I heard this great interview on NPR the other day with psychologist Gary Marcus about his book Guitar Zero. He had taught himself to play the guitar as an adult, and the book combines meditations on this experience with the latest science on learning.
He opens the book with a discussion of the idea of “critical periods”– the idea that difficult skills (like speaking a foreign language fluently or playing the guitar, or, we might suppose, acting) can only be learned by children up to a certain age.
The idea is that there are particular time windows in which complex skills can be learned; if you don’t learn them by the time the window shuts, you never will. Case closed.
But ah, not so fast, says Marcus:
The more people have actually studied critical periods, the shakier the data have become. Although adults rarely achieve the same level of fluency that children do, the scientific research suggests that differences typically pertain more to accent than to grammar. Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical window that slams shut the moment puberty begins. In fact, in recent years scientists have identified a number of people who have managed to learn second languages with near-native fluency, even though they only started as adults.
As someone who learned German as an adult and went on to teach German at the university level and do a PhD in German literature, and who has an accent that can sometimes fool native speakers, at least for a time, I am living proof of Marcus’ argument.
But beyond my own experience, I have volumes of experience as a teacher of acting students who have thrown themselves into the study of the craft and improved dramatically. Acting is different from the other skills Marcus discusses, because when people are acting well, or at least not too badly, they can make it look easy. It can seem like with talent and a little bit of effort, anyone can be a really good actor without investing too much in it. In other words, it’s obvious that learning to play the violin is a lot of work, but it may not be obvious in the same way that acting is. So convincing people of that is an extra hurdle along the way in teaching acting, and then, once the student grasps this, they have a moment of truth, where they have to decide how badly they want it. I am reminded of my study of mathematics. I majored in math in college. I chose this major because I had always liked math, because it had come relatively easily to me, it would satisfy my parents that I was getting a degree that would prepare me to make a living, and it didn’t require that many actual classes, so it left me free to take a bunch of other things that I wanted to take. This worked well for a few years, as the first few years of college math were a lot like high school math: go to class, learn some technique for solving a particular kind of problem, practice that technique in homework assignments, rinse, repeat. But at a certain point I started to take classes that demanded more than simply applying a technique I had been taught repeatedly. The problems in these higher classes demanded real thought, creativity, patience, and a willingness to countenance feeling incompetent. In other words, I didn’t get to feel like the smarty-pants that I always had in math classes. I had to sweat. If I worked at the problems, I could often get through them, though not always. But I was facing what TS Eliot called an overwhelming question. Did I love mathematics enough to accept feeling incompetent quite a bit in order to learn it? The answer was a resounding no. I liked math, I appreciated it, I even enjoyed it. But did I want to marry it? No, I didn’t.
I did want to marry acting and directing. Which is why I am where I am, doing what I am doing. I did find something that I loved enough to be uncomfortable for, even very uncomfortable sometimes. Having found that thing is unquestionably one of the great sources of meaning and pleasure in my life. I have a practice that will pretty much always remind me that life is worth living, if I ever doubt that. But that is why Marcus’ message in the opening pages of his book, and presumably in the rest of it, is so important: it’s never too late.
In my coffee dates that I have with prospective students, I am asked fairly often: it’s not too late, is it? And the answer depends somewhat on the answer to the question: too late for what? Although even with that answered, the first question can’t always be answered definitively. But the prospective student usually wants to know whether or not it is too late for them to study the craft, to experience what acting is all about, and that answer is always, again, a resounding no. We all have things we wanted and have gotten, we have all had things we wanted and not gotten, we have all had to reflect on ourselves and why we did things, to repair relationships that have been damaged, we all have the stuff it takes to act.
It’s simply a question of figuring out how badly you want it.