The Toxicity Of Talent (Or: Did You Roll A Natural 20 At Birth?)

Is talent real?

I don’t know.

And for my purposes, it doesn’t matter.

In fact, I’d prefer it doesn’t exist at all.

Yesterday I wrote a ranty-panties response to that MFA creative writing teacher post — and if there’s one area of pushback to what I said, it’s that a lot of writers still believe that:

a) talent exists


b) talent matters.

Some of them think it matters a little, some of them think it matters a lot. The author of the MFA article seems to think it matters almost supremely — a factor significant above all others.

For my part, and your mileage may of course vary here, I think it’s irrelevant whether it exists — what I think matters is that for authors, it’s a very, very bad thing on which to focus. In fact, I’d argue you shouldn’t care about it.

At all.

Here’s why:

What Is It, Where Does It Come From, And How Do You Measure It?

The simplest definition of talent would be: “A natural aptitude.” Meaning, something intrinsic. Something self-possessed — not built up, not worked to, but some ingrained, encoded ability. Maybe it’s a flower in full bloom or maybe it’s just the seed. But it’s something internal. You can’t buy it. You can’t create it. It’s there when you start.

All right. Where, then, does it come from? If it’s innate, it’s likely something we’re born with — and already, for me, that starts ringing big bonging bells in my head because, then what? Is it genetic? Folks use “genetic aptitude” to make all sorts of specious, spurious assumptions. If it’s not in our genes, from where? Environment? Whether we’re breastfed or not? Whether we had the perfectly balanced combination of mashed peas and smushed bananas and parental neglect? Shit, maybe it’s global warming. Or–or!–maybe it’s from outer space, you guys. Alien Architects! Beaming pure talent into a select chosen few. Thanks, Venusian Astronauts!

Okay, so assuming… some part of that is accurate, how, then, do you measure it? Is it binary? YOU HAVE TALENT (checkbox) or YOU DON’T HAVE ANY TALENT AT ALL, LOSER (checkbox). Is it a spectrum? “You are 63% talented, 27% worker bee, and 10% babbling vagrant.” Is there a blood test I can take? Will Qui-Gon Jinn administer it? Or is it like in John Carpenter’s The Thing, where someone presses a hot wire into a petri dish of my blood?

Is there nuance to it? When it comes to writing, is talent singular? HE IS TALENTED WRITER. Or is there a breakdown? She’s talented with dialogue! He’s talented with description. That sentient spambot is talented at writing beautiful spam poetry. (CIALIS: A POEM. BY @OENAPJIZZ7823)

What does all this mean?

Talent Often Aligns With What We Like

Talent, as it turns out, is wildly subjective.

I have been told I am talented — I was able to read at a fairly early age, I was able to write, I wrote stories often and early. I know plenty of others who did the same, and I have been told they were talented where I was decidedly not.

Some writing professors gave me A+’s, others thought I was a mediocre genre-loving twerp.

I have seen young writers praised as talented.

I have seen talent condemned as overwrought, overdone, incorrectly assumed.

Here’s the thing: where we see talent, particularly in the arts, it’s often born of us praising the things we like or connect with. Genre writers are labeled as hacks, literary writers as the true talents. And then inside the genre, the award winners are the talented ones, the populist authors are seen as less so — they’re basically just hobos with pens, those chumps.

Mostly, we just call the things we like, and the things to which we relate, the products of talent. Everything else is something lesser. And therein lies a further problem.

Talent Is An Elitist Idea

If talent is subjective, it means the governance of and assignment of talent is done so by — who? Usually, the people in power. And here, “power” is a really hazy, gauzy idea — I don’t mean that there’s a literal LITERARY POWER COUNCIL somewhere sitting in their star chamber library on some distant asteroid. But in this I mean, other authors, bloggers, award juries, publishers. Talent becomes a thing determined by other people who are viewed as having retroactive talent by having made it to a certain point. (Talent introduces a chicken-and-egg problem: did the talent precede the success, or do we label success as a thing that came from talent because duh that’s just how it works? The overnight success rarely is. Is the talented success really talented?)

When you give that power to others to determine whether someone is talented, you risk undercutting anything that’s not in their field of vision. That can mean genre voices. That can mean diverse voices, or marginalized ones. That can mean the voices of those who haven’t sold — or, conversely, who have sold too much. (Stephen King has routinely been chided as just some popular hack while demonstrating incredible skill — or “talent,” if you subscribe to the notion.)

Talent is not just a set of moving goalposts — these goalposts do not merely move, but rather, they teleport erratically about like a coked-up Nightcrawler (*bamf!*).

Worse is when you begin to huff your own vapors. Talent is a very good way for an author to feel gloriously self-important — not just capable, but gasp, talented. Given a gift by the gods, the magic muse-breath vurped into your mouth — an emberspark of raw, unmitigated ability. 

What talent means, though, is that you can very easily eliminate other authors. You can vote them right off the island because, mmmnope, they don’t have it. The gift. The spark. The talent. But if talent is subjective, isn’t that a dangerous assumption? That some have it? And others don’t?

