Learning: Talent vs Practice

Learning something in a new dimension

Moon on New Fallen Snow
Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

I’ve just finished an online course through our local community college, Digital Drawing and Painting I.  Beginning with a long-standing “I can’t draw” belief, I am amazed at what I learned. Digital drawing is different from sitting down with a paper and pencil – but now I even think that is something I could learn too.  The boost of the digital tools just makes it possible to get recognizable and rewarding results sooner.

Deep practice

Throughout the course, I remembered reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code a few years ago.  Coyle studied people who were at the top of various fields – musicians, artists, athletes – and found a similar pattern he called deep practice.  Not only did they schedule time regularly to practice their craft, they had intense concentration when they practiced. They used methods that made their errors more visible – practicing very slowly, practicing the part they got wrong.  They learned to perceive their mistakes, to expect them, and even to welcome them.

This drawing class taught me a bit of that.  Because of my “I can’t draw” credo, I began with a real fear that I might fail the course. I had to remind myself repeatedly that the grade didn’t make any practical difference – that I’m a professor now and probably won’t ever need my GPA again. But one doesn’t get to being a professor by ignoring grades, and I wanted at least to pass.


At the start, the hope that maybe I was wrong – maybe I could draw – was like a shooting star: exciting and beautiful but very fleeting.

The teacher, Victoria Hutson, is excellent. The course had a lot of small lessons, each using different skills. Some were really like drawing on paper. Some involved using the digital tools heavily. All were designed in such a way that – if I paid attention to the directions – I could at least complete the assigned work.  Some seemed – before diving in – completely impossible.  Two things gave me courage to being:  faith in the instructor and the desire not to waste the tuition payment by dropping the class.  Once started, I usually found that something we had already learned helped me, or that it was not as difficult as it seemed.

Each little success added a smidgen to my confidence, enough that I could tackle the next assignment even though it too looked beyond my reach. Every so often, the course had a respite – an assignment to analyze a work of art, or master some conceptual content, or turn in evidence that we had tried out a particular set of digital tools, not that we had accomplished anything with them.  The respite was as important as the tasks: it felt good to coast using skills that were comfortable and familiar.


The online format means that we have seen a video of  the assignment – or something like it – before we try to do it ourselves. In our course videos, lines are drawn smoothly and with ease, sketches resemble their subject, and the digital tools seem to do all the work. Enthusiastic, I would begin, only to draw, in shaky lines, a barely discernible subject using tools that seemed to fight back. I could tell it was not satisfactory.

So I watched the video a second time, noticing details that I had missed on the first. The second try was better than the first.  Perhaps if I just erased this part … and fixed that … it would be good enough to turn in.  At the end, I was more aware of what was wrong with a project than what was right. But I also had some ideas about how to avoid that problem the next time.

Talent vs Practice

The people featured in Coyle’s book probably had some natural talents, physical or mental, that facilitated their success.  Cognitive psychologists Ericsson and Ward at the Human Performance Laboratory are exploring the way beginners and experts think while they are doing a task. The experts are able to pick up a lot more information from the environment, and to process it. The beginner only sees a few central elements, and may not know how to put them together.

The key element of the research, to me, involves the process of moving from beginner to expert.  It required deliberate practice:

“A lot of people like to do things that they’re already good at, but what deliberate practice says is you need to find those things that you are weak at and that there’s room for improvement and that’s the activity you should focus on,” Ericsson says.

I expected problems in my drawing – and that turned out to be an asset. I didn’t have to fool myself that the errors were not there. I had made peace with being imperfect in public – sharing the outcome with my fellow students. But I was strongly motivated not to make the same errors over and over again.

By accident, I was learning the method and mindset of deliberate practice. Before the semester ended, I put in place some structures to help me do just a little bit of visual work – even 15 minutes – and gathered some sources of projects, instruction, and tips to give some shape and focus to the practice.

