By Marc Rusli

I draw. I paint. I play the guitar. I play the piano. To most I may appear to be a Renaissance man, impossible to relate to. I may seem to be even more of an enigma because I am a physics major.

That logical and methodical side of my mind allows me to convey what motivates me to engage in the arts, how I improve, and what it feels like to play the piano.

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Here’s the analysis: The motivation for choosing to partake in any action can be classified as either extrinsic or intrinsic. People that engage in an activity not because they feel joy from it exhibit extrinsic motivation. They choose to do the activity because there is an external reward for doing the activity. A janitor may not enjoy cleaning restrooms all day, but he chooses to do for the reason that he receives money as a result. But the joy found in participating in the arts is usually intrinsic; most do these things not because they are motivated by some consequence of the action, but because they find inherent joy in the activity. I find playing music and creating images inherently fun. Today, I can play Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 12, and the drawing above and the painting below are just a few of the many that litter my home.

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Contrary to popular belief, I was not born under some auspicious sign, playing Mozart and doodling hyper-realistic portraits since I was two days old. I developed each skill slowly during some period in my life. My entry into the drawing world and subsequent improvement were not due to fascination with the art. Doodling was the only option I had to relieve boredom. I attended an after-school Chinese program that had long downtimes in between lessons, and a stack of paper and pencils were the only things I could play with. Furthermore, Chinese restaurants usually had paper placemats, and I would draw on those while waiting for food. I sometimes wonder whether I would have any amount of drawing skill if I had been born five years later, whether I would entertain myself with an iPad rather than pencils and paper.

My entry into other disciplines was somewhat more typical. I started piano lessons just before middle school. During middle school I took a guitar class for an easy “A.” I began painting much later, in high school.

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More analysis: Let’s compare reading aloud and playing the piano. When reading, one looks at the words and speaks them aloud. When playing music, one looks at the music notes and presses the corresponding keys on the piano. One feat appears much more difficult than the other, but some amount of analysis shows they are both very complex actions. In both, a stimulus is received and then transformed by the brain into an action. The stimuli are the words and sheet music, and the actions are speech and pressing piano keys. Most people practice reading and speech much more than playing the piano, and so have built up the single thing that allows them to accomplish complex tasks without thinking: muscle memory. Likewise, it is not because I am thinking much faster than normal human thought that I can hit a specific order of keys in rapid succession—it is because I have practiced so much that I do not need to think about how complex it is.

I have noticed that many people express a common first reaction upon seeing an artist like me. “Wow, so talented,” they say. I shake my head in response. I do not feel talented; rather, I think, “I had quite a bit of free time.”

Marc Rusli is a second-year physics major at UC Santa Barbara with a passion for the arts. He wrote this personal essay in the Writing Program course Journalism for Web and Social Media.