Oh, and I’ll leave this little tidbit right here:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

(That, from this article: “The Dangers Of Believing That Talent Is Innate“)

The Insecurity Of Expectation

When our son was born, we read an interesting tidbit of advice.

This advice said: “Do not call your child ‘smart.’”

I railed at this. Because, of course, my child is a genius. I’m surprised his cranium is not comically swollen in order to contain his mega-brain. If he turns out to be a bestselling novelist, Cy Young-winning pitcher, and psychic president of outer space all in one lifetime? I won’t be surprised. Of course, most parents think that about their kids, don’t they?

And then I think back:

They said I was smart.

(*hold for laughter*)

When I was a kid, that’s how they labeled me. At one point, they even labeled me — wait for it — gifted. And here’s the trick about receiving that label: suddenly, it’s something you have to live up to. Not a thing you chose. Not a thing you desired. But a tag. It’s like telling a kid, “You can jump ten feet straight up in the air because I know you can,” and then when they can’t, it becomes terribly frustrating. And any time I failed, I didn’t understand it. “But I’m smart,” I’d say. “But you’re smart,” my parents would say. A failure ceased to be a learning opportunity and instead became a deficit — an inability to live up to my potential. I was supposed to be one thing, and I demonstrated another thing.

The idea is not to tell your kids in the overall how smart they are, but rather, to praise individual efforts — to measure their actual successes and not to inflate them with expectations. Do that, and reality will callously — and with great swiftness — pop that ego balloon.

Talent is like that, I wager.

Being told you’re talented? It’s a burden. And I don’t mean some burden like — *presses back of hand to forehead and swoons* — OH WHAT A BURDEN IT IS TO BE SO TALENTED. But I mean, what a burden to live up to. Someone, somewhere, some arbiter of taste, some professor, some parent, some reviewer, has labeled you with a generic stamp of innate ability. When you fail to live up to that label, it means you have failed the thing inside you. You have taken the gift you have been given, and you have messily shat all over it.

Further, what if you are labeled as having a talent in one thing?

But really, you don’t want to do that thing?

What if you have “talent” as a musician — but you’d much rather play baseball?

Suddenly talent sounds a lot like destiny. (Another foolish, made-up idea.)

The Uncertainty Of The Impostor

The other side of this nasty little penny is:

If some people are talented, then you have to ask yourself:

Am I?

And some or all of the time you will decide, “No, I am not.”

And if we’re told that talent really matters, and that some people are born with it, we will be forced to conclude: I was not born with it. I do not possess the One Thing That Truly Matters. I am, therefore, superfucked.

And that means: “I quit.”

Because, with that, you start to feel like an impostor. Like a stowaway on somebody else’s ship — as if eventually they’ll catch you and toss you into the foam-churned seas. If you’re told “Some people have talent, and some don’t,” then you’ll start seeing OTHER PEOPLE as in possession of the Golden Apple and you’ll start seeing YOURSELF as someone who has just a regular old shitty apple. A shitty-ass who-gives-a-worm-turd apple.

Of course, golden apples aren’t real.

You feel like a Muggle, but Harry Potter wasn’t real, was it?

Writing isn’t magic. It feels like it! But it ain’t it.

Talent Is Easy — And Lazy

As a wee kidlet, it was easier to believe in Santa than it was to believe someone actually had to work to buy my presents and wrap them and hide them under the tree. Far easier to believe in the myth of the thing than the thing itself. And as a parent, I wish like hell I could believe in Santa. I wish some genial red-suited Time Lord would scoot down my non-existent chimney and unfuck the holidays and make my son’s every Christmas the best and brightest it could be. It would save me a half-dozen trips to Target, probably.

But reality is, my son gets presents because we buy them. We wrap them. We think very hard about what to buy him. And we work very hard to make the money and take the time necessary to do that. If he has a good holiday, that is in part on us: not just about the commercial side of it, but about the time and work it takes to make the day a special one.

Talent is like this, mostly.

It’s probably  just a myth.

It’s shorthand. And lazy shorthand, at that.

The real deal is: work and thought and desire really, really matter.

You want to be special, but nobody is special, not really.

Work is what makes you unique, because true story: a lot of people don’t do the work.

If It Matters, It Matters Very Fucking Little

Maybe talent is real.

I don’t know.

Certainly you can see it in some areas. We call Mozart talented, and we say Salieri was a hack — though stories suggest that Salieri was no such chump, and that history is the only thing unkind to him. A kid may be able to throw a 95MPH fastball in high school. A student in elementary school may be able to pick up an instrument and play it more beautifully than an adult who has been practicing for decades.

I’ve known a few of those — artists, musicians, athletes. Folks who demonstrably excelled early on. And most of them have gone nowhere with it. A few have made careers — not newsworthy careers, but a life. None have gone on to change the world.

