Monday, April 07, 2014
Salieri and Me
Closer to my professional life, I discovered in college that my brain’s “math engine” didn’t work very well beyond matrix algebra and calculus. I was the only science or engineering major I knew whose verbal SAT scores were higher than the math scores. I always felt that my “real” science major friends could “think in math,” while I somehow had to emulate the math in my verbal brain, a trick that didn’t work very well for abstract subjects like quantum mechanics. When I did software development early in my career, it was similar. Basic algorithm development, coding, and debugging were all OK – but despite my physics and optics background, I just could not get my head around complex optical analysis algorithms (or invent new ones, as I was expected to do). Is this why I eventually ended up in marketing and sales (albeit for some highly technical software products for optical science and engineering)?
While this is only a partial list, right away you might spot a problem: too many interests. If you dabble in a lot of different things, how can you expect to be an expert in any of them? That is a good point, but my interests are my interests, and I have trouble just dropping something I love (though I have pretty much done this with flying, a demanding hobby where dabbling is dangerous). Other conclusions might follow. Things that seem effortless seldom really are. You have probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule. I’m not sure it’s exactly a rule, but the idea is that you need to do something for 10,000 hours or more before you can expect to be really fluent or expert in it. My most recent flight instructor probably has 10,000 hours of flight time (I have about 125). Paul Simon has probably written 1000 or more songs – I have written maybe 200. I almost never practice playing the guitar (when I try, I usually end up writing a song fragment instead – or if I’m lucky, maybe a complete song). Although I can still recall chord progressions and lyrics for songs I learned in my teens or twenties, I can hardly remember new songs I learned or practiced a couple of months ago (including my own songs!). Fortunately I am quite good at making and playing from lyric/chord sheets!
I love Mozart’s music, and I’m a big fan of the movie Amadeus, even though it is only loosely based on Mozart’s life, with many aspects exaggerated for dramatic effect. One of these is Salieri’s extreme jealousy of Mozart’s musical talent, even to the point of working to sabotage Mozart’s career. The evidence suggests otherwise, but it makes for a good story, and for some good lines for Salieri. In the movie and in real life, Salieri did very well as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II. But in the movie, he compares his own musical gifts to those of Mozart, and comes up short: “All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing... and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”
Forget Mozart, I can hardly compare myself musically to Salieri, a professional who wrote more than 40 popular operas and who enjoyed status, fame and fortune until his death in 1825 at the ripe (for the time) old age of 75. But I sometimes share his frustration in seeing what is possible in a Mozart, Paul Simon, or Eric Clapton, even though I have not begun to put in the time or effort (not to mention the prerequisite talent) to create or achieve at such a sublime level. There’s a character in The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (no relation) who says, “You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” I don’t think I have really done even that – if I had, surely I would be working on songwriting, Japanese, higher math, guitar, something, every single day. But many days I just go to work, or if I’m home, I hang out, I read a book, watch a movie, or play around with apps on my iPad. And check Facebook five or six times. Or 10. Of course I do have the serial obsession thing going on – when I do lock onto a well-defined project (like getting my pilot’s license or recording an album), I manage to focus on that pretty tenaciously for weeks or months at a time (which is not always a good thing).
But aside from English (speaking, reading, and maybe writing), I have achieved fluency in one important skill: rationalization! After beating myself up (rather gently) for a few paragraphs, I can turn around and think things like “lifelong learning is fun” or “creativity is its own reward” (as argued in this lovely letter from Kurt Vonnegut), and congratulate myself for at least trying to speak foreign languages, create music, understand general relativity, or fly airplanes (despite my relatively poor sense of direction and lousy parallel parking skills).
Finally, I cannot end this blog post without acknowledging that to a high level of approximation, I’m whining here. Anyone who has had a chance to write, play, and record music with amazing friends and musicians, learn to fly with dedicated and talented flight instructors, and travel enough to have found French and Japanese worth studying – shouldn’t be complaining! But hey, it's a blog.