Friday, July 31, 2009

Talent is Long Patience

Photography has been a hobby of mine since my dad took money I saved for a Minox (a spy camera) and instead bought me an Exacta 35mm SLR camera. I was very disappointed that he got that camera. However, the disappointment went away as I fell in love with 35 mm photography. Back then I developed and printed my own B&W film. To see some of my photography (a few go back to when I got that Exacta in 1972) check out my photoblog Perle's Vision.
BTW Exacta invented the penta prism which allows one to look thought the eyepiece of the standard SLR and see the image right side up. That's the bump on the top of a SLR.
I bring this up because I get a lot of different photography newsletters and one lead me to a photographer's web site and a discussion about the myth of talent. On that page I found this quote:
“Talent is long patience.” – Gustave Flaubert (writer of Madame Bovary)
This resonated with me because of something I've always remembered from late M. Scott Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled. There's a part of the book where Dr. Peck discusses his complete and total lack of mechanical aptitude, talent if you will.

One day he walks up to a neighbor who is taking apart a lawn mower. Peck expresses his astonishment that his neighbor can do this. He writes that his neighbor looked up and with the wisdom of Job says, "Scott, your problem is you don't take the time." To which Peck writes how angry he was because he knew the problem was a lack of talent.

Sometime later a female patient (Peck was a psychiatrist) returns to his office complaining that she can't release the parking brake on her car and expects that Dr. Peck, as a male, will be able to assist. So he goes out to see the car and decides to take his neighbor's advice. So he gets under the dashboard and gets comfortable (how is that possible?). Looking around he describes what he sees and I knew it was the kind of parking break where there is a peddle one pushes to set the break and a handle one pulls on to release it. Scott sees the pin that is holding the ratcheting peddle and releases the pin.

What I learned from this is that aptitude, ability or call it talent is often the patience to continue to learn some skill or art or...

I have seen this in my students over the years. Some pick up the skill to perform a manipulation easily. Typically they are athletes and thus already have, though patience gained, a large body of psychomotor skills. They are the uncommon and lucky few.

There are those then who do not pick up the skill quickly. I have found that these people then self select into two groups. One group lacks the "long patience" and gives up. These people often never get very good at the skills we teach. I call these people the quitters.

In the 1990s when I was first at the University of Bridgeport I would do locum tenens (cover another doctor's practice while they were on vacation). I was in this one doctor's office where the first patient I adjusted made a sound of surprise. I was surprised myself thinking I hurt the patient. Instead they said that they were shocked that the manipulation did not hurt. They said that usually it took their regular doctor multiple tries to adjust their neck (the doctor and the patients had this erroneous idea that manipulation is only successful if accompanied by a popping noise). I said I was lucky, one does not want to embarrass the doc one is covering for. However, almost every patient I performed a manipulation on said the same thing to me. I came to realize that this doctor couldn't properly perform a manipulation after 10 years more of practice than I had. The amazing thing is patients still went to him shows how poor patients are at picking good doctors. I figure a good chiropractor has good hands, good mind and a good heart. I hope at least he had the other two.

The final group of students are those who do not pick up the skills easily but persist in their attempts to acquire the skill - they have Flaubert's "long patience". I know this path because as a student at The Texas Chiropractic College, starting in 1979, I persisted for almost a semester and a half of not being able to perform a manipulation until the break through came for me. I had made a different decision than the quitters. I thought if HE (my teacher) could do it, then so can I. Never really one with considerable athletic ability I learned that persistence was the key. But one must have patience to persist through times of poor performance (and as a child ridicule for air balls in basketball and missed pop flies etc.).

Last year, I had a student, a few months from graduation, lament an unacceptable skill level at some manipulative procedures we teach at UBCC. I told the student that this was a good thing and I was pleased to hear how much this distressed the student. The student was shocked that I'd say that. I continued, the fact that the student was greatly distressed by the lack of skill means that unlike that doctor I did locum for, the student's distress would motivate attempts at improvement.

I think life should be process where by we are continually improving and trying to get more talented with the long patience of trying to do better. And no I'm not yet happy with my skills and knowledge as a doctor, teacher, friend, father, husband or even photographer, and that's a really good thing!


A couple of other articles on the need to practice

Secrets of Greatness
The Expert Mind


  1. "Talent is nothing more than an acute knowledge of how you come across."

  2. John,

    Thanks for the comment. What does that quote come from?

    Do you not think that there are people, for example, who exhibit what some would call talent at spinal manipulation that is at a different level than others?

  3. No doubt about it Stephen. That comment is one of my own and, although I think talent in the arts is somewhat dependent on the perception of others and therefore "how you come across" I recognize it is obviously much more than that. For example, while we might be attracted to a musician on stage due to his mannerisms or charisma we might also be attracted by his luck at having perfect pitch or by a voice we admire. If he also writes the music we might be blown away by his song-writing abilities which is a different type of talent.

    To answer your question I think athletes and musicians who's neuro-muscular systems are more finely tuned would be more talented at manipulation because it is so movement-dependent.

  4. John,
    Nice quote then.
    I agree about talent from the perspective of looking at artists. I remember seeing Melissa Etheridge perform on Letterman's show. The performance got me hooked on her music.

    BTW I don't know how many people saw this but Joshua Bell and the Washington Post did a little experiment. Bell performed at a Metro station incognito. Here's one of the greatest talents with a violin but he was ignored by 1831 people.