On the Dubious Merits of Being “Gifted” and Learning to Do Things the Hard Way…
To get things on the table right up front: going by standardized IQ tests of the ’70s (which is when I last took one), I was listed as being almost, but not quite, a “genius.” Which is to say, I’m not krellborn, but I am smart enough that everything thrown at me by public school was in the “no brainer” category. (Well, except for P.E., but hopefully the reasons for that will become apparent.)
As is often the case with kids in that situation, I learned exactly the wrong lesson from it, which is: “Work is bad. If something requires work, it’s probably not worth doing.” I also learned that if I don’t pick up something immediately, it must be because I’m useless at that thing. Like any kind of sports, for instance.
This really came back to bite me in college, where a lifetime of being smart had left me totally unprepared for having to do things like “study” or “pay attention in class”. I had huge SAT scores and coasted through my pre-college education, but being smart very nearly caused me to flunk out of college. Because I didn’t know how to work, because if something required work, it probably wasn’t worth doing. This is a common problem among people within my band of “not-quite-genius”-ness.
See, “normal” kids don’t have this problem, because they learn “work or fail” early on. By the time they get to college, they’re used to stuff sometimes being hard, and are not afraid of that. Not that they like it, of course, but they are at least trained for it. (I don’t have direct evidence of this, other than observation, but it seems like a pretty reasonable deduction based on what I’ve seen and read.)
Well, after dropping out for a semester, discovering what work was like, and having the fear of God put into me (so to speak), I sucked it up and went back to college and more or less aced it the second time around. Not because I wanted to do well in college, but mostly because I didn’t want to have to get a job. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and so it was that eventually it was time to work or starve, and I’m not a man who tolerates starvation well.
But the general pattern of “if it’s like work, avoid it” continued through my adult life. I did over time become more willing to work at something, but it takes a lot to justify it. Drawing something over and over until I get it right: worth it. Learning to drive a stick shift: not worth it. Dragging myself out of bed in the morning to go to a job in order to keep from losing my house: Worth it. Barely. Mastering the “hard mode” of a video game: not even close.
Recently, however, as I have become more aware of this pattern, I’ve been trying to subvert it. In point of fact, I’ve started seeking out the “hard mode” on things. Because I have found that if I stick with it, and if it’s something that really does matter to me, I will rise to the occasion. And the more “hard stuff” I do, the easier the “easy stuff” gets.
To pick a video game example, as the most direct illustration of this: I have a racing game I enjoy (Outrun 2006 for those who are curious). The game has two modes that I most commonly play: basic “zoom down the course from easy part to hard part and try to beat the time limit” mode, and a more free-form “pick a level and race it over and over again” mode. For a long time, I was unable to beat the basic mode (and I still can’t, for the harder courses), so I would just do the easy courses on the pick-a-level mode because those were relaxing and fun. But one day, I decided that dangit, I wanted to beat that basic mode! So I went to the pick-a-level mode, selected the hardest courses, and started running them over and over instead. It wasn’t as relaxing, nor was it as fun, and I never did do very well. But it did dramatically improve my skill with the game. The next time I went back to the basic mode, I beat it easily.
Of course, anybody who grew up getting props for how hard they worked to master something (instead of for how clever they are), this is a no-brainer. But for me, it was an illuminating moment.
What does all this lead to? Just this: my recently-announced new comic project is gonna be, well, hard. Every page, heck just about every panel, is going to require that I operate on a level comparable to my current best work if it’s going to come off the way I envisage it. I’ve essentially promised myself to do a comic where every page reaches the quality of the “Dover and Comfort V-Day Kiss” pic (or hopefully better, as there are flaws in that piece that still jump out at me every time I look at it). Yes, I can do the work, but great googily-moogily, it’s going to be tough going!
But … on the other hand … if that becomes my daily norm … how much more awesome will my next “level-up” piece be?
That’s not why I chose the look I did for the comic, but if it works, it’ll be a nice perk.
PS: Two bonus points to the first person who names where the post title came from.
EDIT: For more on this topic, see this page.