At the time of this--a less-than-auspicious, but somehow poignant--writing, I am 36 years old. I've had the pleasure of learning a lot of things. I learned Spanish in high school. Or at least enough Spanish to get on at work. I learned Japanese in college. Or at least enough Japanese to impress my friends. I have been writing since I was 14, and in high school and college I picked up sketching, though it was very much just play and my skills needed help. I have a number of drawings that I don't hate, at least. I practiced digital photography, special effects, and makeup for a bit while my friend waited for grad school. I have a BA in English, but I began teaching myself to design websites and program for web development when I was 34. I went from freelance writing and running electric scooters to being a Site Reliability Engineer for an ecommerce platform, all within 2 years (oversimplified).
So when I say that there is no skill out there that can't be gained, no science that can't be understood, and no talent that was not first learned, I really do mean that. Granted, you're not going to understand certain sciences without training, and you're not going to understand APIs if you don't know how the internet works, but this interconnectedness of information and the application of even the most basic skills can lead to great things.
Those That Came Before
Before Bob Ross, there was Bill Alexander. He promoted his art classes with a television show called The Magic of Painting. He stood up in front of a camera while a curious Bob Ross poured whisky on ice. He used the same brush Ross had used to paint houses to block in skies and water scenes. And, for myself, before I ever sat down to an API, or even a good paper, I had plenty of teachers.
When I was in middle school, in order to take art, I had to do a semester of choir. I couldn't get out of it. The Gods only know why that was a paired elective--or maybe I just don't remember the circumstances of why I chose that class. I blew the choir class off every which way I could. I chose to rejoin my art class to create the back drop for our production of The Castaways instead of being on stage. I wish I could say I was a productive member of that team, but I actually really screwed up while painting a skyline, forcing my art teacher to redraw it. I was reduced to curtain raiser, which I was careful not to show up for.
We also had to do sight reading and perform a very short piece on the piano for a grade in front of the class. Both of these required me to catch up on skills I didn't have. I accomplished these assignments by refusing to do them. I made a C in the class. Fortunately our teacher agreed with my assessment of my musical skill, and did not push the issue. My twin was more agreeable to work with, so she was happy to overlook most of the bad behavior that I didn't bother to hide or defend.
Despite how much of a hard time I gave her, and how little I cared about her class, she said something that always stuck with me. She took her place at the piano one day while we were rehearsing The Castaways. She was a small woman, and she stared over the top of the piano at her half-contained room of sixth-graders.
"Remember! If you learn something the wrong way, it takes you twice as long to learn the right way!" she shouted at us. We took it from the top.
Fast forward to senior year of high school. I was running out of required classes and was down to the ones I had been avoiding for three years, so I took Speech class. It was far from what I thought it would be. I was under the assumption we would be addressing learning disabilities, and I didn't have any (that I knew of at the time--they weren't testing little girls for ADHD). Turns out we were working on building the confidence to speak publicly, which I also didn't have a problem with. I love and still love presentations. This is the class I chose to write a Christmas story involving a Clive Barker character, myself, and Sid Vicious. When asked to read mine out loud, our teacher cried.
That wasn't the moment I knew I was a good writer. When I was a teenager, that was never a question. No, once again we had a sort of half-good teacher (in public school, that means she didn't throw anything at us at any point) that said something that wouldn't make much sense to me until much later in life. While were working on a project about anything we wanted as long as it included something about accomplishment, she stood in the front of the class in a purple pant suit, one hand poised on the chalk board and the other hand gesticulating at us.
"Practice makes permanent. No one is perfect, and you'll never be perfect. You could practice your whole life and never be perfect, but if you practice something often, you'll make it permanent."
I filed that away, but there have been a number of occasions for that to resurface, especially in my adult years. It was this little bit of encouragement that I wasn't looking for that invited me to pick up a pencil and start drawing. Was I actually drawing? No. If you could describe what I was doing, it would have been contour practice. I took an image I would find of anything I was interested in and draw the outline to infinitesimal precision. It was easier to do cartoon images, but they weren't exclusive to that.
That same year, I belonged to our school's literary magazine club. We ran a little diddy called Limestone, and gosh it took us a bit to come up with that name. We wanted something that not only encompassed our class, but also celebrated our home town, San Antonio. We ran two issues while I was in the class, one of which we shared with the "students" incarcerated at the Cindy Taylor Cryer Correctional Facility--the SA equivalent of "scared straight", mostly kids of color for whom the system had failed, and was failing, extra hard. They walked the halls with their hands behind their backs, which to me had less to do with the quiet respect they were showing their handlers, and had more to do with mimicking the affect of being in handcuffs. Their front school yard was a gauntlet to prevent run-aways. It was not a school for the underserved and at-risk. These kids had been convicted of felonies, but were not tried as adults. It was a prison for kids to whom crime was a way of life because for half the damn city, there was no other way. My high school was modeled after that same correctional facility.
