This is one of those phrases that generates within me very conflicting emotions when I hear it...on my less proud days, it makes me annoyed. It’s a wall they’ve imposed between themselves and whatever they’re seeing and there’s a part of me that grits my teeth and wants to tell them, “well...sure you can’t, as long as that’s your attitude.” Which is a pat response to an even more pat statement and seldom very constructive.
The other reaction it generates within me is pity. Because the person who has said it has made an admonition that they’ve decided a particular skill is beyond their aptitude--they’ve locked a door in their minds and thrown away the key. Even worse, they’ve given away their power to actualize their own achievement and on some level robbed themselves of a source of potential pride.
I’m on my third creative career in my lifetime and if there’s one thing that each of those careers has taught me, it’s that the impossible is a definition we create ourselves and is nothing if not malleable.
Actually...let me back up a step and tell you a story.
When I was 17, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to be a comic book artist. At the age of 11, my brother had turned me onto them by bringing home X-Men #11 one day from school and Jim Lee’s art had me hooked. I’d thought all comic books were essentially crude chicken scratches with laughably juvenile stories (okay, granted many of them still are that way), but in this comic book I saw surprisingly detailed artwork that lay closer to photo reality than I thought any comic could.
I had a good friend at the time named Niel who was a budding artist himself. He was creating drawings of anthropomorphic animal characters that I found intriguing. I couldn’t draw, so at first I attempted to write stories for him based upon these characters but it quickly became obvious that he saw my attempts to contribute to his characters as more overbearing than helpful. And after a while I figured, what the hell? I’ll give it a try. At first, I crudely attempted to copy his drawings. Though in elementary school, he was already a skilled draftsperson who was deliberate with his lines and shading. When he saw me copying his work, he corrected me on the way to shade one of his characters’ ears and advised me not to lay my lines so quickly and haphazardly.
By the time high school had arrived, I had drifted away from these anthropomorphic characters into drawing my own versions of Jim Lee’s superheroes. I’d immersed myself in books on anatomy and proportion and had filled my notebooks practicing the canon of the human body and head. I was also now drawing short stories as comics rather than just focusing on individual drawings. Here was where I had the hardest time. I loved characters in beautiful poses that would show off their costumes. I hated drawing backgrounds or multiple characters who would frequently block each other off and perspective was something I barely understood. Our school had internet access and its own web server and I created my first website as a means of promoting both my artwork and samples of my writing. As unfocused as my artwork was, an independent comic company in Hawaii eventually hired me to produce a couple short backup stories and I was thrilled.
At this point I discovered I didn’t want to draw comic books for a living. It wound up being too time-consuming to draw full stories and I just never had the desire to work on drawing buildings or trees as much as I had humans. Nonetheless, I could do something that most of my peers couldn’t and had the seed of a sense of graphic design planted within me. The 11-year old who couldn’t draw and rarely spent much time thinking about art class became a 17-year old who not only could draw, but actually had professional work under his belt.
I’ve loved music my entire life. I’ve been blessed that my mother never grew out of the music she loved as a teenager and thus I grew up on a steady diet of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and my absolute favorites, The Who. “Who’s Next” is still in my mind the greatest rock album in history, nearly flawless in its entire length but buoyed especially by the primal scream of a nation of disaffected youngsters in “Baba O’Riley” (people usually call it “Teenage Wasteland” because that’s the chorus...and I roll my eyes when this happens) and the introspective ballad mining the tortured depths of a villain’s mind, “Behind Blue Eyes.” To say I love these songs is like saying air is kind of helpful to living.
For most of my youth, despite loving music with all my heart I never seriously considered playing it myself. I’d occasionally write lyrics to the tune of other peoples’ compositions, but playing an instrument always seemed so madly out of reach. Listening to “Behind Blue Eyes” in the headphones on my way to school, I promised myself that if ever I learned to play an instrument that I would learn that song. Then my brother decided to take it up. For months he made the case to our parents and finally received a starter guitar for Christmas and proceeded to take lessons for several months. Meanwhile, a few of our cousins had likewise taken up instruments and one of them was making a bid to be a seriously musician. My brother eventually drifted away from playing guitar, but left the instrument sitting around the house and at this point I’d known enough people who played instruments to wonder if I could as well. I picked up the derelict instrument, learned to read tab from one of my brother’s books, and set off to practice by myself.
