Skill Inflation

September 7, 2012 Comments Off on Skill Inflation

Some days it seemed like my teenagehood consisted largely of being told how grateful I should be that I had food, a house, etc. I rolled my eyes and sighed and said “Mom…” But apparently I was successfully brainwashed because I find myself saying it all the time.

One slightly convoluted application of this came up for the first time (and has recurred many times since) when Simon and I went to see a friend’s senior piano recital. She did a great job! She played a crazy piece that made no sense but somehow sounded exactly like birdsong. And I thoroughly enjoyed the recital because she was my friend, but Simon came out of it critical because he’d been comparing her to all the world-class pianists he hears all the time. It made me sad that we don’t applaud skill anymore because we have usually seen or heard something better. If this were the 19th century, when young ladies were expected to play the pianoforte at parties for the entertainment of the guests, and my friend had sat down and played the bird song, everyone would have had a collective seizure of ecstasy and proposed marriage on the spot (I imagine). But because with the touch of a button I can listen to Philippe Entremont or Ivan Moravec, everything magically becomes a lot less impressive.

I try to make an effort to be conscious of pleasures that show up somewhere on the spectrum, not only those that light up the ends. The same way you can be grateful for having macaroni and cheese from a box to eat even though it’s not as good as the filet mignon you had at that four-star restaurant that one time, you can appreciate a decent pianist who has worked hard even though she isn’t Glenn Gould, or avidly follow the star of the high school basketball team even though he isn’t Michael Jordan, or enjoy a book by the local author even though she isn’t Barbara Kingsolver. Don’t let constant access to excellence make us snobs about everything. And just because no one will think you’re the next Sir Laurence Olivier doesn’t mean you shouldn’t audition to play Hamlet. In the face of the current monumental struggle for everyone to understand politics and economics, history and literature, science and religion—in short, Everything—on a planetary scale (because otherwise how will you know who to vote for or which countries we should declare war on?), it is useful to turn everything off and remind yourself that even what is not excellent is still very, very good.

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