Pete was reading something about an old Charlie Brown movie this morning and we got talking about how no one would make that movie now. In it, Charlie Brown suffers dissapointment after disappointment only to lose in the end and feel utterly miserable. It is all true to form for poor old Chuck, and it is Linus that sums it up when he reminds Charlie Brown that even though he didn’t win and he feels like he let everyone down – the world didn’t end. It’s small consolation but it is one of the most realistic accounts of childhood that I have ever heard.
So, here’s the problem. Are we doing kids a favour telling them they can do everything they want? That all they have to do is dream big? The problem is, it just isn’t how the world works. Society can work to ensure that there is a basic level playing field so that everyone is free to try something. But just wanting it isn’t enough. Sometimes dedicating your life to something won’t even get you there. And the weird phenomenon of fame for ,well, no reason that I can see, is probably the most destructive thing ever because it suggests that you can have fortune, influence and celebrity just for existing. Which you could argue rather belittles the achievements of the millions of everyday people who actually DO something in life.
I’m writing about this because it reminded me of a conversation I had at a market a while back with someone who mused (as people often do) that they had always wanted to be an illustrator, and asked if it is hard. Of course, there are a lot of hard things about being an illustrator which are easy enough to list. But realistically there are two major impediments.
The first is natural talent. Now I’m not being a bastard – I genuinely believe that anyone can learn to draw. Just as anyone can learn to play music or dance. There are rules you can learn, tricks and shortcuts, set routines and patterns to use that will help someone who has no natural ability whatsoever. What you can’t expect though is that you will be amazing at it. I will never be amazing at design. I am competent but not talented and have no natural flair for it. For some people, having a go at something new will lead them to discover a latent natural ability. But most people will discover that it will take long, hard, tedious work before you get anywhere that is satisfying.
So here’s the second thing. Obsession. Drawing isn’t magical and artists aren’t magicians. Artists are obsessive. They think about the theory and they practise all the time. They see art everywhere – not in galleries but in shapes and colours. They are artists for their entire lives because, even before they recognise that they are doing it as a job, they are practising. And they are continually working out how to be better. They start at the beginning and they just keep on doing it.
I reckon you can get by with one out of two of these things. Obsession without talent will give you the drive to do the hours to get better. Talent without obsession will give you the satisfaction of doing some good work but you will probably never be as good as you could be if you just practised more.
So. Where does that leave us? I say have a go, learn some tricks and get drawing if you want to. Only don’t be discouraged that it is hard and that you don’t get anywhere fast, because it doesn’t work that way and that’s probably what we should be telling kids. It’s a journey – enjoy the small accomplishments, set small immediate goals and bigger long term ones if you want. Take your time and find ways to enjoy it. And if you’re not obsessed with it, don’t expect to turn it into a career. An obsessive compulsion to draw (or do anything in life) will see you through the hard times, a gentle inclination, won’t.
You don’t have to be the best, everything doesn’t have to be easy and fun, you won’t win them all, you may not win anything. But luckily life is about more than that. Just participating is worth something. Maybe not to everyone else, but to you. Charlie Brown needs to remember that before he failed the final test in his movie, he succeeded at a dozen smaller things.
And, call me crazy, I actually like the term epic fail because it has greatness to it. The greatness was trying in the first place.