As I entered the first grade, my mother thought it would be a good time to also get me started on some pastime. So she signed me up for piano lessons. I dutifully went by myself once a week to the next building where the piano teacher lived. I learned, practiced, and… after two years came to the conclusion that I was vastly untalented.

I come from a very musical family, albeit not professionally. I have two uncles who could play the piano without a score, even if they heard the piece only once. Moreover, I loved music, so all in all my non-talent “epiphany” was somewhat disappointing. What to do?

In the third grade, we could join the school choir, which I did. I loved it and even discovered that extemporaneous harmonizing came easy to me. This became my joyful extra-curricular activity for the next six years.

The first lesson I learned from this was that “talent” is something we are born with. There’s a “rule of thumb” going around that to become expertly proficient in any field of endeavor, one has to practice approximately 10,000 hours. But “proficiency” is a murky concept. In fact, we have to distinguish between “talent” and “skill”. The 10,000-hour rule relates to skill – another word for turning raw talent into something effective at the highest level. But if one doesn’t have the initial talent, then even 100,000 hours of practice won’t do it.

Which leads to the second lesson: even if we don’t have talent in a field that we love, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still do something, albeit different, in that same field. I couldn’t (still can’t) play the piano; but I do harmonize every chance I get when in a singing environment. (Synagogue is an ideal place for that; God forgives the occasional warble.)

And then there’s the in-between situation: great love mixed with minor talent. I have been playing basketball almost without interruption for close to sixty years – high school varsity, pickup league, semi-pro in Israel for a couple of annum, and twice-a-week full-court games with a steady group of “guys” for the past several decades. That’s way beyond 10,000 hours. The result? I’m a great shooter, a decent passer, a bad rebounder, and a horrible dribbler.

Very, very few of us will ever make it to the top of our profession or “hobby” – but so what? If I compared myself to Michael Jordan, I’d never have the joy of simply doing something that I love, in decent fashion. Indeed, had I actually continued practicing the piano, I might have been “decent” – but the point is not to be decent in something “expected” of you, but to get the most out of yourself in something that you much enjoy.

So here’s a dilemma for each of us to chew on. Which is preferable: to be really good in an activity that we aren’t crazy about? or to be passably decent doing something that we really enjoy? If that sounds like a trivial question regarding hobbies, then try this: what if the question related to your work life? Add to this the monetary compensation issue: the better you are professionally, the more money you’ll make. So, regarding the preference question, now what do you choose to do professionally? Make more money working in a field that “humdrums” you steadily – or earn less money but be excited every day you go to work?

Talent is great, but we shouldn’t let it be the overwhelming consideration in our life decisions – whether regarding which “trivial” hobby to be involved in, or about the “central” profession that we choose to spend decades performing. Muddling along (10,000 hours will raise the muddling to at least middling) while doing something we really love to do is preferable to following our “talent” to an emotional dead end.

As my piano lesson failure taught me – that’s the key to life…

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