Someone on Facebook noted — quite correctly — that desire and effort isn’t really enough. It’s true, of course. Luck matters (though here I note that you can indeed maximize your luck — though that may be a post for a better day). Instinct exists — though I do argue instinct is a thing you can cultivate. This commenter said, again correctly, that he is older and out of shape and that no matter how much he wants it or works for it, he will never be an Olympian.

True. Sadly, woefully, almost certainly true.

But — holy shitkittens, that’s a pretty high bar, isn’t it? Olympian? You’re talking one percent of the one percent. Not just the cream on top of the yogurt — but a precise layer of perfectly scrumptious molecules atop the yogurt. We’re talking gold leaf. Let’s take the bar down a little bit, where “success” is still in play but it doesn’t necessitate being BEST OF THE BEST.

Let’s talk about running a marathon.

That is achievable. And it’s a big success. Running a marathon is no small feat, but it’s something even someone old and out-of-shape can train to — if they want it, if they work for it.

Apply that to writing:

No, you may not become a bestseller. No, you may not be a writer history remembers.

But you can still be a published author. You can still make a living off of it.

That is achievable.

Achievable in the traditional space. Achievable in the self-publishing space.

And it takes a whole lot of work — and love, and timing, and luck, and desire — to get there. (And for some, it means conquering the prejudices that exist — prejudices be they against genre writers or marginalized voices or prejudices against how you publish.)

But talent? Enh. A lot of talented writers haven’t done shit. A lot of not-so-talented writers have sold millions or billions of copies of books. Who knows? Who cares?


Let’s say that talent is real.

We must also assume then that talent will mean nothing without work. It is a dead, inert thing unless you do something with it. It’s still a thing that must be seized, must be trained, and you still have to level up your game every chance you get. And given that talent is a subjective idea, and one that is unproven, and one that is not measurable, maybe it’s better instead to assume that it isn’t real at all. Because cleaving to talent — believing it’s real and that we must possess it — does you no favors. It only creates a false sense of what must be done or what should be possessed. It’s as invisible as a ghost, as insubstantial as a a breeze, and as noxious as a gassy dog in a small car. If you assume that work is needed to make something of your talent, then worry only about that.

Worry only about the work.

That’s the only part of this that you control. You control the time. You control you effort. You can measure how much you’re putting into something — and, eventually, you can measure how much you get out of it. You can control how much space you give it. You can authorize its importance and your devotion to it.

Reject the caste that talent implies.

Talent, if it exists, does not matter one sticky whit. Because you cannot control it.

The work, though? The work matters.

So do the work. Control what you can control. And fuck talent.

123 responses to “The Toxicity Of Talent (Or: Did You Roll A Natural 20 At Birth?)”

  1. Really good blog Chuck! Especially the part about not telling your kids they are smart. I made this mistake. Told my oldest son he was really smart. He is, but things were way too easy for him and whenever something was NOT easy, he would go on the “I’m stupid and I suck rant”. It took me a while to realize it’s much better to emphasize hard work than intelligence. Hard work you can control. Intelligence is something given and if you don’t have it you’re screwed. I have stopped commenting about their intelligence and began focusing on studying, working hard, and doing their best (not comparing to others, but with themselves). I think it’s going better now. And I completely agree about the talent, even though I do believe it exists, it’s really not that important. Talent without work won’t get you anywhere. Just like brains without an education won’t help much either.

  2. The thing I hate about talent comes in the form of a common phrase you see bandied about a lot. You know the one “X is so talented! I wish I could write/draw/play/do-the-thing like that!” To me it cheapens what the person has done. It ignores the years of practice that the person has put in. The years of toil and sweat they used to refine their art/craft to the point where it is now.

    Is my friend Sarah a great artist? Yes she is. Does she have talent? I don’t know. She’s been drawing almost non-stop since she was 4. Her early work is standard kids stuff. Her current work? It’s the work of someone who has spent over 20 years drawing, and a significant portion of that time actively studying to improve areas she felt she was weak in.

    I’ve been called a talented story teller. Am I talented? Or is it just the fact that I’ve been telling stories in one form or another for as long as I can remember? The standard tall tales children use to explain why the dish just had to be broken that way on the floor, exagerations that make cool things that happened still seem cool in later retellings for a start. But also writing stories, running RPGs, and playing in play by post events for over 25 years of my life.

    Everyone I know that someone would call talented actually has years of dedicated practice under their belt. Everytime you say that is just talent…you rob them of that effort. I don’t like that.

  3. My stepfather is a grizzled old sculptor in his late seventies, has taught many art classes at varying levels, and long ago, when I went off to college, I asked him about talent.

    “Talent!” he said, taking a long drag on the Camel straights that he smoked (while somehow maintaining the chest X-rays of a 20-year-old teetotaler) “Talent will get you to about the first year in grad school. After that it’s all hard work.”

    After twenty-odd years drawing for a living, I think he’s right.