Our advisor was Marcus Goodyear (I called him "Boss"--I called a lot of my teachers and managers that, actually). He is a good man with an eye for talented writers. We had several of those writers on staff, though I was not one of them--by choice, if that's what you're wondering. I gave up publication--perhaps foolishly--by refusing to share my byline on a very well-received short story, The Vamoose Mathematic Principle. Mr. Goodyear was extremely patient with me, and I tested that as hard as I dared. He was disappointed that I fought back on the byline thing. It was a small thing. Just share the byline, but I couldn't. It was the first and last time I was ever offered publication in a work that was not published on my own.
He would be happy to know I lost a bit of that oppositional edge in college. He stayed positive and encouraged me despite the fact that I was a hopeless genre fiction writer working Le Phantom and Dracula into everything from poetry to term papers. The following encompasses how much I learned from him. I kept this from my Junior Year, in 2003.
Fast forward again to my college days, when I was frustrated with a couple of my professors not showing up to class on days we were supposed to meet. I was angry that I was doing so much work, but had no way to know if what I was doing was correct. As a working class individual raised by a Boomer, all of my work hours were scheduled around my class time. If my professors didn't show up, I could have gone to work. Was I required to do the work if they refused to hold class? One morning, as it was getting hot out, I asked my favorite professor if I was off base, or if I was justified in my frustration. He was another "boss" of mine. Of all the teachers that I was influenced by, knowingly or unknowingly, he did the most for my education. I worked for him briefly as a TA, and he is now one of my dearest friends.
"Well, you are paying for it," he said, taking a pull on his cigarette, "so I could see why that would be annoying. But there's nothing in our terms that says we have to be here every day, and you probably do have to keep doing the work. Whether the prof shows up or not, you still have to take the final."
I stared at the patio flagstones thoughtfully, not having considered that side of it.
"But," he went on, "If you think you're not getting enough out of the classes, and your professors aren't meeting your needs, don't under estimate your ability to self-educate."
Learning How To Learn
It is one thing to be inspired. Learning how to educate yourself is part of the process of learning any new skill. Whether it's design or wet-on-wet, you have to be willing to do two things: take responsibility, and ask good questions. I've got a bit of a hard head. Something that a normal person can master in an hour takes me 3 hours. But learning how to learn is something most adults fail to master by their thirties, and I was no exception.
I had been out of college for 10 years, but I let my mom pay for a data analysis boot camp at UT Austin's McComb's School of Business. It was the best learning how to learn experience I have had to date. With tight deadlines, seemingly impossible challenges, and progressively more difficult requirements, I found the pre-learning I had been doing on my own benefitted me immensely. I had spent three months pre-gaming for the boot camp. It cost $11,000, plus my mom bought me a Macbook Air. Failure was not an option. I was determined to go into it with some idea of what I was doing, knowing that it would reduce the risk of me having to quit. People who relied on our instructors to provide all the answers dropped like flies. Those with at least a month or two of prior experience came out on top. I got out with a B+. I messed up a couple homework assignments. I admit I was pretty tired. I was working day and night shifts as an electric scooter runner and managing a household.
More than learning programming languages (just like painting in wet-on-wet, anyone can pick up a programming language), we learned how to ask good questions when we needed answers. We learned to parse error logs, read tracebacks, troubleshoot and debug, and make the 20% of the knowledge we did have do 80% of our work.
The boot camp experience fast tracked me through a support job, and after a year and six months, I got promoted to Site Reliability Engineering. In this position, I'm facing some of the same challenges as I did in the boot camp. I'm expected to do my fair share of learning, and to do my own research before I ask questions to make sure I'm using all of my resources. I'm still doing outside learning in API writing and the Google Cloud Platform.
"We Learn By Doing"
What I gained from eight months of unemployment art and self-taught web development is exactly what my teachers have been trying to tell me for two-and-a-half decades: that we as individuals are in charge of our own education, that things should be done the right way the first time, and that punishing myself for lack of perfection is pointless.
I don't have control over the economy, or climate change (not all alone), and financially, I'm twisting in the wind. What I do have control over is how much I'm willing to learn, and now I am always learning. Learning how to learn, practicing techniques and learning by doing, and failing at those attempts, teaches you how to find your own answers and solve problems with very little guidance. Learning how to ask questions to make the best use of time is also a skill I use every day.
Unbeknownst to Bob Ross, who was using traditional methods taught at the U.S.O classes to paint his gold pans, there was a better way to quickly create a masterpiece. Though the wet-on-wet technique leveraged a small array of tools and gestures, Ross' previous experience with traditional methods fast-tracked him through color theory, mixing paint, light play and composition. It was not long before Ross was making a name for himself, and using what he had learned to foster a legacy of self-reliance and artistic excitement.
You can read more about Bob Ross and talent as a pursued interest in my next piece, Practice Makes Permanent 2.
(uncredited in the text for their quotes: Carol Welch and Hope Phillips. Unending thanks, as always, to Marcus Goodyear, Ken Burchenal, and Mark Allen--and apologies to everyone for anything I said or did when I was a brat.)
About the Creator
Austin, TX | GrimDark, Fantasy, Horror, Western, and nonfiction | Amazon affiliate and Vocal Ambassador | Tips and hearts appreciated! | Want to see more from me? Consider dropping me a pledge! | RIP Jason David Frank!