Learning and The Invisible Backpack

Author Peggy McIntosh refers to the benefits that come from positions of privilege as an invisible backpack, resources on which some people can draw, but which are not available to others. McIntosh’s work has focused on white privilege, but social class packs one’s invisible backpack with a variety of resources.  I became increasingly aware of them in my class.

As we moved into the painting section of the course, we learned how to transform a photograph of a scene to create a “painterly” effect.  While I didn’t know how to do it, I knew what the instructor meant – because my family and schools took me to art museums from an early age, and taught me how to view and appreciate paintings.  I had an easier time achieving the painterly look because the goal was more clear to me – something from the invisible backpack.

A lifetime of listening to art critics on NPR’s news shows was another part of the invisible backpack. Words and phrases, concepts about art – perhaps only partly understood – came back to guide me.  If – no, when – something looked vaguely wrong in a project, I had a pool of ideas for changing it, and mental images against which to measure the results.

It’s impossible to overestimate the subtle impact of already having a degree and a job. I chose to undertake something that was, ultimately, much too hard and far beyond my skills: I couldn’t finish it on time.  If I had been fearful about my GPA or having a bad grade on my transcript, I would have chosen a simpler project – and learned less.

Carrying this into my own classroom

I teach many courses in which the students are involuntary prisoners, the dreaded courses within their major which must be endured but never beloved. Next semester, I teach two of those – Research Methods, and a Basic Statistics course for professionals in other fields.  Students come to these courses with low expectations of their success. Unlike the drawing class, they don’t expect the class to be fun. Still, there should be something that I can take from my own walk on the precipice of failure that will make me better able to teach those classes.

Stay tuned for future developments.

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  1. As I read this post, I thought of the mind block I have when it comes to free-form quilting – the kind that dips and swoops all over the quilt and does curlicues and fancy shapes (while running a large bundle through a regular sewing machine). I took a six-hour workshop a few years back and sobbed through most of it. At various times, I have made bold promises to buckle down and spend 15 minutes a day at it. I think that at some point, you either decide that you want to learn the skill and that you’re willing to devote the time and resources to it (and quit complaining!); or you walk away from it. The trick is how to decide when it’s okay to give up and when it’s not. If I really want to quilt one of my quilts, there are several other methods I can use, and that have served me well; so one particular method is not mission-critical.

    If I were one of your statistics students, I would tell myself that understanding the material would make my credentials stronger. I would leave each class and simply go work practice sets every day for a half hour or so until the underlying logic started appearing. Of course, I loved the statistics courses I took because they were basically applications of first-year algebra; but I was aware that put me in the minority.

    • How glad I am to have a friend who would write “I loved the statistics courses” and even better because of liking algebra.

      Your point about deciding when it’s worth working through the barrier and when it’s not is a good one. This experience helped me recognize – yet again – the difference between a barrier that’s mostly anxiety about looking stupid or failing and a barrier that has more reality to it. You’re right – there are things whose value isn’t worth the time, pain, and drama of learning how to do them.

  2. What you didn’t say–unless I missed it–is WHY you took the course. Is it something yo think you’ll be able to use practically? Or just something you’re interested in, even though you weren’t very confident of mastering it?

    I ask because most people who are studying something they think they won’t need, or something they don’t like or aren’t good at, either are too lazy to use up their time with it, or are too bored. To counter that, they need–put simply–an “aha!” moment where something comes together unexpectedly and charms them.

    If you can find an “aha!” moment in statistics for students who are only there because they have to be, good for you! :-) Perhaps, at the very least, students with organized thinking will enjoy finding the patterns that “feel” good as they come together.

    Keep us posted!

    • Thanks for your comment. Why did I take the course? This professor taught me in two top-notch Digital Photography courses, and I was looking for something uplifting to have going during Fall Semester – always a very difficult time for me as a professor. I focused on the word “digital” and breezed past the word “drawing” – until the class began.

      I do have a need for these skills in the work I’m doing now with visual presentation of data – but I’m not sure that practical need would have pushed me so far past my comfort zone.

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