Last weekend, my girlfriend and I embarked on a scenic journey to upstate New York, where the annual Adirondack Hot Air Balloon Festival was being held with great fanfare. Walking through the small airport that was home to the festival, we saw balloons being prepared, fair food being consumed with gusto (we did our part with some kettle corn), and crafts being sold. As the numerous balloons began to swell and ripple in the breezes and the crowds began to congregate, we chose one balloon to watch closely as it prepared to lift off. Inside the basket was a man, clearly in charge as he blasted the flame upward with impunity, as well as his wife and an adolescent boy. My girlfriend turned to me as we stood and ogled the situation unfolding before us and commented, “I suppose, if your family has a balloon, you are going to be a balloonist.”
Her astute comment sent my mind back to a book I read during a lull in my summer, Matthew Syed’s Bounce. His comments on practice, talent, and innate ability intrigued me then, and my girlfriend’s comment reinvigorated these thoughts. I wondered, as we sat on our blanket and watched the balloons shrink into the purpling sky, if I was about to take over my family’s balloon, so to speak.
I thought about the things I consider myself good at – school, I suppose, being that I managed to make it here (and nearly make it out), running (of the long-distance kind) – and the things I enjoy – the outdoors, creating crafts and working with my hands, and reading came to mind. Why am I more attuned to these things than, say, video games, or soccer?
I consider myself a person of little innate talent – frankly, after reading Bounce, I consider most people to have little innate talent. Things I gravitate to, and things I am good at, are results of a complex system created by my surroundings.
Why am I at Amherst? Is it because I have a genetically superior brain to people who are at, say, Williams? I don’t think so. My current position is the result of many hours of concentrated, devoted, and specified practice. I was learning to speak and read by the time I was two, under the careful tutelage of my Amherst and Cornell parents. I was enrolled in a Montessori preschool program to jumpstart my school-learning at an early age. By the time I was off to elementary school, the unquestioned order in my house was as follows: wake up, go to school, come home, unpack my lunchbox, and do my homework. I was not supposed to do anything else until my homework was done. I didn’t find this to be overbearing or cruel, though. It was the way I was raised from the start and was rote. I liked homework, too – with this practice I was getting better, and it quickly became more of a fun exercise than anything else. We had no television, either, so for fun I plowed through books, played with my Legos, or watched classic movies (lots of musicals and Westerns). This is how I lived up through high school. I spent so much time practicing school and taking extra assignments and summer classes and placement tests that eventually I became very good at it. This is why I am at Amherst; this is why Amherst students are at Amherst. The College has managed to collect 1,700 of the top students in the world; think about that phrase. It is the same as saying top basketball players – we are people who, with many, many hours of concentrated practice, have honed our academic ability. Our area of expertise is school itself.
I can trace my various abilities and pleasures back through my life in similar ways. I am, very much, in my family’s balloon. But there are two things I want to end with, because I do not think this is a negative thing. First: I am glad for my family’s balloon. How else would I have any skills, any pursuits? It is because of this balloon I am in that I am good at what I am good at. I am thankful for all opportunities I have had, realized or not, to practice. Second: balloons are not limiting. They can go anywhere and often go places their passengers are not expecting. I am always willing to ride in other balloons and try new things. If I am so inclined, I can ride in that balloon until I have learned its tendencies and nuances – until I have enough practice to become skilled.
Don’t think this piece is a complaint about being trapped by our situations. It’s not. It’s about understanding why we are good at what we are good at, and how we can become good at things we want to be good at. Think about your family’s balloon sometimes – it feels good to realize that you have really worked hard to be where you are and do what you do, even when it doesn’t always seem like work. And you’ll realize that you have lots of skills, some that you might have taken for granted.