    • Sometimes I think it might be the other way, too — that talent is the thing that maybe gives you a lift once you’re there. Like, when you mention talent, everybody always mentions the TOP OF THE POPS, like — Olympians, bestsellers, cherished filmmakers, the uttermost of artistry. And it’s like, well, yeah, maybe talent made those people who they are. But you don’t need to be those people to be successful.

      Someone on Reddit (I know!) had a killer comment when talking about Sunday’s MFA-thingy post —

      “Sure, there’s only one Wayne Gretzky, but you don’t have to be Wayne Gretzky to play fucking hockey.”

      Great comment by someone whose name is even better: vengeance_pigeon.

      — c.

    • I like that. I think everybody has natural abilities that make a task easier to accomplish for them than it would for others. Think of a tall, lean, graceful woman vs. a short, clumsy woman learning ballet. Of course the tall, graceful one is going to have an easier time at it. Ballet plays right into her wheelhouse, but that doesn’t mean that the short woman can’t become a proficient dancer with lots of work. I think that is what people call talent. I think it plays into our longing to be unique. Everybody wants to be special in some way that people will admire. It’s depressing to think that you are just a nameless face in the crowd.

      I also agree with Chuck about desire being what people are really talking about when they speak of talent. Back to the ballet example. Let’s say the tall woman is able to do a perfect pirouette with minimal effort. She is going to get some positive feelings for doing that. People will praise her. It will feel good so she will continue with her efforts. But eventually mastering those basics that came so easy to her in the beginning will no longer be praised. That buzz you get from doing something you’re good at will fade and you are just left with yourself and that natural ability and an unanswered question. Do I really love doing this? If the answer is yes, you will continue to do it for yourself. You will work harder to become a true master and reach the pinnacle of your ability. At which point, people will point and gasp at your talent without ever understanding what truly went into it.

      Or to frame my point another way…does this hypothetical ballet dancer have talent simply because of her natural physical gifts or does the talent really come from her drive and desire to achieve success? If the latter is true, then both the tall woman with natural ability and the shorter woman who has to work harder for it are talented dancers. One may achieve higher levels of success because of her gifts but the other may actually achieve more in the way of personal accomplishments.

  4. I know a lot of writers way more talented than me who have already dropped out. Talent is nice. It makes it easier to get in the door faster. But it isn’t what makes you a pro.

  5. I can’t thank you enough for posting this. I have written about this same subject and number of times, most recently has a long Facebook rant last week, to which I got a lot of nasty replies, and two or three from fellow musicians supporting one or more of these ideas. You have really opened up the subject, though, and expressed far more than I had even thought of.

    It started with frustration that people around me would say things like, “Oh, I could never do what you do,” in relation to my mediocre music (not being falsely modest), or, “That Jimi Hendrix was so talented. What great gifts he had.”

    Both of these things are meant as complements, but it has begun to frustrate me that all the work that goes behind these pieces of great art and music is ignored. The statements are deeply disrespectful, and are they really meant as compliments?

    And thank you for writing on the idea that talent is subjective. I would argue–and I have, on numerous occasions–that Jack Kirby is the greatest American artist of the last century. But because he drew comic books, there is a barrier that elitists are unwilling to cross to appreciate and evaluate his work.

    Then there is this idea that a classical musician, who interprets the works of others, is talented, where some kid who plays fucked up improvisational jazz or experimental rock is not.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  6. My freshman year I roomed with two sisters. The older sister was smart and great at writing, which was the major she had when I met her, but was self-defeating and gave up easily. The younger sister was an amazing person, a genius at social stuff and loving people and making friends, but not smart in the generally accepted use of the term. Her chosen major was art, but she wasn’t even the best at that. What she was best at was, as the spider said, “stick-to-itivity.”

    In the end, the older sister spent six years in college before escaping with an associate’s in secretarial type stuff. The younger sister graduated in four years with a bachelor’s in art.

    Brains and talent (whether it exists or not) mean nothing if you give up half-way through the race.

  7. You know, I think the concept of talent might also contribute to people devaluing art and asking artists to work for free. Because if it is all just “talent,” clearly you didn’t have to work to produce it; it came easy to you and because it came easy to you, you should be fine giving it away.

    I do think it’s possible for some people to pick up certain skills more easily than it is for others. But I think becoming skilled at anything still requires work, even if one has an innate talent, and I think too much faith in innate talent can actually hold that person back, as in, “Oh, I don’t need to practice my craft because TALENT.” Meanwhile, all the people who are willing to bust their asses get better, and Captain Talent stagnates.

  8. […] Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about […]

  9. If someone could show me a correlation between some objectively quantifiable thing called “talent” and the likelihood of success, I might care about the label. From what I’ve seen, however, it’s either clear confirmation bias (person is already an Olympian, so calling them “talented” can’t really be debated) or it’s got nothing to do with the folks who do well (J. K. Rowling is a shitty writer while my friend Mikey Toefingers is a wasted talent). If it’s the former, then I’ll find out I’m talented if I make the bestseller list. If it’s the latter, then I’ve got the same shot as a hack that I would as a talented person. Either way, I think I’ll be writing this evening.

