I was struck when listening recently to a Radiolab podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his book Outliers that Gladwell and many others attribute a large proportion of genius, or lower down the scale for the rest of us a talent or ability at any given thing to be based on love. A love of the subject that allows an individual to devote endless hours to the pursuit of a goal and in the process put in that magic 10,000 hours that seems to be part and parcel of those world defining successes.
He spoke in particular of the example of Bill Gates, who aside from being the beneficiary of a great deal of luck in regards to his personal circumstances had the unusual desire to log in that 10,000 hours of programming time in the wee hours of the morning simply because it was there, he could and more than anything he simply loved doing it.
When I hear that example I’m envious. Not because I’ve never experienced it, literature as an undergrad felt to me much the same. It came easy and I could never quite understand how the passion I felt for it, the joy of discovering how the engine works, so to speak, could keep me tied to a desk with such ease and yet send others fleeing from the library before a page had even been turned.
Japanese isn’t like that for me. There’s enjoyment there but nothing close to what was hinted at in the interview with Gladwell. It’s not love like the movies. It’s not romantic. I don’t strive on endlessly for love of the brush strokes in a new kanji (Chinese character) or the discovery of some fascinating etymology. I do it because I hate it and love it in equal measure. In truth, the line is rather more fuzzy than all that.
It feels to me like an unhealthy pursuit. This love, because in some fashion it must be something I feel for me to keep on going back to it, isn’t so much unrequited as manipulative, even cruel. It lets me in a little bit at a time, gives me a sense of elation upon understanding even a tiny fraction of it only to swiftly turn its cheek to me and ‘hmmmph’ like a girl in a Ghibli movie.
She’s a stubborn little thing the Japanese language.
She’s not always like that though; sometimes she relaxes and smiles upon me. The hate, the frustration at having mastery of a language below that of a toddler from time to time subsides. I forget, for just an evening how many long hours it has taken to get here. The conversation with non-English speaking friends flows like wine (often alcohol flows in a concurrent stream), jokes pass back and forth and all seems well with the world.This mountain of a task before me feels like it has been at least partially scaled. The base seems far away and the peak is actually in sight. For once the summit is not hidden behind clouds and wisps of fog. It’s a target as clear and crisp as morning air. I can almost touch it.
Inevitably though, the thought always returns. I was foolish to feel competent for even a moment because as soon as I feel that way she turns and drops me on my arse again, surrounded by myriad forms and compounds, a gaggle of laughing school kids rolling around, sides split from the sheer hilarity of my efforts.
And just when I think it can’t possibly be worth it anymore more, that some mountains are too painful, too perilous to climb, she hands me a coffee and leads me back to my text book. She tells me one day it’ll be better, I’ll understand her moods, how she likes to play, how she acts in times of sorrow and stress, the subtleties at play when she’s conflicted. When that day comes she might even introduce me to her parents.
When I meet them maybe I’ll finally understand why she’s such a jumbled, beautiful and infuriating mess.
I still won’t understand why I keep going back to her though.