10,000 Noses

logbookI had a hard time learning how to read as a kid.   It seemed to elude me, and I remember feeling ashamed and incompetent that other kids were reading well before me.   I don’t think it really “took” until I was in third grade, and then I remember reading Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift books, such as “Tom Swift and the Megascope Space Prober.”   My other staple was MAD magazine, in which easy-to-read cartoons were plentiful.

Although not generally sycophantic, I bordered on being thrilled when, about 20 years ago now, I learned that MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones lived in the same small town to which I had recently moved. I saw his unmistakable looming presence at a local coffee shop, and somehow we struck up a conversation. When I told him how much I admired his work, he invited me to his studio, which at the time was just about 20 yards from the coffee shop.

It was there that I was to add another entry to my long list of faux pas. When I asked Aragones if he would draw something for one of my son’s friends who I knew admired cartoonists (and grew up, by the way, to be an extraordinary artist himself), he happily obliged, but while he was drawing I mentioned that I couldn’t draw worth a damn and simply had no talent in that department at all.

I quickly realized I had stepped on a landmine when Aragones erupted that that kind of thinking was ridiculous.   He insisted that he had no inborn talent either, but had to practice and learn his craft through hard work.   He told me that he didn’t believe in the idea of talent. He then drew me a picture of a nose. “The first nose you draw is going to be awkward. It won’t look like a nose at all.   But by the time you draw ten thousand noses, you will have learned how to do it.”

Given that this occurred two decades ago, which is hard for me to fathom, I am not certain those were his precise words, or if the number was exactly ten thousand.   It could be a confabulation, because I do recall that Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” happened to mention that in order to do anything well, it takes doing it about 10,000 times, or 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell, however, was not intending to dismiss the idea of inborn talent as stridently as Aragones.   Not even 10,000 hours of practice at chess, Gladwell asserts, could make him a master chess player.

For me, the nature-nurture question has become stale, but so have all the other big questions.   I used to think a lot about the nature of consciousness, i.e., how is it possible to form awareness out of the clay of neurons, what’s behind the sky, what time is it, and what is time, anyway? And the one, of course, that plagues me most these days, what is the nature of death? (Or, for that matter, what is a megascope space prober?) Perhaps it is characteristic of my age, or my tangling with cancer over the last couple of years, that have made these questions less pressing.   Maybe it just seems a fruitless expenditure of time and mental effort to try to solve the unsolvable, given the endless possibilities life has to offer and the limits that define mortality.   Why spend precious time and effort on unsolvable problems when I can build a birdhouse, and have something I can look at or give away and bring a sense of bewilderment to the recipient?

Aragones aside, I do believe that most people who think about these things would agree that both some genetic endowment and a lot of practice are required to master anything.   We will certainly disagree about the proportions, and I for one will continue to grieve my lack of endowment in the DNA department.   But if there is such a thing as a genetic endowment for persistence (which I highly doubt), I will assent to the possibility that it is there where I excel.   I have chosen to employ that asset in other places: learning to fly airplanes, write blog posts, do psychotherapy, play the guitar and carry a tune (which, although there has reportedly been some improvement, even 10,000 attempts have failed to accomplish).

I have yet to test Aragones’ theory directly, having drawn less than a hundred of the requisite 10,000 noses.   I could, if I wanted to badly enough, but I lack the motivation, principally because I believe my deficit is just too big, and the nose I see in the mirror is, frankly, quite enough for a lifetime.

The FAA requires pilots to keep a logbook in which they are to enter basic information for each flight.   It is not out of braggadocio alone that a pilot will tell you that he or she has 15,000 hours of flight time; pilots are required to know that number.   But there is some pride that pilots take in the size of their log, because there is a prevailing view that the thicker you make it the better.   I have written here before about the myth of experience (or, if I haven’t, I will soon).   My thoughts can be summed up the same way I have tried to placate just a few significant others in my life: it isn’t how big you make it, but it’s how you make it big.

I do believe, however, that if you have flown 10,000 hours, traversed 10,000 miles, or drawn 10,000 noses, you are certainly more accomplished than the person just starting on the journey.   But whether or not you will ever become an Aragones, perhaps no one nose.









Terry Barrett, The Mind-Body Problem, Genetics and Pipes in Dark Places

In my first semester in graduate school, I had an advanced general  psychology course taught by a young professor named Terry Barrett. Dr. Barrett  was an experimental psychologist and ex-wrestler, and the first assignment he gave us was to write a 3-page paper on the “mind-body problem.”

When my paper came back graded, I received my first and only “F” in  graduate school. The big “F” on the first page was followed by the two words reserved for students who professors either had a bone to pick or wanted to sleep with: “See me.” Knowing it wasn’t going to be the latter, I was worried (I would have worried either way, come to think of it), but I promptly went to his office, whereupon I not only got a loud lecture, but at one point Dr. Barrett grabbed the front of my shirt, lifted me off the ground with one hand, shoved me up against the  bookcase, and told me never, ever to do what I had done in that paper. The crime I had committed, he told me, was to think for myself. He wasn’t interested at all in what I had to say, but only whether or not I was capable of regurgitating (his word)  what he told us in lecture. I smoked a pipe in those days (almost everyone was  smoking something), and he added, with my slight 110 pound frame suspended from his fist: “Take your pipe and shove it up your  ass.”

I was not particularly upset by all of this. Growing up in my family, I was  accustomed to dramatic displays. Besides, I had gone through an undergraduate  program with so much thinking for myself that I don’t think I came away having  learned much. While I didn’t welcome regurgitation, I did like the idea of actually  learning something, which is what Barrett was trying to get across. So, 35 years later, thanks Terry, because the end result was that in two years at Murray State I learned more than in the following three years in my doctoral program and in my previous four years of undergraduate training.

What made me think of this story was the post I wrote in my last blog last about my view that genetic research is where we are most likely going to find a cure for autism.  Critics of that view point out that although billions have been spent so far on genetic research, most studies fail to produce anything significant, and that only genes with very minor effects have been uncovered. They see genetic research as “grasping at straws” and believe that environmental influences such as lifestyle and chemical exposures provide “plentiful evidence” for the causation of disease.

The debate between genetics and environment is an old one, and most  believe that diseases are typically caused by a combination of the two. The problem is one of both causality and duality. Are the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave reality? The fact is that the shadows would not exist without the sun and the figures blocking the sun, so as many philosophers have pointed out, they cannot be meaningfully separated. If you accept that somehow environment and heredity are indeed separate, then it is not necessarily the case that one thing causes the other, but instead causality may well be a two-way street. It is the interplay between the two that creates the end result.

From this perspective, all the research we do, whether on genetic contributions or environmental ones, is important, in that when put together we will most likely find the ways that all of these factors interact leading us down the road to diseases such as autism.

While I no longer smoke a pipe, I did save my first graduate school paper.  I even re-used it a few years later in my doctoral program, where perhaps ill-advisedly one was permitted to think, and expanded it to about 20 pages. I got an  A+ on that one.