Monday, May 09, 2011


It is my belief that real happiness comes from developing one's talent. Mere success and pleasure are not enough. You have to feel like you are getting better at something and this skill must be an essential part of you. The difference between a mere skill and a talent has to do precisely with how important it is to your identity.

When I was an undergraduate, I was the founding member of a rock band. I had learned to play violin as a child, and began to play double bass in grade six, with the intention of playing bass in the junior high school stage band. You didn't get into the stage band until grade eight, and the normal thing to do was to play tuba in the concert band, starting in grade 7, if you were going to play bass (same sheet music). So I learned how to be play tuba and then electric bass. I had imagined that I would play upright (acoustic) bass at some point, I think, but as a teenager it was pretty cool to have an "electric guitar" in my room, even if it was a "just a bass".

In high school, however, I didn't join the school band. I decided to focus on electives that would prepare me for business school (I was determined to become a captain of industry, if you can believe it). So it wasn't until I had gotten into university, changed my major from pre-commerce to history, and then to philosophy, that I thought very seriously about music again. In 1991, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" inspired everyone with even just a little bit of a talent to start a band. (I'm not saying Nirvana wasn't a very talented band, but they did make it sound easy!) I was recruited by a self-taught and very talented guitarist to be his bassist. He had written some songs, and for a short while, if I recall, we even had a drummer. Dave's Dog never did play for an audience, but there were times when I thought we were pretty good.

I was also developing my talent for philosophy at that time. And I remember distinctly the moment when I "gave up rock and rock roll" to become a scholar. When I moved to Europe to go to graduate school, I was fully committed (arguably a bit too committed) to my identity as philosopher (as many philosophy students are). At one point, I declined an invitation to play jazz once a week with some guys who did it just as a hobby and needed a bassist. (I didn't have an instrument, for one thing.) But then, not long ago, my wife brought her guitar home from her parents' house. I had learned three or four chords in college, mainly in an attempt to impress girls, and I would now pick up my wife's guitar once in awhile and strum it. For a time, this happened almost daily.

Our children were getting old enough to learn an instrument of their own. We settled on piano, and bought a small electric one (we live in an apartment). My talent here was a little less developed than my guitar playing, but I also soon found myself playing almost daily. I even took some lessons for a while as part of my project of learning how to do things with my hands. (At that time, I also did some drawing.) Today, I play a little piano every night, and I'm improving slowly and pleasantly.

I have clearly been ambivalent about my musical abilities. It is not, I would argue, one of my "talents", precisely because I have not subjected myself to any particular discipline in developing my skills in this area. Entering middle age, I do vaguely regret it. (I'm sure many people in my generation look on their twenties as a wasted opportunity, indeed, a series of wasted opportunities, to get really good at something worthwhile.) But this post is not about the neglected musician in me, it is about priorities. I tell this story as an example of something that I have devoted some time to throughout my life, but which has never been a priority. It has been a pleasant diversion.

But the point is that it really does take up some of my time. And my musical identity is, in fact, getting some love from the rest of me these days. Similarly, I do find time, two or three times a week, to go for a run. And I make sure my children get to their own piano lessons and skating practices, etc. That is, any impartial observer of my life will be able to read my values off what I do. I am the only one who can see everything I do, however, the only one who knows what I devote the balance of my time to.

This brings me to my point. Like any parent, I hope my children can see that they are important to me simply by the regularity of the attention I devote to them, and to ensuring that they get to the places they want to be (sport, music, school, play dates, etc.) They know I also have "work", but there is very distinctly "room for them" in my life. The musician in me also looks at how I spend my days, and he learns from this how important he is to me. He has to accept that he is not very important, of course. I treat him like a good but not very central colleague; I'm friendly with him and I keep my appointments, such as they are.

But the writer in me rightly looks at all these other relationships I have with some measure of jealousy. If I can jog three times a week, I better also keep this appointment to write a blog post three times a week. If I give myself time to develop my amateur "talent" as a pianist, I better well set aside time to develop my ability as a professional writer. Since I am a scholar, my talent for writing should be very central to my identity. And I must therefore devote serious amounts of time to it. I must see it as a core component of my talent for research.

Scholars do not need to be great poets or novelists; they need only be talented writers of academic prose. They don't need to be the best academic writers of their generation, but they need to see it as a core talent. If I didn't think my ability to write well (and to write good academic English, no less) was important, I would be leaving out an important part of my scholarly identity. An important part of me would feel neglected, in precisely the way that I don't feel like I'm neglecting anything very important by not developing my drawing skills or my musical ability. It's a question of priorities.

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