A year later I attempted to start a band with two friends from high school that never progressed past the “let’s get together and jam” phase. A year after that I’d started another that went out and gigged. We never had a significant following but we did come tantalizingly close to getting a small record deal before we imploded. For years after I would play “Behind Blue Eyes” at coffee shop open mics. And the kid who thought he’d never play music became a man did so onstage and loved every minute of it.
I was 26 when I went to my first Burning Man. I frankly did it on a lark because many of my friends were. I didn’t think I’d find it appealing, but I was directionless as my band was falling apart and figured why not? Wednesday night my friends took me to the fire jam at Hookah Dome and I was transfixed. Somehow growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I had never seen it done before (no, I still don’t know what rock I was hiding under). On burn night, watching the conclave perform before the Man burned was a moment that rocked my world in a way that I’ll never be able to put into words. After coming home, I asked my friends about fire spinning. I knew I liked the thing where people had the balls of fire tied to their hands with chains. What was it called? Oh, poi! Do we know anybody who does it?
One friend did...a recent transplant from Seattle we’d dubbed “Salty” (no...it had nothing to do with how coarse his language was ;) knew some poi and I asked him for lessons. One fall night at the house he shared with many of my friends from high school and college he attempted to teach me a basic reel turn in together-same (note: this was not the vocabulary he used. That night was devoted to “let’s see if you can turn”). And I completely, utterly, abjectly failed to pick it up. We spent two hours outside as the night wore on trying to make my body understand this move and it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t wrap my mind around my poi coming together on one side of my body and coming back apart as I turned--I kept hitting myself.
I put poi down and dismissed them for months afterwards, believing that I lacked some element of coordination necessary to make them work. Then my roommate came home from a Christmas trip to Thailand with a set of poi he’d purchased for me at a street market there, wanting to encourage my interest in the art. It is not a stretch to say that if my roommate hadn’t done me this solid, my life would be very different today indeed. I soon connected with a group of people that got together to spin at Confluence Park in Denver, several blocks away from the apartment I lived in, and I had more people to learn from and work off of. It’s nearly six years later now and whenever I have a student trying out poi for the first time, I tell them this story to let them know that nobody pops out the gate with a talent for poi. The uncoordinated poi spinner who failed his first lesson became a poi teacher who hosts a weekly video series that thousands of aspiring poi spinners watch regularly.
A couple years into being a poi spinner, my girlfriend Debbi and I took an Easter weekend trip to Ocean City, Maryland as a vacation. We stayed at a lovely Bed and Breakfast and cruised the boardwalk. This early in the season there were few tourists and we basically had our run of the place. For grins, I got up on the wall at the edge of the boardwalk and spun my poi while Debbi took some video with my digital camera. When I got home I was excited to see how my impromptu performance looked...and reeled with horror when I finally saw it. Between my knock-kneed gait and seeming inability to move my body in a fashion that didn’t resemble a fish flopping to death once caught, I suddenly felt hugely embarrassed of the show I’d put on that weekend.
At the time, I was teaching poi classes at a local dance studio called Contradiction Dance. I’d been teaching casually for months, but a friend named Loup de Lou in the local fire dancing community had connected me to the studio and set me up with classes there. The studio is run by a woman named Kelly Mayfield who’d been dancing professionally her entire adult life and had decided to start her own classes and company after years of working for others. Wanting to create a nurturing environment for the cross-fertilization of ideas, she’d offered as an incentive to any teacher there the ability to take any class the studio offered free of charge. Few people took advantage of the offer, but after seeing myself try to dance on film, I resolved to take the plunge and start taking classes. I was 28.