  10. Nice entry. As someone who was told she was smart and talented as a child, I remember all too well the quaking terror of failure, because failure might prove that I wasn’t special after all. “If I study as hard as I can and still fail the math test, will they take my gifted card away?” As it turns out, though, trying my hardest and failing at something didn’t make people rethink my specialness. They simply told me that I was obviously being lazy or stubborn, because I was gifted, and would therefore succeed if I tried hard enough. Then the horrible terror of being found out, exposed as an imposter, kicked in. It actually made me want to hold back a bit.

  11. I got my fine arts degree at the same time as a guy fifteenish years my senior. He was wound tightly and needed to be at home (instead of the studio), drink a bottle of wine, and catch some fleeting inspiration to draw, paint, or sculpt something that any of our professors or peers would praise. Yet, in his mind, all of his achievements were from hard work because he perceived younger, more consistent students (like me) to have some great natural talent. And from his perspective, no matter how much any of us outproduced him, someone like me was squandering my talent – simply because he imagined that if he had the same talent, he’d take over the world with it.

    The reality is that I busted my ass from an early age and sacrificed my social life in my teens to make a portfolio good enough to land a scholarship so that I could afford higher education at all. And then I just about lived in the studio instead of going to parties. But the other side is that artistic skills seem to run in my family. Maybe it’s something as simple as genetic hand-eye coordination, but how far does that really get you? I wish I knew.

    Regardless, my life-long experience is that people who believe in the omnipresent importance of talent have at least one shared trait: They think “talented” people make it look easy because they didn’t see the work that led up to a high level of skill – which means they have gross misconceptions about how much work anything worthwhile takes in the first place. So how can such an ignorant mind evaluate much at all, talent, skill, luck, or otherwise?

  12. I was labeled as gifted at 9 years old. My ADD wasn’t diagnosed until I was nearly 50. This meant constant charges of laziness, etc. most of my life. Because of my IQ scores they put me in accelerated classes that made it even tougher for me to keep up. I was a freak among freaks, probably not alone, but back then it seemed so. I know, I know, I should just call the “wahmbulance” but I needed to get that off my chest. One trait nearly cancels the other out, but it is more complex than that. Anyhoo, I enjoyed your take on it. It is a good pep talk. Regardless of talent it comes down to desire and motivation and mostly hard work and persistence. I’d rather just talk about it than actually do anything, of course, but maybe after I retire… Grandma Moses is my hero 🙂

  13. I think that talent, when defined as ‘a natural aptitude’ in any given activity, can be a great starting point for children to help them discover things they’re passionate about, but beyond that, its presence (or lack thereof) holds far too much importance for most people.

    All little kids love drawing and painting. Up until kindergarten it held no more importance for me than hanging upside down on the monkey bars or playing with a toy I liked. That changed when I painted a picture of a blue jay on a regular rotation across the class room and my teacher noticed that I’d made a pretty solid effort to get the colours and patterns right. It was pretty terrible, but it was a step up from what my classmates were panting and it ended up framed and posted up at the entrance of the elementary school. They gave it to me to keep when I graduated to middle school six year later, and while I have no idea what happened to it, that tiny bit of recognition for talent elevated drawing above all of the other things little kids like and made me genuinely interested in pursuing it.

    Past that point though, it started to bother me really early on whenever a classmate would say “I wish I could draw like you. You’re so talented.” It actually made me genuinely angry, because in my mind it was pretty straight forward that I was only good at it because I would go home from school every day and literally draw from the moment I took my shoes off to the moment I fell asleep (excepting forced meals, chores, etc.). And even then, if I wasn’t drawing, I was thinking about drawing, and thinking about how I could improve, and how I could get the picture on the paper to look like the picture I envisioned in my head. That has never stopped for me.

    I’m currently thirty and have made my passion and years of voluntary experience translate into a full time illustrator for a graphic novel series that I also co-write. I went to school with artists, have friends who are artists, and the ones that were content with just being talented and still actually draw are perpetually frustrated by their lack of success because they’re not really striving to improve, and in some cases are visibly regressing. They’re more focused on the idea that some external force will discover how talented and cool they are and rocket them into internet fame and that suddenly all the money and offers and praise will just start rolling in. The problem is that talent can only take you so far, and when you’re not willing to put in the effort because you’re stuck on the idea of being talented, you’re going to hit a brick wall and stay there until you figure it out, IF you figure it out.

  14. I’ve worked with a lot of musicians whose ability to actually play leaves mine for dead despite my consistent couple of hours practice a day. A real lot of those guys have been trying to write songs for decades and their efforts are just dire. Like eye-watering, leg-crossing, make-it-stop terrible. And they have this haunted, needy look while they’re playing it to you, while you both know how bad it is and silently negotiate the brevity and pallor of the forthcoming platitudes. Like I said, these guys could play my arse off, they make a living out of playing while I’m playing maybe 4 gigs a year.

