We all need a party-trick – or the fun of cultivating obscure, semi-useless natural talents

Talent is the natural aptitude or skill one has in any given action.  If one is really fortunate, one is able to combine their given talent with their livelihood.  If you have a calling, as the saying goes, you will never “work” a day in your life.  What I’m talking about is something that comes easier to you than it seemingly does to others although one must work hard to refine this talent.  Most of us, if we’ve lived at least semi-full lives, have discovered a number of things we are terrible at,  a smaller collections of things we are middle of the road average at and a very small list of things that, for one reason or another, we kick-ass in.  This post is a celebration of the cultivation of those weird, random talents.

When I was 11 I begged my mother for months to let me take martial arts classes.  It’s not that she didn’t want me to, it’s just that we didn’t have that much money at the time.  Finally, she relented, and we found a suitable dojo/boxing gym.  This place was open 7 nights a week – the first 2 hours for boxing, the 2nd two hours for Shotokan Karate.  I usually went a minimum of 5 days a week and attended both training sessions.  After 10 or 11 months of this the following things became apparent.  I was shitty boxer and at best I was able to attain a level that didn’t provoke outright embarassment in onlookers.  On the other hand, I was better in Karate…and what really distinguished me was my flexibity, speed and kicking ability.  My kicks were well above average, and my hands, even in Karate were, well, meh.  For those of you who are new to martial arts, Shotokan is a Japanese style that is not generally known for flashy kicks.  I , however, lived for such, so this being the early 80s I ordered books (yes, kiddies, no Youtube tutorials) written by well-known Korean Taekwondo practitioners that gave detailed technique breakdowns of many jump-spinning kicks, double jump spinning kicks and the like.  Soon  I started to do tournament sparring and it turns out I was relatively succesful.  I was painfuly shy at this point in my life so nobody at school had the slightest idea what I was doing with my spare time until my tournament results got some very localized media attention.  But perhaps even funnier, of the “party trick” variety, was the reception I got at first in the actual tournaments.  I remember once I destroyed this kid, a black belt, 3 points to 0 with rapid fire high kicks.  As we finished the head judge said “Hey, outstanding job for a yellow belt, you do Taekwondo?”  When I replied “No, Shotokan”, he did a doubletake and laughed.  The thing is, I trained 10 to 14 hours a week on this really obscure (especially at the time) skill that was really only applicable in this very specific setting.  I have never been a skilled fighter, I don’t have the instincts.  What I was very good at, however, was this very specific form of “tag” that is tournament karate sparring.

Another very, nay, extremely unlikely skill that I possess is the benchpress.  If you told me at 18 that one day I’d be that dude in the gym who benchpresses more than everyone else, I’d have laughed my ass off.  Until my mid-40s, I had a slimmer atheletic build.  I’ve always had fairly broad shoulders but otherwise I wasn’t big-boned, hairy chested or, at the time, overly burdened with muscle.  I was, and in some ways remain, the original metrosexual.  Benchpressing was for Neanderthals.  I was much more focused in my 20s and 30s on my 10K times than powerlifting.  Fast forward 2 decades in time and almost 8 years of Powerlifting training.  My deadlift is pathetic by almost any standard, my squat is respectable when I’m not injured but my bench is another matter.  On any given day in a commercial gym I can probably outbench anyone in the gym, even the heavier guys.  I might not out-bench everybody in a powerlifting gym, but I’ll at least make a good showing for myself.  I don’t grind out my benchpresses, they go up easily, even when I’m very close to my 1RM…until I’m over that limit and it doesn’t move.  I never train to failure and I only fail lifts a couple of times a year.  As my coach asked me the other day, “So what’s it like having this one weird thing you’re really good at?  I bet it doesn’t come up much in cocktail party chat”…

Finally, the last thing I’m weirdly good at is Trivial Pursuit or Jeapordy type games.  My cousin actually had a week long winning streak on Jeapordy program (RIP Alex Trebek) in the 90s so perhaps it’s in the genes.  So much so that I immediatey vibed with with the move Slumdog Millionaire when it came out.  I just happen to know a lot of weird, random facts for a number of weird, random reasons.  I clean up in pub quizzes, as long as it’s general interest and not too (which can happen where I live) UK specific.  I’m always getting the “WTF, how do you know that?!?!” reaction.  What can I say, I guess rampant boredom and no TV growing up had something to do with it…

We all need these party tricks, these obscure skills that maybe don’t garner much public glory but make us feel good about ourselves.  Firstly, because skills or talents are only discovered and developed because you’ve gone out there and tried many things until, lo and behold, here’s this crazy thing that you’re better at than most people.  Secondly, you need to work hard take the skill in question to the next level.  All of the skills I mentioned above were examples applying many hours of hard work to a specific apptitude.

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