I’m not going to go into depth about how lost I felt those first few months of classes. I’m not going to go into depth about how frustrating an experience it was...how often I wanted to quit, or how often I came nearly to the point of tears in trying to get a body that at 6’1” is already a bit oversized for the dance world to move in a fashion that was anywhere remotely close to graceful. What I will talk about was how hugely supportive Kelly was as I worked through these frustrations...how often she told me I’d done a great job even though both of us knew I’d had a terrible night. And most of all, how after a year of this terrible process she put me on a stage without a tryout. Without an audition. How she trusted me to do the work necessary to earn my place on that stage. How the faith she placed in me gave me the faith I needed to get through the hardest learning process I have ever gone through in my entire life.
I’m not going to lie--this process is ongoing. I will likely never dance at a level I’m happy with for a multitude of reasons. Each show I do with Contradiction Dance is a new and grueling mountain to climb in its own unique way, but I’ve long grown past the frustration stopping me from going forward. Now I look forward to those challenges and what getting past them will teach me. The man learning to dance far too late in life has been doing so onstage for nearly three years.
As a child, I knew a lot of people that I considered to be "smart." They had access to the ability to form solutions to problems almost effortlessly and jumped far ahead of my comprehension in topics like Math and English. Despite my parents' and relatives' insistence to the contrary, I did not believe I belonged in this category. I managed to stay neck-in-neck with many of them and not disappoint the people who’d grouped me with them until the dreaded day when I first encountered Algebra...and any conception of being smart I’d had up until that point was shattered into a million pieces. Algebra was so abstract and impenetrable I could not for the life of me come to any real understanding of it. I grasped at the edge of this precipice and managed to get through it in middle school by the narrowest of margins. By high school my grip on math had slipped and I failed out of the first class of my academic career.
I came to hate math and regard it with great suspicion. I knew many of my peers were learning calculus and I came to regard this pursuit as being almost akin to black magic--far beyond both my comprehension as well as my desire for comprehension. In college, I discovered a loophole in my major’s requirements for math that enabled me to take a freshman level engineering course and pawn it off as a math class. The course’s topic? How to write HTML...it was the first A I’d gotten in “math” since elementary school.
As I got more into poi spinning long after I’d left college, I frequently came across references to oblique mathematical concepts I didn’t understand which seemed to hint at a greater possible understanding of poi if only I could grasp them. Finally, there came a Spring Wildfire in which I had a chance meeting with a juggler by name of Adam Dipert as I waited for my ride to the airport. In ten minutes, Adam explained the fundamentals of how trigonometry could be used to describe poi patterns in the most simple and direct way I could possibly imagine. I learned more about math in those ten minutes than I did in my entire academic career to that point. Not because the topic was so all encompassing, but because Adam broke it down in a way that made it understandable and made me want to dig deeper.
Since then I’ve taught myself many of the basic tenets of the calculus I so dreaded in high school as well as topology, graph theory, and many, many in-depth analyses of poi patterns as seen through the lense of those trig equations Adam showed me. I’ve come to realize mathematics is not about equations--those equations are merely a written account of larger truths. Mathematics is the study of patterns and the equations that come from it are merely written shorthand for exploring those patterns, akin to a poem about a sunset being a written reminder to the author of the experience. The kid who failed out of high school math is now considering going back to school to get a degree in it.
Yeah...I’ve said it myself a lot of times in my life. And every time I’ve run into somebody who has taken the leap and begun to learn that thing that I can’t do and I try to profit from their example. No matter what reason I give why I can’t accomplish something...I’m too stupid, too clumsy, too uncoordinated, it always turns out to just be an imaginary wall I’ve constructed in my mind. When I don’t accomplish something, it’s not because I’m unable. It’s because I’ve decided I’m not going to do it. It’s because I’ve decided I’m not going to put in the work necessary to realize that skill for whatever reason.