    I’ve always been able to write songs. Some of them are pretty good. Even my bad ones aren’t embarrassing shockers, mostly. I’ve never had the dexterity for fancy fretting nor a solid grasp of complex rhythm. I’ll thrash through three or four chords and sing somewhere in the vicinity of the note, often straining my voice in weird and ugly ways, but the songs make sense and my delivery sounds sincere. So there are horses for courses to an extent.

    The problem with ideas of talent (or worse, “genius” – what a fucking curse that word is) is that there’s nowhere to go with it. No hope. No point in working hard. You started out privileged – you had the GIFT goddamn it – so if your work is 80% there then you’ve pretty well wasted 20% of what you were just handed on a silver platter. The same result from someone who wasn’t thought of as talented, not a gifted genius, is a really solid result from the effort they’ve put in. They’ve demonstrated they’re capable of effort so all they need to do is put in a little more. There’s hope.

    No hope for you, genius, you’ve let yourself down.

    Telling a kid they’re talented or a genius is a great way to set them up to fail. On the one hand they’ll feel “I’m number one so why try harder,” and never learn the discipline of the hungry aspirant. On the other, every failure is a character judgement, a literal annihilation.

    I’m not hypothesizing here, I’m practically reporting yesterday’s session with a psychologist and one very distressed little boy. Real or not, talent is a toxic idea.

    • Absolutely this. I’ve lived it. You tell a kid they’re a natural talent and (for at least some of them) it’s over. So toxic.

      The people I’ve known who have really done something with that ‘talent’ were all people who could not be stopped, could not be dissuaded, who took each failure as an opportunity to pick themselves up and throw themselves at the problem again. Talent is a jump start, but it means nothing without the persistence to follow through. I was thirty years old before I ever heard the phrase ‘earning your chops’ or had a teacher explain that talent wasn’t enough, that I also had to be driven to put in the many hours of practice and (important) that IT WOULDN’T BE EASY.

      I’ve come to think of the whole talent question as very much the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare. I think it exists: I just don’t think it guarantees you’re winning the race if you have it.

  15. Chuck. In response to the advice you got not to call your kid smart, talented or gifted, I’d have to agree, with one caveat: only if they’re boys… Traditionally, in pretty much all cultures, girls’ talents and gifts have been understated and boys’ overstated. Jean Paul Sartre was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, Simone de Beauvoir was not, and that’s in a culture where girls and women were allowed, if not exactly encouraged as boys were and are, to get a higher education. I like the word and concept ‘talent’ and don’t want sexism and sexists to fuck it up for us, just when the talents of girls and women are beginning to be noticed and rewarded — even by some men, such as your good self.

  16. Agree. 100%. “Talent is as common as table salt. The difference between a talented person and a successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King

  17. Yes, talent is real–but incomplete. There are things I can do fairly well easily, and things I can’t do well no matter how hard I try. My kids all had obviously different abilities at fairly young ages; I recall a time when one daughter had spend a lot of time not successfully working a spacial puzzle, and her sister took it away from her in solved it in about a minute. Over the years I have hired and trained a lot of people, and some people are able to learn their job easily and quickly and some never get the hang of it. I’ve known who have an obvious talent to take take things apart and put them back together, and people with ten thumbs. Some of the obviously talented people I’ve known have never developed and disciplined their abilities and “coasted” along not very successfully, and others who have worked and learned and been very successful. Im an amateur musician with good pitch and a good ear, and have developed as a musician as i’ve been singing with a small group; we have had people want to sing who cannot find a note and stay on pitch no matter what. Where does talent come from? Perhaps a Creator who values variety; and serious effort.

  18. So you’re saying: It would be a bad thing (“toxic”) if talent existed, therefore, talent doesn’t exist.

    They should call this Reductio ad Ostrichium.

    If only it could make the Kardashians go away!

  19. Right on, Banksy Wendig!

    It does seem like a backwards way to criticize an artist. I mean if someone writes a piece of crap story then you say the story was crappy. Why bother labeling the artist?

    iow, Great Book = Talented Writer!
    and, Bad Book = Not Talented / Self Deceiving Wannabe

    Can’t they just say Great Book = Great Book!! Clearly I do not “have what it takes” to be a good critic. :`(

  20. This article was a mindfuck, and reminded me of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset but with more raw emotion and swear words, thank you Chuck. The real talented geniuses if they exist would most likely trade it all just to be normal for a day. Plagarizing Oscar Wilde:

    “a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

    What if there are gifted and talented people and we fail to utilize their strengths to help others?

  21. I was also one of those labeled as “gifted” as a kid. Being practically a genius is something I never doubted about myself growing up, because people kept telling me it was true. So I also assumed I would go on to do something amazing. That really never happened. I’ve done a lot of fun and interesting things, but in a totally unfocused way that has left me with no real accomplishments to speak of in my early 30’s.

    Writing talent, specifically, was something I always was told I had. And I think I believe it to an extent… certainly it’s true that writing well always came more easily to me than it did to other people. However, I was 30 by the time I decided to really work at it seriously. I feel very behind. I suspect that plenty of writers who would have been seen as less “talented” than me when we were 18 are now much better writers than me thanks to their hard work.

