“You can be anything you want to be!” goes the New Age pap and though politically I agree that all limitations based on ignorant assumptions about gender, race, age, etc. should be removed brick by brick, on another level, it’s sheer nonsense. If I decided tomorrow I wanted to be the world’s greatest figure skater, I predict that even with the requisite minimum of 10,000 hours of practice, I wouldn’t even get close.
“You can be precisely who you were meant to be!” hits closer to home for me. And though it could sound fatalistic or like pre-destination or too simple in a Popeye “I yam what I yam” kind of way, it’s probably the hardest job we have here on Planet Earth. There’s a particular size and style of shoes that fit us and like Cinderella’s sisters, we could try to jam our feet into the glass slipper, but we’re never going to marry the Prince of who we were meant to be trying to fit into someone else’s shoes.
So the first step is to figure out which shoes fit so we can take that first step. And then start walking in the right direction. And the next step is to take care of them, to shine them and polish them through disciplined attention. If you’re a musician, that means not just relying on some native talent and intuitive feeling, but putting in the work to play through all 12-keys upside-down and backwards, showing up at every opportunity to play with others, learning a thousand tunes or so.
All this inspired by a quote from Charlie Parker, a genius who seemed to have sprung fully born from the head of Zeus, but actually was not that impressive at the beginning and only came into his full flowering after practicing some 10 to 15 hours a day for 3 or 4 years. In an interview with Paul Desmond, he says:
Study is absolutely necessary, all kinds of forms. It’s just like any talent that’s born inside somebody, it’s like a good pair of shoes when you put a shine on it. Schooling just brings out the polish of any talent.
What shoes are you wearing? How do they fit? How much do you walk in them? How often do you shine them? And what if the shoes that fit best are running shoes or flip-flops? Or you prefer to go barefoot?
Well, not all metaphors are perfect.