There are many things that I have learned from being a parent. Patience is a big one, along with creative euphemization, stain removal techniques, and 101 ways to deal with sleep deprivation. Sometimes I also learn important career lessons.
My daughter Fiona is 11 years old (do the math – she was born and named before the movie Shrek was released) and she has been making pictures practically every day since she was old enough to hold a crayon without eating it. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t carry a notebook or sketch pad with her wherever she went. She has probably gone through enough paper to deforest Central Park. We don’t have a file of her favorite drawings; we have a storeroom.
It is impossible for me to be wholly objective, but when I do my best to set aside my parental pride, it still seems to me that Fiona has a knack for capturing the essence of things on paper. Many of her pictures seem alive with motion or feeling. Two of her drawings were featured in a Newsweek article on creativity a couple years ago, one of which was praised for its “clear, genuine emotion.” That sums up the way I feel about much of what she creates: you can see not just lines and colors, but something real and human within. I don’t know enough about art to say whether her talent is large or small; all I know is that she can do something that I and most other people cannot do, and to me that seems like a gift.
The gift is a joy to behold, but it’s not a revelation. I’ve known gifted people, but for the most part I’ve only seen the end product: a fully-grown, adult genius. Fiona may not reach that level, although as her dad, of course I think she will; no matter what, though, I am witnessing what must be the path that many people take to get there. She is, and has been for years, fully engrossed in her art — first, pen and ink drawing, then colors, and lately photography and printmaking. Let’s say she started at age two. At a minimum of two hours of drawing per day, 365 days a year, for nine years now, she has spent at least 6,570 hours drawing, coloring, and painting. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that those who attain unusual levels of skill and success in a particular field – he cites Bill Gates and The Beatles, among others – do so after first logging at least 10,000 hours of practice in their craft. If that’s the case, then Fiona is 2/3 of the way there and she isn’t even a teenager yet.
And while my wife and I have done what we can to support Fiona in her pursuit – provided her with materials, enrolled her in art classes – Fiona herself has unselfconsciously supplied all the motive force behind her work. She finds or makes the time to draw, nowadays staying up in bed for an hour or more after bedtime to work on her projects. And they are now projects – as she has grown, her work has evolved from spontaneous single-page sketches to complex and detailed tableaus and even multi-page stories. Lately she has been creating her own graphic novels, in imitation of the popular Japanese “manga” books, and so her “work” has consisted not just of the act of drawing but also of research into different drawing techniques and styles and into cultural information to pull into her stories.
The revelation for me has not been the amount of work she puts into her art — who doesn’t know that creative success requires prodigious effort? — but the fearlessness with which she immerses herself in it. Sometimes it is hard to recognize how much we question ourselves in our everyday actions until we watch someone who does not. Why doesn’t this person start his own business or that person institute a new office policy? Often it’s because he or she is simply not certain that it will work. What a luxury it is as a child to not worry about such things — to just do because you have no reason to think you won’t succeed. And of course it’s a virtuous circle — the more you do, the more you succeed, and the more confident you grow in your abilities. What a luxury it is for me as a parent to observe this confidence in my child. It reminds me of the value of faith and experiment. As adults, maybe we can’t all spend hours every day pursuing some beloved craft or aspirational outcome. But for me, watching someone who can does inspire me not to be afraid to spend what time I can on such pursuits — writing articles like these, for example. Maybe nine years from now, I’ll be 2/3 of the way towards getting them right.