‘It is a great nuisance that knowledge can only be acquired only by hard work. It would be fine if we could swallow the powder of profitable information made palatable by the jam of fiction.’
William Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors
Or is it? The first reading of this quote put a rye smile on my face and a muttered ‘If only’. Wouldn’t it be fine indeed to merely dip into a novel to attain some nugget of knowledge that gives us some kind of prompt benefit? It would be like standing on the shoulders of giants without actually having the onerous climb up there in the first place. Instant expertise; immediate intelligence, express illumination. Wonderful! We’d all be able to achieve whatever we want, when we want. Satisfaction guaranteed at whatever we wanted.
But would we feel satisfied at mastering something straight away? It’s true that learning anything can certainly be a nuisance as our novelist friend above says. All the seemingly endless study for exams, tests and assessment that dogs life’s first couple of decades. We even have to work hard at the things we love – our hobbies and interests. Those musicians who practise for six, seven, eight hours every day – what a chore to excel at something you have passion for. The artist and their sketch books, the athlete and their training – often there is an arduous journey for these people.
Surely though, the process of acquiring skills and knowledge can be a joyous thing too. The satisfaction of working hard at something then arriving at expertise surely beats the instantaneous excellence that Somerset Maugham would find a fine thing. Is planting a seed, tending to it and seeing it grow intrinsically more satisfying than just going and buying the plant yourself? Admittedly, growing a plant might not be that difficult. Then again, someone who grows up bilingual must feel a little grateful that they didn’t have to take the time to learn their extra language. It’s like knowledge for free.
If you believe work is an intrinsic part of life and human nature then that hard work is perhaps as important as the outcome. Think of those artists to whom the process of creation is more – or as – important as the product. Many things can be discovered on the path to knowledge, achievement or whatever the desired goal is.
Although, saying all this, it wouldn’t be too bad to have the odd moment of brilliance that didn’t take toil. Perhaps so that just once in a while we can live an idle day dream.
8 July 2010