    Final thought about talent: I think a lot of it may not be innate, just learned at a very early age, which ends up looking like the same thing. I believe my writing skills have a lot to do with all the time my parents spent teaching me to read well before kindergarten and encouraging me to read and write after that. Maybe it’s not something I was born with, but it’s an advantage I had since I was very young. Which is nice if you had that advantage, but if not it’s something you can give to yourself later in life.

  22. I recently read the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and it confirmed what I had long suspected – the whole idea of innate talent is ridiculous. The author was interested in the idea of ‘talent hotbeds’ – unassuming places that produced an abnormally high number of talented individuals. Most of the time, even the mentors and coaches didn’t know why they were so successful at producing brilliant students, but the author found some common traits: careful, mindful, corrective coaching and practice. It wasn’t JUST about the hours. It was about highly specific, focused work, with a lot of micro-coaching in the early stages.

    Digging deeper, the author used neuroscience research to explain why this is so important. Effective practice increases myelination along the neural pathways. More myelin = more efficient pathways = ‘talent’.

    It made me realize that the majority of talented kids probably just start out with a natural liking for something. This preoccupation leads to mental and eventually physical rehearsal; their ability surges ahead of their peers, and this is labelled ‘talent’. Adults heap praise upon them, but if the kid doesn’t get proper guidance & coaching at this crucial phase, of course they’re going to fall into less-than-optimal patterns (unless they’re EXTREMELY lucky and just stumble into getting it right – hey, it happens). Then, when they start lagging behind, they have to deal with the terrible psychological burden of being a ‘disappointment’.

    The important thing I took away from the book is that, as adults, we can actively seek out better information and habits to rewire the things we didn’t do so well the first time around. Also, instead of telling kids how talented they are, it’s far, FAR better to do some research and find them a decent teacher or mentor. So many parents seem to be more interested in the ego-trip that comes from having a ‘gifted’ child than actually getting them the help they need. Sadly, it’s the kid who pays the price.

  23. Here is where I believe talent originates, and to a certain extent it is determined by others who created the logic. Consider how the INTP personality profile (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving / Introverted Thinking with Extraverted Intuition) is associated with creative people, of which I am one. Both as a successful art director and marketing communications manager.

    I never graduated college, I wasn’t that great in school, and I did not know what my talent would be until I was in my 20s. Yet I had a natural ability to communicate by combining visuals and words, and the ability to effectively organize data and information. I didn’t become a copywriter until in my 40s when I was hired as a corporate marketing communications manager for a technology related product. To a certain extent talent can be achieved through learning and experience, however, if you don’t have a natural inclination to make use of what you learned it was all a waste. Just consider all the other managers I dealt with, who had degrees from top schools, who hired poorly-educated me to do their communications because I could communicate to a wide distribution of audiences. So from my perspective, talent is a combination of natural ability, learning and on the job experience.

  24. I read somewhere that the best indicator of who will become an Olympic champion among children starting a sport is not the ones who are naturally good at whatever sport it is, but the ones who are the most willing to do the tedious aspects of training. That’s evident in this quote from Mohammed Ali “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

    Through my work as an organizer for a local mystery writer’s conference, I met a great many best selling authors. Without exception, they all worked very hard at writing. When they had day jobs, they got up early and wrote. They wrote when they didn’t feel like it. They struggled with problem sections and scrapped whole chapters because they didn’t work. No one ever said “Jeez, I was so talented, I just sat down one day and the words poured out onto the page in perfectly formed sentences.”

  25. Talent exists, but the absence of it is not an impediment.

    Talent is like a private on-ramp to the highway. It makes it easier to get where you’re going, but it doesn’t guarantee the trip will be easy.

    No talent just means you’ve got a little more work than the talented folks. Most people fall into this category. How good you become depends on how much you work at it, and how much you want it. You can get lucky, or you can screw up, but there is no substitute for doing the work.

    Anti-talent is what kills your dreams. Some folks have this. This is negative talent. This is the person that can’t hold a tune while carrying a bucket full of CDs, but insists they can sing. These people really do need to find new dreams, because no amount of work can correct their problems.


  26. I’m just really glad to know someone else posts rants on their personal blog space 😉 It, too, bugs me that the ‘gods’ say it is a bad idea.
    I also agree with talent not being an issue as I am and remain untalented. As a child, it was referred to as being God-given, which made me feel unloved by the Almighty. Like you, I don’t like hearing the word or having it shoved down my throat. I do what I do because I like (love) what I do, and for the rest of you talent-less souls out there, it should be noted that we struggle, we strive, we suffer, and we bleed for our craft while the God-blessed with natural ability just wing it. So what? Either way, we’re getting it done, and I think that is about all that should be said. I avoid reading any posts that claim or even suggest I do this or that and not remain true to who I am as a writer. It’s a bit like listening to that fancy-pants perfect Barbie in high school or having the all-star dude lecture to me.
    Thanks for a terrific article, an enjoyable read, and for reaffirming my faith in ME 😀

  27. I think talent is really just a speed boost to the early stages of a craft. If you dedicate your life to playing the violin, you will be a darn good violinist, no matter if you have talent or not…but you might end up with your first concert at 12 if you’re talented, whereas it’ll take way longer if you’re not. I’m a self-professed talentless artist; I’ve spent 20 years at my craft, watching people get ahead of me constantly, but in the end I always catch up. People were doing at 18 what it has taken me much longer to do…but I think in the end it levels out assuming equal effort on both people’s parts.

