Thoughts

Be skeptical of your limitations

I have met many people who claim they aren’t smart. They can’t “do computers”, learn a language, they don’t understand politics, they can’t cook or read long books. These limitations become part of the story they tell themselves about who they are and come to limit not only what they do, but more importantly, what they try and do. How might this happen, and how should we learn to be more sceptical of our limitations?

When I was at school, there were these kids that were… well, different. I don’t know when I first noticed them, it was as if one day they had suddenly always been there. I was surprised to discover some of them were even kids I had known for a while. You would see them lumbering to school under the oppressive weight of mysterious bulging black boxes. They would have special lessons, and take special tests for special grades. They read strange books full of dots and lines and often had to sacrifice lunch breaks to attend the ominous sounding ’PRACTICE’. In general, as far as I could see they didn’t seem to benefit much from all this. Indeed they appeared to be taking the weight of some extra burden the rest of us were grateful to be free from.

They were ‘The Music Kids’.

The one thing I knew for sure about The Music Kids was that I wasn’t one of them. I didn't know why this was, or when it was decided but I assumed at some point some parent or other elderly figures of authority had stared intently into my soul and found I was lacking in whatever it was that was needed to become a Music Kid. I didn’t question it, I don’t even know when it happened. I was happy not to have to sacrifice my lunch break.

There were music classes for everyone of course; even if you weren’t a music kid. They were held in the strange and mysterious Music Room that had a lock on the door and posters featuring the strange writing. Like many things at school these classes seemed both arbitrary and temporary. I remember half-heartedly blowing into a recorder once or twice with the general idea that it should sound like tune to ‘Three Blind Mice’. I don’t remember if it did or not but I certainly never got the feeling the endeavour was leading anywhere. If anything these classes seemed just to affirm what I already knew; I was not a music kid. During those classes I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was trespassing in the realm of the Music Kids; an unwelcome tourist who didn’t know the language or the customs and was, frankly, just embarrassing himself.

I wasn’t a music Kid. Understood; life went on.

Much later when I was about 13 or so I discovered Rock, Heavy Metal and Punk. To be fair others had discovered these things before me but that seemed less significant than when I discovered them. Momentarily inspired by the movie ‘Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey’ I had decided I wanted to play the guitar. If I’m honest, I probably felt even at the time that this had all the characteristics of a temporary enthusiasm rather than a commitment to a life long calling. However one evening I half-heartedly petitioned my parents and was surprised to find the idea got a little traction. Wrapping my pleas in layers of self-delusion I continued my campaign until; much to my surprise; I was awarded an electric guitar for my birthday.

My father, being the pragmatic man he was, made two interesting decisions. The first was not to get me an amplifier for my electric guitar, this was deemed a bridge too far, unnecessary to get started. The second decision was, more helpfully, to insist I took lessons.

Lessons were found with a local blues guitarist my father knew, and I soon found myself bundled into a car, driven across town and left to sit opposite a guy I didn’t know who wanted to teach me music I didn’t like. Blues to my mind was about a billion miles away from Nirvana and Metallica. The sound of my clumsy fingers picking out a tune I didn’t know, in a genre I didn't care about invoked repressed memories of ‘Three Blind Mice’. The whole exercise felt like punishment for the heresy of wanting the guitar in the first place.

For weeks the guitar sat in my room; a symbol of my empty victory. Occasionally I would clumsily strum the strings with little clue as to how it was supposed to be done; the tuneless rattle of the un-amplified strings providing the perfect soundtrack to my feelings on the matter. Just in case this lesson on hollow victories hadn’t been fully understood, I briefly made the mistake of being excited when I was told by my farther that an amplifier had been found for me. The amp in question was a second-hand self-contained PA system that had the remarkable effect of making my guitar sound like a piano. I couldn't imagine a sound less like the shredding rock metal vibe I had dreamed about.

I wasn't a music kid, I had briefly and ill-advisedly forgotten that fundamental truth. The lessons were soon awkwardly abandoned, and the guitar banished to the back of a cupboard. It haunted that cupboard for months; whenever it was glimpsed, it would testify to the shame of my misguided ambition.

However…

Some significant time later a friend, who as it happened was a Music Kid, although I never held it against him, noticed the guitar. As he pulled it out I started rapidly making excuses about it not being any good, and out of tune and… broken, probably, and anyway I didn’t know how to make it work. While I was doing my best to get him to return the sorrowful object to its grave, he had tuned it up and started to play ‘Smell’s like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. I must have looked at him like he was a wizard. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he had managed to turn the thing into a bowl of fruit. It actually sounded like the song. I mean there was no amp or anything and the guitar buzzed like an angry apiary, but I could hear the song. How the hell did he do that! A few moments later he showed me a cord shape and where to put it on the strings. I was clumsy, and it hurt my fingers, but I could actually hear it! That changed everything. In the days, weeks and months that followed I started to practice, and every so often my friend would come over and show me different cords or riffs from the songs we liked. Soon enough I was going to band practice with my friends and looking to buy a better guitar and, much more importantly, an amp… with a distortion channel, a loud one.

I still play to this day.

I didn’t consider myself a music kid; and I still don’t but I could play the guitar and I was no longer an embarrassed tourist in the world of the music kids. However bad it might have been at the start I didn’t care. Slowly picking away at the first few notes of a track I actually liked was the motivation I needed to keep going; and, more importantly, start to enjoy playing. I got better and learned to do some small justice to the metal and rock music I loved; music that I later came to understand, was all based on the Blues. I learned to love the Blues, and Jazz and a lot of other things I didn't understand well enough back then.

Dantzig's Homework

One day In 1939, George Bernard Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class and found two problems written on the board. Assuming these were homework assignments he copied them down and tried to follow the lesson as best he could. Upon looking at the problems later he realised they were tougher than expected; he assumed that he had missed some important information on how to solve them. He set to work solving them; and after a significant effort handed them into his tutor, apologising for how late they were. It wasn't until six weeks later that he discovered the problem were not homework; but in fact were presented to the class as examples of problems no one had ever been able to solve; and he had just solved them both.

Dantzig was undoubtedly a rare intellect who went on to make contributions to industrial engineering, operations research, computer science, economics, and statistics. However; in the famous example of the mistaken homework assignment it wasn't just his intellect that gave him an advantage over the others who had tired to solve it before him; it was the fact that he assumed he should be able to, and indeed was expected to solve them. What other impossible challenges might there be out there that only seem that way because we are told they are imposable.

In conclusion

If you are finding something difficult to learn or understand, you have only learned that the way it has been explained or taught so far didn’t work for you; not that you can’t learn it. Be like a young child; unaware of limitation; curious about everything, entitled to try it all and never ashamed to ask questions. Find a different way to approach it or a different teacher to learn from. Learn to enjoy learning; learn the parts of things that interest you, jump in the deep end, bite off more than you can chew; but never assume you can’t solve impossible problems. Don’t be quick to assume that you aren’t a music kid.

Finally; as an aside I wholeheartedly recommend learning to play a musical instrument. In an increasingly cyber-automatic-online-instant-digital-everything world; sitting down and physically playing a wooden guitar has been a genuine and constant pleasure in my life. I am and will always be very grateful to Gavin, the music kid/wizard who made that possible.