Monday, July 2, 2012

Why Talent Matters

Today in America, most people think of "talent" as singing and dancing.   While these are great talents, not everyone has them.   It is important to nurture and develop your own talents.  Plural!

Everyone has talents - or the potential to develop them.   Few people do these days.  We are a nation of talentless and clueless people.   A vast army of ignorance who does little more than consume media and goods and go into debt.   And perhaps the powers-that-be prefer it this way - that we have no talents or skills.   After all, a dependent population is a malleable one.   And the fight for control of our country is a fight for control of the world, essentially.  It is worth it for them to destroy us, to gain the ultimate prize.

Self-empowerment is the path to wealth.   And by this, I don't mean going to a seminar where they make you chant slogans and give you all sorts of happy-talk about how great you are.   No, learning how to actually do things, is the key to getting ahead in life.

Sadly, our educational system is falling down in this regard.   Folks on the Right want to dumb-down our schools into Readin', Writin', and 'Rithmatic (but apparently not spelling) and of course, Football.   Anything not related to passing standardized tests is thrown out the window.   Art?  Gone.  Music?  Gone.  Vocational training?  Gone.   Got to pass those standardized tests so the school can get more money and the teachers can get their incentive pay!

And because teachers demand so much pay (and so much in pensions - it is crazy!) the school has to make cuts, because the taxpayers can't take any more property tax increases.  So we ration education to the bare essentials these days - in many schools - and anything not in the core curriculum is cut out entirely.

There are a whole host of talents that people can have that are of use to society, that, if not nourished, will wither and die.   And yes, there are people who are have low reading scores but can sight-read music.   Maybe what we need to do is develop people's talents rather than try to force them into a standardized test routine.

How do you know what your talents are?  Well, at first, you don't.   And that is why a good school should expose you to all sorts of different stimuli.   Today, we have these "focus schools" where some students go to one place for Math and Science, and another where people go for Art, and yet another where people learn to act and sing.   And they even have Gay high schools now, although I am not sure that is a talent, per se.

I tried everything when I was a kid - well, everything they allowed me to try.   Even back then, vocational training was specialized and off-campus.   The Vo-tech kids took a special bus to a remote learning center and were segregated from the rest of the school.   If you wanted to learn how to rebuild a car engine and study Calculus, that was not in the product mix.

Private schools were no better.  While I did take four years of French (and can successfully mangle that language, as well as Spanish), the private school I went to (briefly) had separate "tracks" for A, B, and C-level students.   If I wanted to take A-level math, I had to take A-level French.    I did well in math, sucked in French.   So they switched me to the C-level French, and I was bored to death in math class.

They did have a great art department (as did my public school) and I learned to sculpt and made a lost-wax casting statue of the art teacher's cat (full size!) that came out pretty good.   Perhaps I was interested more in the process than the art aspect of it.  But I also learned to sketch and draw pretty well- which served me well down the road.

One of the best courses I took in high school was typing (can't you tell?) and I took it only because I wanted to program the school's time-shared computer, and needed something more than hunt-and-peck.   Sadly, many Engineers I meet still cannot type.  It is not hard to learn - you just have to take the course.  That course has served me well in this era of the vanishing Secretary.   I highly recommend it.  Even in this era of tweeting and texting, writers are still in high demand.  And you want to be a successful Engineer or Lawyer, you have to know how to type - and write.

Yes, writing - a skill serves anyone well.   And yet, so few know how to do it.   Our schools today concentrate so much on reading level, but not on writing so much.   It wasn't until college, when I took a course in technical writing that I learned how to write reports and other documents - clearly and directly.  Our teacher gave us some great advice on very practical things - the use of white space for example, and how to use short, concise paragraphs to get a point across.

I also took two semesters of drafting in High School - with a pencil, not a CAD system, which had yet to be invented.  This served me well at both GM and Carrier, where I worked behind a drafting table, designing plant layouts at the former, and circuits at the latter (all before the tender age of 23).

I even studied music - trying to lean the Cello, and even taking piano lessons.   What I learned was, while I liked music, I did not have the innate talent needed to become really good at playing music.   But you don't know unless you try.

And I learned how to fix cars - particularly how to patch together old ones - by owning a series of $50 and $100 cars that were nightmares of rust and broken parts.   It was a hard way to learn, to be sure.  But it was also a way to make inexpensive mistakes, too.   But I do like working with my hands.

Of course, things like Calculus, Physics, and the like I did well in.   Other subjects, I did middling well in.  But I learned what I was good at and not good at.

So I learned to write, and I was good at programming computers, science, math, drawing and drafting and fixing things.  In retrospect, it seems I was being groomed to become a Patent Attorney.

But having talents goes beyond your "job" in life.   You can have hobbies as well as other talents that can save you money, enhance the quality of your life, and well, basically make life worthwhile.

