when I was seven, I wish I knew that. As long as you can work, think, concentrate--as long as you strive--you are not powerless. You are not at the mercy of talent. Macie siłę.

Update: I have been reading a book about horseback riding by a woman who was frightened by horses but decided to spend a year conquering fear.  It is called My Year with a Horse, and the author Hazel Southam has this to say in the postscript: "What's been interesting about these five years is that I've been doing something that I don't naturally excel at. This is very rare. Ask yourself when this happens in your life? I wager that it doesn't." 


  1. The French "r" is a sort of voiced German "ch" as in "ach". See if that helps.

  2. I like this! I would personally add that perhaps the hard work and effort comes more naturally to those who are told that do/might have a gift in that area, or who are at least encouraged and supported. Am i sounding too much like an American millennial now? HA! But, at least one example in my life (
    There are others) such as being ignored on the track team, and then later in life discovering that I'm a rather avid long(ish) distance runner, leads me to believe gift is increased by encouragement and belief. A good surprise!