Most of us find ourselves in awe of those videos of a little kid, maybe just five years old, who can sit down at a piano and pound out a Mozart sonata like he was born with the instrument in his hands. We marvel at such raw talent, and some of us might even feel a little jealous we don’t have it.
And sure, while most of us weren’t playing Mozart when we were five, the fact remains that most of us, given enough desire, determination, and practice, could learn to play that sonata at some point. While we may not have the talent, we do have the capacity to learn the skill.
I pick the musical example on purpose because it represents a category of endeavor where so many of us marvel at the notion of natural talent while ignoring the possibility of finely crafted skill. We tend to see undertakings like music and art and many skilled crafts as the purview of talented artisans even when we are otherwise interested in them.
While talent can give someone a head start in such endeavors, I posit that it is the development of skill that gives anyone, talented or otherwise, the tools to succeed. To me, talent is a starting point on a line defined by skill. Talented people start with natural skill.
Why is that important? Because, I believe, anything can be learned by anyone, as I mentioned earlier, given enough desire, determination, and practice. Yes, those three things may be lacking, and as a result, a skill may not be successfully honed, but that does not mean it cannot be.
So, the next time you marvel and someone else’s talent and wonder if you could ever do that, try. Find out. If you really want to, you might surprise yourself.
David Ewing Duncan recently gave a TED interview about the possibilities–and problems–created by the fact that we are figuring out how to radically extend life as part of his promotion of his new book When I’m 164: The new science of radical life extension, and what happens if it succeeds.
I know it sounds weird, but I think about this very same question often. The fact of the matter is that I could easily live into my 90s and be productive well into my 80s. Where does retiring at 60 or 65 or even 70 fit into a life that could go on for two more decades? Where will the money come from? What will I do?
Again, I know it sounds weird, but my wife and I decided back in our 20s that we did not plan to retire. There are practical as well as idealistic reasons for that decision. Having made that decision that long ago has changed our entire outlook since then. We plan differently. We work differently. We save differently.
And, frankly, the result has been that we are, in a lot of ways, far better off right now than a lot of people we know. We owe less. We’ve saved more. We have less stuff to take care of.
I think the consequences of extended life will be one of the defining factors of our time. Are you thinking about it too?
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul? –Mark 8:26 (paraphrase)
Over the past several decades, I believe society has convinced itself of an insidious lie: that the goal of life is to work and save and build wealth and assets until such time as one believes one can retire and “enjoy life.” This lie came into its own in the 1960s with the advent of modern Social Security. At that moment, Americans institutionalized the idea that it was a right to stop producing at some point and live off the fat of the land.
Yet the irony in that institution is that many, if not most, people define themselves by what they do. They are their work, whether they love that work or not, and when they have no more work to do, their lives tend to become vacuous and boring. It’s no wonder that part of the dramatic increase in recent years of the prescription of powerful antidepressants has happened in the over 65 age demographic.
Further, most Americans never anticipated the consequences of this institution. While in the 1960s, the median lifespan in the mid 60s, by 2010, it had reached 78, and for the generations who will retire during the 21st century, the median age may well reach over 100. This means that the period defined by retirement, 10 years in the 1960s, will quickly stretch into 30 to 40 years before the end of this century. The amount of resources it is necessary for someone to possess to do nothing for that long is staggering to consider.
What has happened to allow this lie to take hold, I believe, is the demise of the idea that life should transition from one kind of thing to another. Our society no longer has rights of passage defined by taking on new, different, and defined responsibilities as one’s capacities and age dictate.
I blame this failing on the demise of once time-honored traditions like the cohesive extended family, the family business as the primary employer, the community as the center of everyday life, and the trend to average everyone at the national level. As these ideas and institutions have failed us, the rights of passage they naturally created have faded and died.
The circumstances of the 21st century, I believe, will demand we tackle this problem head on. Our society simply does not have the resources available to support a rapidly aging population that could foreseeably spend a third of its life not producing and, therefore, not supporting itself. This problem will be exacerbated by the incredible upheavals that resource scarcity will inevitably bring and by the fact that, at least in the US, the so-called working age population is and will continue to shrink.
And the solutions are relatively simple, actually, as long as people are willing to accept their necessity. Individuals will have to work longer, likely in a variety of jobs. They will have to change how they spend and save over the course of their lifetimes. As a society, we will have to stop focusing on accumulating stuff and start focusing on taking care of ourselves. We will have to build or rebuild social structures that allow us to share the burden of the cost of living among larger groups of people. We will have to redefine what we expect of ourselves as we inevitably pass from one age and capacity to the next.
Unfortunately, I do not believe these solutions will happen because people suddenly think they are a great idea. Instead, I believe they will come as the inevitable result of the scarcity and want the future promises to hold. But, for those who care to pay attention, their is the benefit of being able to prepare now, before things become desperate.
What must happen, though, is that we must start preparing now. These changes will be hard. They will be dramatic. They well may be controversial. But they are also necessary and will save us in the long run.