How to be good at stuff

Jelly St Paul's

About two weeks ago I went to a lecture organised by It’s Nice That magazine. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an amazing magazine that is crammed full of interesting stuff.

Speaking that night were the illustrator Mr Bingo, Morag Myerscough (who surely has the best name ever), and Sam Bompas of Bompas and Parr (the amazingly successful jellymongers, who seem to have found the sweet spot between being creative and doing something large companies will pay you lots of money for)

It was really interesting, and nobody spoke for too long, which is always the key to giving a good talk. I can’t remember any speech I’ve heard where I’ve thought ‘Wow, that was great, shame they had to finish after three hours of non-stop talking when the cleaners came round and starting stacking up the chairs’. The best bit was getting to taste some gin and violet jelly that Sam Bompas handed round (as well as sniffing some ether which was passed round on a tea-towel – it smells like nail varnish remover, but apparently was the fashionable way to get high in Victorian times).

It’s always inspiring listening to people who have made a living from being creative. They have so much self-belief – it was interesting to hear Mr Bingo talking about his motivation being not ever having to do a normal, boring office job (also, you have to read his answer to whether he’ll work for free or not)

Mr Bingo's Hate Mail
Hate Mail from Mr Bingo, via riklomas on Flickr

I often wonder – do people who are naturally good at something get confidence from that, and their self-belief sky-rockets? Or does their self-belief enable them to become amazing and not give up? In other words, how do you work out that tricky bit between not being very good, and believing that you have the potential to be a lot better? (This quote from Ira Glass is pretty interesting on the subject)

I remember reading once that the best way to make a living in the arts is just not to give up, as your fellow graduates will eventually be worn down by the pressures of life and the temptation to make an easier living, so if you can stick it out you’ll do okay in the end. But you need a lot of self-belief to do that. I also heard a radio programme once about athletes just before a race. They all, with no exceptions, knew without a shadow of a doubt that they were going to win. They said that it’s impossible to be a top-class athlete if you don’t know it. Maybe you have to train your brain to be able to do that without secretly thinking ‘don’t be ridiculous, only one person can win, the odds are it won’t be you’. At which point you’ve lost already.

Hmmm. I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say. But have you noticed that lots of famous actors will say that they always knew they were going to be famous? They just had a feeling about it? What about all the non-famous people who believed exactly the same thing? How do you walk the tightrope between ridiculous, un-realistic self-belief, and making things happen through sheer force of personality?

It’s an interesting one. Maybe it’s better just to focus on doing what you like and improving it, and ignoring everyone else’s advice.

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3 thoughts on “How to be good at stuff

  1. Michelle Trusttum July 18, 2011 / 8:25 AM

    I’d somehow missed the Chapman Brothers’ quote and yes, it sits very well with Gladwell and Protestants, and the overwhelming majority born pre-1950 (or there abouts).

    Think I will borrow the, ‘that’s a very Ptrotestant thing to say’ ad nauseum. Delicious!

  2. Michelle Trusttum July 15, 2011 / 12:51 AM

    Yes, yes to the Ira Glass quote. Gladwell’s curly hair is springing to mind; that, and his ten thousand hours thesis.

    I know some artists where the more apt description is ‘compulsive’. Self-belief doesn’t seem to come into it. In one particular case, I think extreme narcissism is at play, too. But for the many who have talent, a heartfelt desire and a strong inner critic, working all this out takes a lifetime.

    Enjoying your posts…

    • yesilikethat July 15, 2011 / 10:50 AM

      Hi Michelle, that’s a great point about compulsion. Not being able to NOT do something. I was also thinking about Gladwell’s ten thousand hour thesis, which links to the quote from the Chapman brothers I posted below. It’s so hard to overcome the inner critic though…

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