Don’t Take Lessons From A Natural

Most of us aren’t naturals.* 

We develop abilities (like playing the guitar or writing books) through intentional training and repetition. 

Naturals don’t. 

My old friend Harold was a musical savant. He had a photographic musical memory, played multiple instruments like a rock star, and never had to take a lesson. He didn’t even know the names of the guitar strings. 

When asked which was easier to play, guitar or drums, he answered: “They’re both easy. On guitar you go like this, and on drums you go like that.” 

(Music was easy for him but other life things weren’t.)

Isaac Asimov was a natural, too. He wrote over 500 science fiction books. It was so effortless for him that when he made a mistake, it was faster to type an entirely new story from scratch instead of revising it. 

In the preface to the reprinting of Nightfall, the breakthrough short story he wrote at age 21, he confessed:

“As far as writing is concerned, I am a complete and utter primitive. I have no formal training at all and to this day I don’t know How To Write.”

That doesn’t help the rest of us. 

Naturals can’t teach because they never had to learn. They didn’t go through a series of steps to get there. They can’t relate. They were never not amazing. 

(Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a not-natural who simply worked really hard — and someone who is a mutant. Many naturals pretend to be not-naturals, and the other way around.) 

Some naturals try to earn a living by giving lessons or seminars. They sure can be fun, but there’s no educational value. Famous but untrained musicians invent clever, pseudoscientific teaching methods, disregarding the system that has successfully trained classical musicians for centuries. “Learning should be fun! Anyone can play!” But there’s no secret they can share to turn us into them. (See Jeff Berlin’s rants.)

If we’re not careful, watching naturals can be discouraging. We might think, “I would need to work reaaaaaaally hard to be that.” So we assume that’s what they must have done. 

I used to want to be as confident, quick, and well-spoken as Frank Zappa. I subconsciously assumed he developed those freakish traits through effort. But of course, he didn’t. 

Here’s the good news for not-naturals: the world is full of naturals who never do anything with it. We’ve never heard of them, which is that sneaky old Survivorship Bias again. Most naturals quietly work unrelated jobs and never write a single song or book. Not every natural is a wild success story. 

So it doesn’t matter if you’re a natural or a not-natural. 

Using your abilities is what counts. 

*Naturals isn’t the best term. They don’t pop out of the womb and play guitar like Steve Vai. In most cases, they learned rapidly as young children when their brains had greater plasticity. Others have some degree of savant syndrome or good genes. It makes their abilities appear natural — but basically, they developed them in a way we can’t replicate.

This is an ironic, punk rock thing to say, and that might be how he felt, but it’s not true. Like most of us, he went to school, read books, and absorbed language (see Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct). I think he means, “I can’t explain why I’m Isaac Asimov and you’re not.”

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