Enter the Warthog

My mom tells a story about picking me up from Sunday School. My teacher met her at the door and said, “I need to show you something.”

Those words would make any parent nervous. Had her son thrown feces against the wall? Had he tied up one of the other kids in the class?

When the teacher held up two drawings, my mom was relieved.

“This drawing was done by another child in the class,” the teacher explained. “And this one is Austin’s. Did you know that he could draw?”

The first picture was a mashup of colors and abstract shapes, but mine showed what was clearly a duck. I can’t remember a single mention of a duck in the scriptures, so it couldn’t have come from whatever bible lesson our teachers taught us. I was three or four years old at the time, and my mom said she felt embarrassed: “Here, my child had a talent, and I hadn’t even noticed it.”

To my mom’s credit, she’s an observative woman, and with few opportunities to compare her children’s artwork to that of other children, how was she supposed to know? A well-rendered duck from a three-year-old is just, well, normal. What if a child with perfect pitch grew up in a family that rarely sang? Her parents might not think much of it. Her music teacher at school might recognize the gift and inform the parents, but otherwise, it would probably go undiscovered for years and years.

Athletic prowess is perhaps a little easier to identify, although I’ve always wondered, would I have been a cricket prodigy? What about water polo or lacrosse? Did I have some inborn talent for a sport that I never played?

I was a good artist, and that at least was brought to my attention at a young age.

This knowledge is a knife that can cut the hand that holds it.

Let me explain.

I always loved to draw. I drew Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and houses and my family and superheroes with bulbous calves, biceps bigger than the character’s head, and powerful sets of muscles that don’t even exist on a regular human body. The more abs, the better. My First grade teacher, Mrs. Bunny Ward, invited me to choose my favorites and display them on one of the flannel boards in the hall.

Animals were an obsession. I read Ranger Rick magazine and collected the flash cards that came with each issue, and tried to capture their rich coloration and camouflage: the burnt orange of a Bengal tiger; the pattern of black diamonds running down the side of a largemouth bass; the unbearable cuteness and childlike face of a spider monkey; the electric blue and incredible toxicity of a poison arrow frog. I was bursting with pride the day I helped Mrs. Ward put up the drawings for the whole school to see with my name underneath. Affirmation. Recognition. Respect. These things mean more to a child than gaming systems, or a new bike, or any number of tangible objects or toys.

My friend Will and I were drawing over at his house one afternoon. Our school, W.P. Scales Elementary, was holding an art contest with several different categories, and I was sketching an idea for the special category that year:  “Exercise & Health.” We had a treadmill in our house that my parents liked to look at.

I drew a person walking on a treadmill. I guess his ideas were slow in coming because Will copied my drawing. I remember feeling annoyed that he didn’t come up with his own idea. I thought his imitation wasn’t very good. I didn’t like my drawing much either and didn’t bother to take it home with me.

When the time came to enter the contest, I submitted a few drawings. I had never gotten around to choosing an idea for the Exercise and Health category, so I didn’t enter it.

Will, however, submitted his copy of my idea, and won first place.

I was furious. I complained to my mom: it wasn’t even his idea! He just copied me! Even the crummy drawing that I had left at his house was ten times better!

If I had been allowed to use potty words I would have said, “His crappy drawing sucked!”

I had won prizes in other categories. My mom told me it was okay for Will to win a prize too, even if he had copied me.

Though I don’t recommend stealing other people’s ideas and to this day wouldn’t enjoy winning a contest with someone else’s idea, I did learn an important lesson about art.

Skill is not as important as we make it out to be, and in our quest for excellence or originality, we get bogged down in the spit and polish. We worry about seasoning before we have the meat.

Knowledge is a knife that can cut the hand that holds it. Knowing that I was a good artist made me want to create a better drawing, which is a good desire, but I never created a better drawing, which was a loss. I should have turned in my flawed drawing because the only people who can win a contest are the people who enter it—the people who finish.

Will’s family didn’t have a treadmill in their house. The idea was mine and my rough draft was better than his finished drawing, yet he was the one who entered the drawing in that category. By entering, he took the risk of getting last place, of being called inadequate or imperfect. He also took the risk of winning. Wayne Gretszy put it nicely: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Have you ever stood in a museum and, while gazing at a painting, thought, “I could do that!” But you didn’t paint the painting; someone else did. Skill is not as important as finishing. You’ll never see one of your paintings on display in a museum if you never finish it. Many of us want to look good out of the gate, so we end up standing still: Let me wait until I get it right. I don’t want to be embarrassed. Let me put on the finishing touches.

The problem with finishing touches is that they sometimes keep you from finishing. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive for excellence. I’m all for multiple drafts and a good coat of polish, but waiting for a perfect first draft is a doomed endeavor.

Produce a first draft with warts, blemishes, and scars, and if that warthog is all you have when the time comes to enter the contest, enter the Warthog.

Will entered his Warthog and won. I waited for a better drawing, and lost by entering nothing. Here’s my advice: take the risk of being imperfect. Enter the contest. You might just win first place.

Don’t be the kid with bad acne who never asks out the girl of his dreams because he assumes she’ll see only his imperfections and say no. Do something daring. For all of you Sandlot fans out there, take the risk and kiss your Wendy Peffercorn.

That’s my advice today for your creative life: Enter the Warthog. Kiss your Wendy Peffercorn.

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