If There’s One Thing I’m Really Good At It’s…

I have a brother who’s an amazing, caring, wonderful person.  He is not, however, the most professionally successful person you could ever meet.  He works hard, he’s tried lots of different things, he just doesn’t ever get too far.  He made a comment yesterday to the affect that he’s starting to think that the reason he’s so unsuccessful is that he keeps trying to do things that he cannot do.  He didn’t really go into detail but the way I read it, at least the way I read it the first time through, was that he keeps trying to do things he’s not good at.  ( I have no way of knowing (yet) if that is in fact what he meant, but he reads this blog and comments with some amount of regularity so it’s possible we’ll all know before too long.  Until them I’m going to carry on with this post inspired by my interpretation.)

I think that we’d all agree that we’d be best served in life by pursuing those areas in which we do the best.  If we have a particular talent for playing the tuba and no ability whatsoever at playing the flute then it’s probably best to become a tubist (almost certainly not a word) and not a flautist (pronounced floutist and most certainly a word).  And therein lies my problem.  I have no idea what I’m good at.

I’m not writing this in an attempt to garner sympathy.  This is not a compliment fishing expedition.  I know that there are things that I’m good at, lots of them.  Heck, if you catch me on a good day, or even on an average day, I’d probably tell you that I’m a genius and multi-talented and gorgeous to boot.  I even mostly believe all those things.  The problem is that I have no idea whether or not they’re true.

I don’t watch a lot of American Idol but I’ve seen a few episodes here and there, and a few of the episodes I’ve seen are those opening episodes of the new seasons, the ones where you get to see the up and coming stars perform and those other performances.  You know, the ones that are so bad that you can’t believe that those people had the nerve to open their mouths at all.  The thing is, with the possible exception of William Hung (who I really like to believe knew he was awful and just managed to parley that into a “thing” for 15 minutes and a million dollars or so), these people think that they’re good.  They really believe that they can sing, that they are flautists, and that they’re going to make the big time.  They’re just really really wrong.

I work with a nurse that has the same problem.  It’s not that she doesn’t try, it’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s not that she doesn’t have the education, she’s currently working on her masters in nursing.  And she’s not the worst nurse ever, it’s just that she’s a horrible charge nurse.  She doesn’t have the knack, the feeling for it, the je ne sais quoi.  Corporate healthcare being what it is, it doesn’t really matter, there are policies and procedures, checks and balances, set up to prevent catastrophic mistakes even from the most inept of nurses (and her ineptitude doesn’t extend to patient care it’s more of a logistical decision making problem) but the fact remains that this poor woman has devoted her professional life to rising in the ranks of nurses, hoping to eventually do some kind of nurse managing, an area in which she just will not ever excel and where she’ll never be trusted or fully accepted.  The problem is that she doesn’t know that.

And it’s not that she hasn’t been told.  Just like the mocked would be American Idol contestants, she’s been told that she has a problem, she’s been retrained, she’s been put on probation, but much like those tone deaf folks on Idol, she believes in herself.

Just off the top of my head I can come up with several more examples of people around me being totally delusional on one topic or another.  I’m sure you can too.  Which leads me to wonder where my delusion lies.

I’ve spent the last 2 years working (slowly) toward a nursing degree.  And the long range plan is that I’ll spend several more years and A LOT more money carrying on in that vein.  Eventually I’d like to be a trauma NP.  This is a high stress, high acuity career.  I think I’d be good at it, I do have some experience with trauma and critical care and I think I acquitted myself quite well.  But what if I’m like that nurse that I work with?  And, possibly more importantly, how would I know?

If you were to really get to the top of any one discipline then I guess you’d know.  I doubt that Micheal Phelps wonders whether he’s actually a very good swimmer, I imagine that Celine Dion knows that she can carry a tune and Bill Gates is probably aware of his talent in regards to computer programming and business.  But most of us are never going to win gold medals or platinum albums or make trillions of dollars.  So how do we know? Is failing at something really proof that you’re not any good at it?  Is succeeding at something proof that you are?  (William Hung did make some money off his album after all.)

