Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Young Competents

Last year my piano teacher had me learn a Mozart piece. I spent weeks and weeks trying to pass it off. Finally she gave me that little gray check in the top left corner. As she did, she glanced at the date. "This is one of Mozart's first pieces," she said. "He wrote it when he was five."
Yes, somewhere in my eight years of piano education, I'd learned that Mozart started composing at the age I was chewing off pencil erasers. The facts were securely filed away in a back corner of my brain. I knew, roughly, when Mozart was a child, and the date was there for me all those months. But somehow I never bothered to put two and two together. Once she laid it out for me, I felt this sudden surge of anger. How dare he write something that I couldn't play at more than three times his age.
And then I remembered I'm not Mozart.
He was put on this earth to compose music. I was put on this earth to do other things. He was simply born with an extra shot of talent and put it to use when he was in his early years. Still, I can't help feeling jealous when I hear stories like his.
Recently I read an article about Isabella Rose Taylor, age fourteen, a fashion designer who got her creations in Nordstroms last year.

Then I switched tabs and scrolled through my twitter feed, reading the latest from Abigail Harrison. She's a NASA space ambassador, inspirational speaker, aspiring Mars astronaut, and seventeen year old.
Abigail Harrison

Then I felt a little less competent. I'm eighteen. Here are three different people. two of them my contemporaries, who have done more at a younger age. 
I just finished up an internship with a local publishing company. I got it because I knew someone who knew someone, and that made me feel less competent than anyone who hauls themselves up by their own bootstraps and finds a position on their own. Still, I love it because I got to gain actual experience in the publishing industry. Another blessing came this Saturday: a free ticket to Storymakers, one of the major Utah writing conferences. I got to speak face-to-face with bestselling authors like Brandson Sanderson, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Even better, I got to run into smaller authors I've met at other conferences and signings.
It was my first "adult" conference and I felt like the odd one out for most of the day. I sat back and soaked up information in the beginning. I wasn't as famous and talented and competent as the people around me, but I could be a sponge. A good sponge. 
Then I ran into author David Farland at a signing table. I hadn't read any of his work, but I'd heard his name before, so I started chatting.
"Have I seen you before?" he asked.
"I don't think I've met you," I said. There were plenty of authors I'd run into before. It's a good thing they were all wearing nametags. "I'm not good at recognizing faces," I told him. 
"Don't feel bad," he said. He then proceeded to explain that everyone has a bad facial recognition memory-at least compared to him. "I was recruited by the CIA when I was sixteen."
They saw his standardized test results and came to recruit him. He was then one of six people in the US with that memory capacity who didn't suffer from audiovisual hallucinations. He could leave behind math class and work for the government, but in order to do that, he had to move to Virginia. He chose to stay in Utah. Some good came of it, though. When he joined the military five years later he was already cleared to work in intelligence.
Want to know how bad my memory is? When I was twelve, I babysat for a family that lives one street away. I knew the mom and some of the kids. My first day sitting for them, the mom walked me around the house, explaining bedtimes and what the kids weren't allowed to touch. The dad followed but my focus was on her. About ten minutes after they left, a strange man approached the door and looked through the glass. I prepared to usher the kids back, answer the door myself, and tell him the parents weren't home. But before I could, one of them opened it himself. It was their dad, and he'd forgotten his wallet.
I have a hard time with a lot of things, like following conversations and understanding how the steps of a project fit together. But memory's always been a hard blow. My whole life I've craved competence. Not knowledge or luck or talent. Competence, that combination of skill and experience. Now someone was sitting in front of me who, at age sixteen, had the competence a couch critic would call unrealistic for a teenager. But it wasn't a novel, it was his life story. 
Then David told me something that changed the way I view life: he's horrible with names. He explained the science behind it, how the part of his brain that handles audiovisual memory is so big, it crowds out the name department. I thought of how many nametags I'd recognized that day alone, how one author gave me a free copy of her book just because I mentioned we'd met at a signing back in December.
"I'm not really good at remembering anything." I said. "Except names." Words in general, actually. I've always done better in English and history because they're story based. This year I discovered that extends to lyrics. In choir, I either ditch sheet music before everybody else does or keep it around just for notes and vocal parts. I do have degrees of competence. But I'm so busy looking at the incompetent parts of my life that I forget to notice them.
As that day went on, I found another reason to feel competent: I was the youngest person in all my classes. Some people asked if I was thirteen and if I was "interested in writing too" while some asked if I was a published author or a full editor. My age isn't a handicap. It's a nod to how far I've come in less time than many of the people there. 
So maybe I'm not an astronaut of a composer. Maybe the CIA and the runway aren't calling my name. But I am good at something and I'm taking baby steps towards success. And here's the thing: I believe everyone is. We're all young competents, just in different ways. 

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