It’s not that I’m missing a limb, legally blind, or otherwise handicapped, but I can’t play baseball. I know that many people reading this will say “Anyone can play baseball.” or “It’s as easy as riding a bike.”
But these statements are similar to what I hear in my mind when someone says to me “I can’t draw.”
I think to myself “Anyone can draw. If you can write your name you can draw.” There’s even a TED talk where the speaker proves to the audience that each and every one of them can draw.
But I don’t usually get into this debate with someone when they tell me they can’t draw, because learning any skill is actually a very complicated and amazing thing. In fact, we are so well adapted to learning things that we often take it for granted. For instance, as far as riding a bike goes, I would suggest viewing Smarter Every Day, Episode 133 in which host Destin Sandlin successfully unlearns how to ride a bike. It’s fascinating.
Picasso (always a good source for a pithy quote) put it this way: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
I can’t play baseball simply because I haven’t taken the time to learn what the rules are and taught my body how to interact with the game. I did other things. I learned to draw. Instead of learning the difference between a ball and a strike, or a bat and a base, I learned the difference between Expressionism and Impressionism, the difference between teal and turquoise, or CMYK versus RGB. This put me firmly in the geek category in school, but I didn’t care.
Sports are great because they set up frameworks of thought that can be adapted to other things. When someone who’s played baseball as a child sees the sign on the back of a school bus that says “Keep back 100 feet” they can judge very quickly how far this is, because that’s just a little more than the distance between each base on the diamond. They don’t have to think out how far 100 feet is exactly, it’s almost part of their subconscious. This is true of art as well. It’s all about geometry, mathematics, history, and language. I wish they’d teach this concept to the people who finance education in this country!
It’s the skills we learn that bring us the perspectives we use to interpret the world around us. However, it’s the experts that we somehow compare ourselves to. Most of us can draw a stick figure, but very few of us can draw like Jamie Wyeth because very few of us were lucky enough to be allowed to drop out of junior high school to pursue a life of art. It takes thousands of hours to get good at any one skill, yet instead of taking the time to recognize our own expertise, we indulge the idea that we are somehow less for not knowing another master’s skill.
Many years ago I worked behind the counter at an art supply store in Cambridge MA. One day a woman walked in, in a very determined, but sort of embarrassed state and asked “What does blue and yellow make?”
“Green, why?” I said without skipping a beat.
She didn’t answer — she just thanked me and left the store.
It’s second nature to me what blue and yellow make, and my attention lingered on what had just happened. I had assumed that mixing color was second nature to everyone else as well. But as I reflected on this enigmatic interaction, it occurred to me that she probably didn’t know how to make green… but she probably could do something else really extreme, like execute complex trigonometry equations. Or play baseball.