When I was studying at a university, I thought it would be fun to take a guitar class. I had taken piano lessons when I was younger, and I had played the trumpet in the school band until I reached 10th grade. I had basic skills in those two instruments. But the guitar seemed fun, more cool. It was something I wanted to do. So I thought about it. I may have even looked up the class description in the school catalog. I considered it for about five minutes, but I didn’t take the class. Why not?

I don’t really remember all my reasons. I may have wondered whether I would be good at it. I may have thought that I did not want to risk a bad grade. I may have thought I needed to focus my energies on classes in my major so I could get done with my degree and get on with my real work in life. It could have been any of those things or all of them. Whatever the reason, I never took the guitar class. Learning to play the guitar had to wait until years after I left the university.

There was another group of classes I was interested in—art. I knew many artists. I had twin uncles that were artists. Their paintings hung in our house. In my own family, the brother and sister just older than me were both good at drawing. And my younger brother was a great artist too. I have pictures that I drew in elementary school that show that I had been interested in drawing at one point and maybe thought I was good enough at it to keep trying. I even submitted some drawings to art contests in elementary school. I still have a ribbon I won.

But somewhere along through the years I got the idea that I wasn’t good at art, that I didn’t have the aptitude. Aptitude is a fancy word for being good at something. And I thought I didn't have it, at least as far as art was concerned. I believed that the art gene that had blessed my siblings and my uncles had skipped me altogether. Maybe the seed for this idea was planted when my third-grade teacher told me that I colored like a kindergartner. For a boy who thought he was years beyond kindergarten, that was a blow. I was stunned. It was especially hard to take because I liked my third-grade teacher. It was hard to hear the bad news from someone I admired so much.

Maybe the seed of that criticism grew as I excelled in other areas and spent more time and effort on those things. With the passage of time I may have compared my diminishing skill with the growing skill of my little brother. That comparison would have clearly shown me that I was not an artist. I even doubted my creativity in general. So when I had the opportunity to take art classes, I passed them up. As with the guitar class, I didn't want to take the risk.

When I was in graduate school, I was driving home one day with my artistic younger brother. We had a long drive of about 40 miles, so we had plenty of time to talk. Often we discussed ideas we had or the subjects we were studying. Sometimes we argued. One day we got on the subject of creativity.

“I’m not very creative,” I told my brother. “It’s just too bad that the creativity gene skipped me.”

“What?!” he exclaimed, moving quickly into argumentation mode. “How can you say you’re not creative?” Then he methodically gave me examples from my life that demonstrated my creativity, starting from the imaginative games we used to play together as boys.

He was right. My life showed plenty of evidence of creativity, but I missed that evidence because of my own disbelief. In determining my aptitude and in deciding whether to take the risks of trying new things, I simply hadn't considered all the evidence.

I lost the argument. And it was a good thing too. Soon after our discussion I enrolled in a drawing class at the university. In that class, I discovered that I enjoyed drawing and that I could be good at it if I invested the necessary time and effort. I got an A in the class. I even kept some of the things I drew.

I haven't had time to follow up on that class. My interests have taken me in different directions. Maybe I'll pick up drawing again someday and work on those skills. But the class and the grade and the drawings weren’t nearly as important as the confidence I gained in my ability to learn new things and expand my interests. I learned that I didn’t need to be boxed in by the labels I or others gave me. I could learn to do what I wanted to do. Aptitude wasn’t a fixed category determined by my genes or my circumstances. It could change according to my interests and beliefs and according to the time I wanted to dedicate to learning new skills.