We recently built a pottery studio in our back yard.   A good friend was a contractor, and he drew up all the plans and supervised the basic framing and shell.   I did the inside, as he hates to do sheet-rocking work (I sheetrocked his studio in return, he makes stained glass).  But I've framed up walls before, installed windows, plumbing, wiring, you-name-it.  It isn't hard to do - if you are willing to learn.   But learning is, of course painful.

I received an interesting comment from a reader, to the effect of, "How did you learn to do this?" which struck me as odd.   I mean, if you live long enough, you learn how to frame up a wall, if, by nothing else, watching enough home improvement shows (or reading a few books).

Today, people are helpless about so many things.   Few can fix their own cars (and by this, I don't mean half-assed attempts by 20-somethings to bolt-on "mods"), fix their own houses, or fix their own computers.

Hell, most people can't even fix themselves a meal!   Or even a drink - other than a can of beer.

It is sad, but we are turning into a talentless society.   I see kids all the time today with no real interests in life and no sure what they want to do.   You ask them and they say, "Gee, I dunno, I'm not sure."

Why is this?  I think they are not being challenged enough.  Given a core curriculum of test-passing skills, they are not inspired, unless their talents lie within those narrow fields - or football.  So they lurch off to college to study, well,  what they are not sure.    Something that falls within those test-taking skills areas, which really do not lead directly to a job.

And yet, they likely have skills - skills that I don't have.   Maybe they can play an instrument - or could, if the music program at their school wasn't cancelled.  Or maybe they are an artist.  Or maybe they have language skills - and can speak more than one language.  Or maybe they can write.  Or arrange flowers.  Or bake a cake.  Or rebuild an engine.  Or weld metal.

Some are lucky in that they find these talents later in life, usually through work.   Others are not so lucky.   They never nurture or develop their own talents, instead taking an "office job" pushing paper or pushing buttons on a computer all day long, and then hiring someone to do everything else in their life, including raising their kids, cleaning the house, mowing their lawn, and even cooking their food.  I feel sorry for them - they are hardly living.

And part of this, too, I think is fear of failure.   People chuck anything that they can't be expert at.   If you can't be a rock star, just give up.   It is OK to be mediocre in some things.  In fact, it is far better to be an amateur at something than to just give up entirely.  And it seems to day, in this creeping world of expertism, that people feel they have to be at the top of a game, or not play at all.  And that is sad.

We used to be a nation of do-it-yourselfers.   Today, the mantra is to "leave it to the experts!" - the expert being someone trained, like a chimp, in some narrow field of endeavor to the exclusion of all else in their lives.

And often it seems, people prefer it this way.   They don't want to even try at anything, for fear of failure or to end up looking stupid.  Or they convince themselves they are "too good for that sort of thing" - which is really odd, when they end up basically unemployed or working at minimum-wage jobs.

I told a young person once that typing was  good class to take in high school, as being able to keyboard is essential to writing - and that to get ahead in this world, you have to be able to write.   Her response?  "I don't want to be no damned secretary!"    In her mind, the only people who typed were secretaries, and that was that.   Of course, today, there are very few secretaries anymore.   The era of the Dictaphone is quickly vanishing.   And a Lawyer who cannot type is not seen as an asset, unless he is particularly brilliant.  And the young lady who was "too good" to learn how to type?   Working at a minimum-wage job in a restaurant at age 30.   Glad she didn't fall into that secretary trap!

Or the young man who says that learning to weld is beneath him (I can, can you?).  He goes off to four-year college and gets indifferent grades in indifferent studies, and is working crap jobs and paying off a mountain of student loan debt.   Meanwhile, in the paper are jobs for people who have skills - skills he doesn't have, because he was too good to learn them.   People whine about being unemployed, but they are hiring truck drivers all day long.   You need a CDL - Commercial Driver's License  - and a clean driving record.   These are not too hard to get.   But again, if you asked an "OWS" protester, who complains there are "not enough jobs" he would spit at you if you suggested such a thing.  After all, he is too good for that.

The point is, you never know what skills you will need in life, and acquiring as many as possible is essential to getting ahead.   You never know where one aspect of your training, which may seem pointless or inapplicable, will come in handy later on.   It is like acquiring a diverse set of good tools.  Granted, maybe you use the hammer 90% of the time.  But you really can't do much if your only tool is a hammer.   You have to have other tools in your toolbox - particularly in this day and age where jobs are obsolete in a heartbeat.

Developing only one talent, to the exclusion of all others, is never a good idea - it may turn out there is no demand for that talent.  Moreover, you really don't know what will interest you, or what you are really good at, until you try a few things.  Nurturing your talents is essential to really enjoying life and getting ahead in life.

And it is never too late to start!