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

and

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?

Okay.

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.