I don’t really have an answer, maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe being happy doing it is all that’s really required.  Maybe just doing something, anything, is good enough.  I’m really not sure.  I am, however, pretty sure that I don’t want to be a struggling flutist when I could rock the tuba.

Has anyone seen my tuba?

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Annette
    Jul 08, 2011 @ 15:56:14

    Really, really tough one.

    In my area–writing–I see it all the time. People who have the passion and drive, but who for whatever reason can’t learn the basics. But they keep trying. If they could LEARN, they’d eventually make it, but these are tuba players, as you’d say. It’s one thing to work your tail off for years and have great success thanks to your passion, but it’s another to work on something that you really do stink at, but you keep trying, because you don’t want to be a failure.

    In your case, I think you’re self-aware enough to figure it out. (For starters, I’m guessing you’ve never had to be retrained or put on probation. Those would be red flags.) If you’re getting signs where people are trying to tell you, then listen and change course. If not, and maybe if you get the occasional positive stroke, keep going.

  2. Melanie Jacobson
    Jul 08, 2011 @ 18:44:17

    I ask myself these things constantly about my own writing.

    Also, your description of the nurse reminds me a lot of Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone.

    Lastly, maybe it doesn’t matter if I can really write or only kind of write. Maybe I should just do what I love.

    So go be a nurse, know what I”m saying?

  3. gojo
    Jul 09, 2011 @ 07:01:07

    “flautist,” but the pronunciation is still “floutist.”

    And “je ne sais quoi.”

    Just trina help.


    Noted and changed. Stupid French. -Al

  4. madhousewife
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 16:04:38

    I doubt very much that you’re like that nurse. As Annette said, if there are no red flags, keep on going. I believe in you!

  5. Toots McBottom Trumpet
    Jul 25, 2011 @ 15:56:14

    Ha ha. You are supremely good at making my favorite sugar cookies. And on more than one occasion, those little discs of happiness have been the only good thing to happen to me. So there. Skip the tuba, make more cookies.

  6. Chris Jones
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 12:39:52

    Well, that was pretty much what I meant. You read me right, which isn’t a surprise.

    Using your model for how to tell if you’re pretty good at something, I can see that I am actually pretty good as a loan officer, because while 80% of the practitioners of my art are now working at Jiffy Lube and WalMart, I am still making a living doing loans. I have supported a family of ten as a single-income earner for almost a decade. So that means, according to the Wonderland Scale, that I’m at least competent, and probably a bit better than that.

    However, I’ve never made it, as in, really gotten escape velocity and threatened to be at the very top of the profession. We’ve never starved (that’s because of a very different person’s heroism), but we’ve never quite gotten out of the hole. My business has not thrived. I know (now) that this is at least partly because my job requires things of me that I suck at. People can feel the suckage, and that makes it hard for them to refer me, and makes it so that the business limps along, but doesn’t explode.

    In order to prosper, I have to be able to figure those things I don’t do well, and either practice hard enough to become good at them (difficult) or offload them to people that ARE good at them, or else I have to stop doing what I do. And in order to understand this, desire isn’t enough. You have to be humble enough to ask people that are complaining about your work to tell you what you need to improve. Lots of books will tell you that you just have to believe hard enough and you’ll make it. But without that humility, you won’t.

    Alongside this, there were little glimmers of things that I wasn’t “doing”, where even my smallest efforts seemed to produce outlandish results. Nobody reads my blog, which is partly my fault, but practically everyone reads my articles. I’ve been published all over, newspapers, magazines, what have you, and still have never had even a single article rejected. Whatever I write is greedily sucked up by the magazine editors. So another part of me asks, “why would I WANT to keep doing something I’m only fairly good at, and have to really struggle with the crappy stuff I suck at, if there were something I was actually excellent at that I could do instead?”

    If I actually believed I could support my family doing it, I daresay I would give it a go. I just don’t. If I were single, or we were childless, I’d probably be writing every day in an abandoned lighthouse on the coast of Maine.

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