Would you like to hang-glide over Mount Everest? It's a breeze . . . if you know how to do it.
Hang-gliding over Everest is exactly like making an omelet: until you know how to do it, you don't know how to do it. Speaking foreign languages, playing the violin, swimming, you name it: if it's a skill, you have to learn it in some way or another.
"I have no talent for languages." "Swimming doesn't come naturally to me." "I can't improvise at the cello. It's so difficult!" We all react in this way as regards any number of skills, which vary from person to person. And we feel certain that these skills are eternally out of reach for us. This tends to predetermine the outcome: No languages, no swimming, no improvising. The door is closed!
If you want to, you can open that door.
When it comes to learning skills, the skills themselves are secondary and peripheral. What's primary and central is the attitude that you bring to the job of learning the skills. As soon as you relegate skills to their proper, secondary place, everything becomes easier to learn.
Attitude is a predisposition. It requires no experience, no technique, no knowledge. It only requires the willingness to enter into something. It’s an acknowledgment of infinite possibilities further ahead, while skill means to inhabit one or more of those possibilities. The attitude is malleable, adaptable; specific technical skills are constructed, as it were: tangible realities, defined in gesture, sound, movement, or any other medium.
Children embody the attitude, which for them is as natural as breathing. It combines curiosity and playfulness, and it’s completely nonjudgmental. Is a baby afraid of looking ridiculous? Not for a second. Is a toddler afraid of looking ridiculous? It’s possible, but there are some who love to be funny and to trigger laughter, which is a way of being ridiculous--on purpose.
This baby boy doesn’t have the skill to do the hula hoop, but to him it doesn’t matter one iota. The attitude is everything.
Time passes, and the baby becomes a child. Among other things, “becoming” means developing skills, which is the same as giving individual shape to your underlying attitude.
Time passes some more, and the child becomes a young woman. Skills develop in increments, while the attitude remain constant—and totally independent of the pursuit of skill.
To my eyes, one wonderful thing about these young performers is the no-big-deal ease they display. The ease comes from internalizing instructions and gestures. “This is what I’m going to do. It requires this, this, and this. I’ll practice it all, and I’ll keep practicing forever. I love practicing.” True skill means the absence of struggle, although the learning of a skill may involve struggle—or at least the willingness to fail repeatedly in order to succeed.
Here’s another kid who redefines the pursuit of skill. His performance is perfect in itself, independent of high technical skills set to objective standards. It’s perfect because fully embodied, willed, and borne of love.
He’s responding to a great Brazilian musician, Luiz Gonzaga. Watch the master being perfect in himself, with skills developed over decades of playing, playing, and playing. Gonzaga is surrounded by accomplished pros, but you can be sure all of them were little kids once upon a time, with no skills but plenty of attitude.
Writing, cooking, performing brain surgery, running the country: they’re all the same, in that they require the steady, incremental acquisition of skills . . . plus the attitude without which the skills can’t exist.
Suppose you need to take ten steps to learn the skills you’re aiming for. It’ll go like this:
- Attitude, plus step #1.
- Attitude, plus steps #1 and 2.
- Attitude, plus steps #1 and 2 and 3.
And on, and on.
It’s no use wanting to get to #10 while avoiding #9 or #6 or any intermediate step. And it’s no use wanting to acquire skills without embodying the attitude to begin with. However long it takes you to get there, you’ll do it step by step.
See you at the top of Mount Everest! And don't forget to bring your accordion.
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara