I like to write. In fact, I like to write so much that I wrote before I could even read. When my early crayon “writings” in my grandfather’s books were discovered, instead of praise, I was spanked. I’m not even sure they really tried hard to read my learned annotations. Their missing the point didn’t deter me though. I like words! I like writing poetry, essays, stories, plays, and even novels. Words help human beings communicate and collaborate. However…
In this essay, I’d like to mention some instances of wordless success.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, we spent most of the summer playing baseball, basketball, and football. I had never played golf nor paid much attention to it as a kid and when it came on TV I walked by with hardly a glance. At that point in my life, it was really only a sport if there was a good chance to smash into one of the other players. I had never touched a golf club or a golf ball until one summer day when I was about ten, one of the kids brought one of his uncle’s golf clubs to our baseball field along with a tee and a golf ball. He demonstrated how to hit the ball and showed us how to put our hands on the club. Kids took turns hitting the ball and retrieving it for another go.
When it came to my turn, I mainly remember just loving the shiny wood of the club. I loved wooden baseball bats back then, but the driver!! Wow! That was in a whole different category of cool. You didn’t need to be an adult or a golfer to know that! It shone opalesquely. I teed up the golf ball, and swung the unfamiliar and impossibly long club.
The resulting sound – exquisite! An explosion! A rifle shot. A cousin of the crack of a home run shot into the upper deck. But more penetrating. More elegant. More poignant.
We all looked up in amazement. My golf shot started low and straight. Then it rose and rose and disappeared far beyond the dirt road that marked the outer limit of our makeshift baseball field. It rose over the hill beyond the road and disappeared into the field beyond. There was no hope of retrieving the golfball. None of us even suggested trying. My shot was wordless perfection.
Fast forward to graduate school. In the summer afternoons, I got into the habit of playing frisbee with the neighbors. One day, I parked my car and ran into the back yard. My neighbor saw me and threw me the frisbee, I noticed that they had placed an empty beer can atop a utility box about a hundred feet away. I caught the frisbee on the run and threw it with the next step. The frisbee sailed with a nice arc and smacked the beer can right off. My neighbors said that they had been trying to knock that beer can off for about a half hour. My throw was wordless perfection.
Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, several of my friends and classmates like puzzles as much as I did. One such puzzle consisted of a set of triangular “board” with a regular pattern of holes. There were pegs in every hole save one. The goal was to “jump” pegs much as one does in checkers and then remove that peg from the board. Eventually, one was supposed to end up with one and only one peg. I worked on it for awhile and thought about various strategies and moves. I couldn’t seem to solve it. My phone rang. I picked it up and conversed with my friend. Meanwhile, I toyed with the puzzle while my “mind” was on the conversation. I toyed with the puzzle and solved it. Wordless perfection.
A few months or weeks later, we worked on another puzzle. This one consisted of four cubes (aka
“instant insanity”). Each cube had a different arrangement of colors. The goal was to arrange the cubes so that every “row” of faces had four different colors. I fiddled with the puzzle trying out various strategies and noting various symmetries and asymmetries. Once again, someone called and interrupted my musings. Again, I idly fiddled around with the cubes while talking on the phone. And solved it. Wordless perfection strikes again!
Fast forward four decades. For best results, borrow Hermione’s time-turner. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on your imagination.
Betty Edwards (“Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”) gave a plenary address at one of the Association of Computing Machinery’s premier conferences: CHI. Among other things, she showed example after example of how much people improved in their drawing skills based on her methods. A few months later, it so happened that my wife and I had an opportunity to go to one of her five day classes.
I would have to honestly say, that course was one of the best educational experiences of my life! It was an immensely pleasurable experience in and of itself. Beyond that, the results in terms of improved drawing skills were dramatic. And, as if that were not enough, I looked at the world differently. I noticed visual things about the environment that I had not seen before.
The essence of the method Betty Edwards uses is to get you to observe and draw — while “shutting up” or “turning off” the part of your brain (or mind) that talks and plans and categorizes. In one exercise, for instance, we took a line drawing and turned it upside down. Then, we copied that image onto our pad of paper by carefully observing and drawing what we saw. She also instructed us not to try to “guess” what they were drawing, but just to copy the line. When every line had been copied, we turned the drawings right side up again. The result jolted me! I had created an excellent likeness of the original! The quality stunned me. Wordless Perfection.
There’s a larger lesson here, too.
I had within me, the capacity to make a very decent copy of a drawing, but had never achieved that result for 60 years! All it took was five minutes of instruction to enable me to achieve that.
What else is like that? Imagine that we have, not just one, but a dozen or even a dozen dozen “hidden talents.” Some of them, like drawing, may depend more on Not-Doing than on Doing; on Being rather than Achieving.
There was a longer lasting side-effect of the drawing course. My day to day life, as is typical of most achievement-driven people had been very much “goal-driven” and there was always an ongoing plan and dialogue. After having learned to turn that off in order to draw, I can also turn it off in order to see, whether or not I draw. Seeing (or otherwise sensing or feeling) in the moment also makes me much less judgmental. If you decide to think about the physical appearance of people in terms of how interesting they would be to draw, you end up with an entirely different way of thinking about people’s appearance.
What are your hidden talents?
The Invisibility Cloak of Habit
How the Nightingale Learned to Sing