  28. Talent+no work=insecurity

    Talent+hard work+/-luck=success

    Some talent+hard work+/-luck=success

    I sometimes tell my kids they’re smart. But I often tell my 8 y.o. son that if he doesn’t work, it means nothing. Somehow, it still doesn’t make him want to work.

    • You left one out.
      No talent + hard work = I’ll get around to it later., no wait, I’ll hire someone.

      Being smart isn’t what makes you want to work. Being interested is. My little brother (not that little – he’s 56) is as smart as I am, I’m sure, but school subjects just didn’t matter to him. Also, when he was very young he had trouble learning to read. For years he was considered barely functional, then I caught him reading the Sunday comics with perfect ease. Then I caught him reading an article in Popular Mechanics so he could put a sprinkler system in our back yard, when he was 16. (It turned out his eyes were weak but the tests never showed anything because the weakness was progressive. He could see better in the morning than in the afternoon or evening at homework time.) What I mean to say is, he would work hard for something that was important him.

      Maybe I could be a great mechanic if I learned how and worked at it very very hard every day – but as nice as that might be, I don’t care to do that. It’s not something I want. I don’t have the knack for physical skills that led my brother in that direction. I’m a writer. I’m good at it. I’m not famous or especially successful as a writer of fiction but I do put words in a row for a living. If everyone could do that equally well, I wouldn’t have a career. I don’t have to be good at everything.

  29. There are singers like Calvin Johnson and Mark E. Smith you may never hear of, but they’ve inspired me most because they don’t have ‘traditionally’ good voices. You could argue they lack vocal talent, but go on and they’re good because there’s something beyond talent driving them, many things in fact…some you mention here, like desire and thought and the work. My talent is one of my biggest problems. You inspire and remind me about the work, which no one likes, but it can be the best kind of tired when you look at a stack of wood you’ve split by hand. Which is something I’ve never done but can imagine. Thanks for this. – Bill

  30. Talent is rare is what it is. People say you cannot quantify talent, but let’s zero in on writing talent.

    What do you need to be a great writer? Well, it depends on what kind of writer you want to be. However: understanding sound and rhythm and understanding syntax are two things that cannot be faked. Unless you copy them, which is very possible to do in writing. Another form of writing talent is being able to perceive what is happening, that the world wants, and taking it from other places and putting it together. It’s kind of like being charming. I don’t think you can fake charm, at least not to everyone. Psychopaths can for awhile.

    What else do you need if you want to be a great writer in terms of the world? You need to be un-afraid. How many people are afraid? Again, it’s like willpower, like Pavese said you can’t really increase it in any way. You need to be able to perceive reality and it helps to have a different perspective. Again, it’s an innate thing. If you understand what makes people ‘tick’, having empathy, it allows your characters to be more than just satirical archetypes or ‘tools.’ Again, this can be stolen from other writers who did it before IF you want to.

    The main “I agree” I have when saying writing talent does not lead to success, especially now, is that if you are a good study of literature and somewhat competent at re-arranging ideas, you can gain literary success by just applying what has already been done to your life. It isn’t really taking risks, but it works.

    Talent takes risks and fails. To say world success is what defines talent is really short-sighted. How about all of the people that were discovered after their death, after everyone was like you are a bad writer, and suddenly the world realizes they were doing something no one had done before.

    Some people just write great sentences. They write sentences and the way their paragraphs develop is unlike others. That is talent. It all goes back to the little things I listed, probably more… like working memory (the ability to weave elements back into things in a believable way.)

    It’s like you could have an IQ (let’s assume IQ was an actual measurment of brain processing power) of 120 and win the Nobel Prize for Math or Science by working your whole life. That doesn’t mean that intelligence doesn’t exist, though, or that IQ over 120 is negligible.

    Writing is a rare art because painting or music (etc, etc) can be grasped by anyone more-or-less. It will have an effect on them. If you show someone really dense writing, which may be good… even genius… they could be like wat is this crap.

    Just a few thoughts.

  31. […] Fluff it up all you like, but writing is a skill. The only writer who doesn’t improve is the one who won’t practise, and gets complacent. And call me crazy, but I’m unwilling to believe that there’s a natural “cap” to the amount one will improve if one continues to put in effort. My beliefs on talent and skill are best summed up (with much more profanity than I’d usually use) here, at Chuck Wendig’s blog post on the topic […]

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