There’s no reason you have to learn everything. I’ve no interest in learning to DJ. I respect the people that do, but I also realize it’s not one of those skills I want to develop (just watch, knowing the pattern I’ve set out above I’ll be doing it in a few years :-P). You don’t have to learn tech poi and you don’t have to learn to dance, but you’re not learning these things because you don’t want to, not because you can’t.
Nobody enters this world being able to draw, play a musical instrument, spin poi, dance, or do complex mathematics. These are things we can choose to learn as we go through this world. When people say, “I can’t do that,” more than anything else I think that they’ve created a wall of intimidation for themselves. They’ve seen other people accomplish feats, looked upon their own progress, and given up. So how can you get around it? Well, let’s take some lessons from the stories I’ve outlined above.
1. Find one or more friends who do the thing you want to do
Time after time, I found with all the pursuits listed above that what prevented me from diving into them was not having people in my immediate circle of friends who’d accomplished said feats. Changing this has two immediate effects: the first is that it makes learning said skill seem more attainable because someone you relate to closely has accomplished it. The second is that they are able to pass on that skill to you like a virus. This tends to work best if they are near your skill level because you can work off of each other. If this doesn’t work, however:
2. Find a good teacher
A good teacher is one of the rarest and most valuable things you can find. Many people teach things to other people, but a good teacher will distinguish themselves from the pack by presenting content to you in such a way that it makes that which seemed to be impossible mere minutes before now feel attainable and by nurturing within you a desire to learn more. They will encourage you when you feel you least deserve it and give you opportunities to the occasion of which you’ll work hard to rise.
3. Learn to practice solo
It’s a simple fact of life that no matter how many friends we may have that we can share learning something with or whether we encounter a good teacher, the hours we will spend with them are ultimately finite and limited. Practice is an absolute necessity for learning any new skill and loads of research has now shown that without deliberate and solitary practice, attaining any skill is impossible. A lot of us enjoy the social element of spinning, but it comes with it a built-in plateau. To get beyond it you have to be willing to do your homework.
4. Realize that anything worth doing takes time
Spoiler: you’re not going to get down a new skill in a day. You won’t do it in two days. If you’re very lucky, you’ll get it down in a week, but I doubt it. Acquiring a skill is an investment. It involves seeing the payoff far off in the future (sometimes years in the future). Be patient. Forgive yourself for your bad days. There will be many of them and if you hold them against yourself it’ll just make you unhappy. Be proud of yourself for the work you do rather than begrudge yourself for how long it takes to get there.
5. Understand “I can’t do that” is a choice...not an unchangeable fact
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with deciding you don’t want to take up a pursuit. There are far more hobbies and skills in this world than one person could ever hope to learn and clearly you have to set aside those that most interest you. But in doing so, there are two traps to avoid:
The first is to fall into insecurity about not possessing that skill. So often I see spinners at festivals looking at spinners they idolize and after failing to realize some of their moves, they give up lest they should look foolish. Never, ever be afraid of looking like a fool. You will never learn anything new unless you’re willing to challenge yourself to attempt something you’re not already able to do. Every move you’ve seen started out its life as an awkward series of drops or wall-eyed mistakes. Going through this process isn’t shameful--take pride in every wall you break down to attain your prize. The second is to diminish the pursuit that one has chosen not to engage in...to diminish others for taking on a skill you’ve elected not to, and it’s deeply unfair. In making the choice not to pursue a skill, a person has made a decision unique to them and them alone for reasons to which only they may be privvy. No one should have the right to make them feel like less for having taken on the challenge that engages them.
The next time you see somebody do a skill you don’t have, you’ve got a clear choice to make: am I going to learn that skill or not? If it’s the latter, cheer that person on. They’ve taken it upon themselves to go through a mountain of work to make that skill happen. Cheer them on and recognize that work--by doing so you recognize the work you’ve put into your own skills as well. If it’s the former, buckle up and dig in. Learning new things is one of the greatest opportunities we are blessed to receive in this life. In the end you’ll get to say: