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.

123 comments

  • The best advice I can give any young artist: Look at Van Gogh’s drawings, before he was a brand name. They’re rough, clumsy, unpolished, “not good drawings.” They’re practice. And there are lots of them, and that’s just the ones that survived.

    “Talent” is the gold star, the canonization after the fact. The reality is doing the thing, loving the thing, hating the thing but never walking away for very long.

  • Talent is basically useless without a strong stomach, thick skin, sharp focus, and determination. Talented individuals can be easily broken without any effort on the part of outside forces. I agree with you; it doesn’t matter whether or not it exists. Talent is, in my little opinion, a step-stool that puts you one step closer to reaching your goal. If you’ve a knack for articulation, you’ll probably be better than most at writing in at least one aspect. That “talent” doesn’t necessarily extend to your level of creativity. There are far too many aspects of the writing (and rewriting, revising, bleeding, puking, quitting, screaming, crying, writing) business to rely on your talents to get you very far, even if you have many. Having said that, I do believe talent exists, obviously. But “writing” in and of itself is not a talent. Anyone who learns how to write can write. That doesn’t mean they’re talented, only that they’re able. I know people who can pick up any musical instrument and learn a song (by ear only) within a few hours. I’ve tried to learn the piano and the guitar, to no avail. They’re born with some kind of talent I don’t have. But if that musically inclined individual never bothers to pick up an instrument or practice to get better at playing it, that talent lies dormant and is, basically, useless.

  • The part about the subjective arbiters of talent being people who have already progressed to a certain point in their career really hit home for me.

    The sticky bit being that these senior practitioners are perhaps most likely to praise newcomers for doing the sorts of things that worked for them in the past. This is not innately evil, but it maybe misses the chance to give recognition to the innovators, the people who are going to change their corner of the art completely.

    (And how do you know if you’re Picasso? Are you inventing a new style in your art form, or just doing a really trippy finger painting? You can’t really know until after the fact, if ever. Best not to worry about it.)

  • Talent is what people call it who either don’t have the stamina or the determination to work their asses off. They look at those who did, who apparently miraculously “got it”, and say they must have succeeded “because they had talent.” Which exempts the lazy from feeling bad about themselves.

  • What did Gladwell posit? 10,000 hours’ practice to achieve mastery? If you put in your 10,000 hours (or 2,000, or whatever) in the quiet of your own home where no one sees you, it might sure look like “talent” when you become visible…

    • I was going to mention Gladwell too. The kids with earlier birthdays had more “talent” at hockey because they were bigger than the kids with late birthdays. So they did better, then they also put in more practice and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Same with any artistic “talent.” I think that talent is mostly just interest. I have more interest in writing, and have from a young age. And some of that is probably because I come from a family of teachers and readers and even a few writers. So they encouraged my interest in books and stories. And because I enjoyed it, I did more of it. And it feeds a cycle that looks like I have this natural aptitude for writing that others didn’t. When, in fact, if they’d enjoyed it, they probably would have done it more and gotten better and been dubbed talented.

      And we got the same advice about not telling our kids they’re smart and had the same WTF reaction. And then realized yes, we should praise hard work and effort and pursuing things they enjoy. Not give them the blanket label of smart. Even though, like your son, they’re clearly geniuses.

  • I think talent is a thing… but it’s really just the culmination of lots of practice dating back to childhood. I definitely sat in a freshman writing class and saw some of the students rattle off great scenes in writing exercises while others (ie mine) plopped embarrassingly on the floor.

    Getting to know them later, I found that they grew up in households where for one reason or another they had rich internal lives. Whether they were lonely latchkey kids or daughters of playwrights, they had space to absorb and to tell stories and they got good at it.

    They didn’t know that they were practicing or think about the hours of play that went into developing their writing muscles, so some actually did chalk it up to “talent”. Of course that meant the talented ones were screwed when we got away from their usual tropes and they didn’t have any more insight into constructing a fight scene or pacing an argument than the rest of us.

  • I almost hope that the author of the article is sitting back laughing his ass off at the comments knowing he said all that negative shit just to boost a conversation–which he has. Take all the advice you can get from any source–filter it to suit you own wants–write–and move on–and write–and read–and write–and write.

  • I understood where you were coming from with that comment, and I agreed with you for a number of reasons. My experience of talent has been similar. My ability to write would put a smile on every English teacher’s face. And that was about it, really. By the time I almost failed high school I knew talent wasn’t enough, which is good because I think I’ll be a better writer for being prepared to work at it.

    There were these two kids I grew up with, brother and sister. They both took up the violin when they were little. The sister was really good, what I’d call a natural in that she seemed to have a sense for rhythm and intonation. You could hear the difference when they played. But she wasn’t interested. Her brother, on the other hand, despite not having quite her ability, worked at it really hard. He had found his passion. He is currently living it, teaching and producing his music, busking on street corners with his band, whatever it takes. That to me was the single most important example of what talent can do for you. It’s an arrow in the sand, a signpost, but it doesn’t force you to take that road or guarantee you’ll get anywhere if you do.

  • I am just dumbfounded at how much I agree with both your premise and your conclusion but disagree with so much in the middle. It makes me feel like the kid from Wayside school who didn’t know how to count but always counted to the right number.

  • From the same article “That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal.”

    Not sure I disagree with that. The biggest problem with the article may be that it is poorly written – or geniusly written – again that subjectivity thing. Each bullet point is click bait and most are followed up by a more reasonable explanation (notice I said most…).

    Like the age comment below it: The bullet says “you have to take writing seriously as a teenager” but then explains in the bullet that this means developing a lifelong intimacy with language including reading. I’d kind of agree – if you haven’t picked up a book until you are 40, you probably shouldn’t be writing them. Not that you can’t change that deficit, but chances are if you’ve avoided reading for that long, books in general aren’t your thing (as mentioned above – talents tend to cluster around interests, right?)

    I still found quite a bit of useful stuff between the click bait and I have a feeling the article did exactly what it was written to do.

    I do agree, talent is subjective, measuring it is impossible, but there are simply things people are better suited for in life. I’ll never be a rocket scientist. I enjoy theoretical stuff but all the practical things are mind-numbing as hell to me and I have no patience for complex math. I’ve always been that way and conversely, I’ve always enjoyed language and reading and writing. I don’t think telling people they are wasting time doing something they shouldn’t be is necessarily a bad thing. I wish more people would have steered me toward writing while I was flailing around life doing shit I wasn’t quite cut out for. And, as a matter of fact, they had been – but I kept blowing off all the “talent” indications…cause, you know…fuck talent. 🙂

    Anyway, I enjoyed both the article and your response. When I read the article yesterday though, my first reaction was completely opposite most people’s I suppose. Nice to see a different take.

  • I do believe ‘talent’ exists. However, I think we put too much emphasis on it. Like brdubard said, everyone has an aptitude for something. Everyone is ‘smart’ when it comes to at least one thing. I also think aptitude runs in families too.

    However, talent is not a requirement for success. I believe hunger for success far outstrips ‘talent’. You can be talented all day long, but if you don’t put the work in, it’ll get you nowhere. It’s icing on the cake. And for a lot of good cakes, icing is pretty unnecessary.

    I read that book Unbroken last year and Louis’s journey to become a track star left a deeper impression on me than his time as a POW. As a kid, you’d never say he had a ‘talent’ for track. He was always last in his races, and his lungs had been damaged by pneumonia as a toddler. His family didn’t have the money to give him private lessons or coaching. Matter a fact, he was always in trouble. Stealing, getting into fights, you name it. It seemed like he wouldn’t do much with his life.

    But he had a brother who believed in him and hunger for more out of life. And an obsession to succeed at track. Because track and field was the only thing he had going for him. And in about ten years, he went from a delinquent to an Olympian. The one percent of one percent, as you put it.

    Did he have a natural aptitude for it? Maybe. I don’t know. His brother was pretty good at it too. And Louis was able to outrun the cops on several occasions, before he started training. But he could have easily given up because by all indications, track was definitely not his thing.

    That story, to me, proves that talent doesn’t need to be a factor when you want something badly enough. You want it? Go after it with everything you have. Forget talent. As a matter of fact, to piggy back on the ‘talent is laziness’ point, your hunger will probably put you above the talented ones when all is said and done. It’s happened to me in the past. I’m speaking as someone who has been told that I had ‘talent’ as a writer. Not only did it inspire laziness, it also made me arrogant and unresponsive to damn good advice in the past. And I’ve seen the ‘mediocre’ writers outstrip me, because they put in the work.

  • Ah yes, the age old nature vs. nurture debate is alive and kicking.

    Aptitude exists. Some of it is what we’re born with (genetics and epigenetics and other *etics all our scientists and other *ists haven’t grokked yet) And some of it is from the environment we’re exposed to when we’re young. Whatever the source, we don’t have a lot of control over our aptitude.

    Effort is what we do with our aptitude. How much work we put into it. This is the part we can definitely control.

    Talent is the combination of aptitude and effort.

    That means some of our “talent” we can control, and some of it we can’t. But it means we definitely *can* change our “talent”, with effort.

    But I think talent is a kind of useless word, because it means different things to different people. So I prefer to just call it skill, because that’s what talent really is – whether it comes from a more intuitive aptitude or a more disciplined effort, it’s still just skill. And saying it’s skill is better than saying it’s talent, because it doesn’t imply that those of us that weren’t blessed to spout Shakesperean sonnets from birth are doomed to mediocrity.

    Some people are blessed with so much aptitude that they may be “talented” (skilled) without much work. But this is way, way, way rarer than most everyone believes – even the greatest artists and most natural “talents” talk about how much work they had to put into it to master their skills.

    The rest of us may be born with little aptitude, but we can become “talented” through effort. Everyone, and I mean literally everyone, can become *more* “talented” through effort.

    Hal Croasmun, who teaches screenwriting classes at ScreenWritingU.com, tells a story about talent. When he began public speaking, he went to ToastMasters to learn and get some experience. After one of his speeches, a more experienced older man came up to him and basically told him that it was nice that he tried, but he didn’t really have the talent for public speaking, so he shouldn’t quit his day job. Later, after Hal had been giving presentations and speeches for his business for a year or two, the exact same guy came up to him. The older man didn’t recognize Hal, and told Hal he was an extremely talented speaker. The only difference here? A couple years of experience (effort). And an elitist snob that thought he could recognize “natural talent”.

    So if someone says you’re not “talented”, don’t reject or ignore them. Just take it as a sign that:
    A. They’re an elitist snob.
    B. You have to put in more effort to improve your talent.
    or C. (The most likely answer) A little of both.
    We can’t control whether or not someone is a snob, but we can always improve our talent.

      • No, but you should assume they’re not telling you the only truth about yourself, or even the most important one. What we think of ourselves tends to outweigh the opinions of others.

  • I have to say that I believe talent exists.

    Much like Chuck mentions – I’ve seen it very rarely in musicians and athletes. The best example I can think of is a kid I knew growing up who, at 12, could sit at a piano and make up compositions on the fly that absolutely entranced those who listened to him, and utterly floored our local music teachers. If I recall correctly, he was blessed both with perfect pitch, an eidetic memory, and a boat load of just innate creative musical talent. However, to my knowledge, he never did anything with it and ended up working a dead-end job in customer service or telemarketing. Which is what seems to happen to anyone I know who was considered talented in grade or high school.

    Regarding athletics, particularly the more brutal sports; there is quite a bit of talent involved. Genetics and early health care make huge differences in life-long growth potential – and that matters a lot in certain sports. Some one who grows up to be 5′ and 100 lbs is going to get flattened in most violent sports by someone who is naturally muscular, 6’4″, and 225 lbs; and be at a major handicap in any sport heavily reliant upon reach.

    That said, in almost all cases drive/dedication and luck/opportunity are far more important. Talent is useless without the will to apply it. Hard work, unlike talent, already requires dedication, focus, and a will to succeed – which puts those who have to work hard at an advantage in a lot of areas. However; hard work, talent, and drive are useless with out the right opportunities to improve, utilize, and/or capitalize on that talent – but, as Chuck mentioned, that’s a topic for another day.

    Oh, and regarding the 1% of the 1%…

    Economically and politically, we live in a world where really only 1% of the 1% matters – as they have the majority of the wealth (and thereby influence and power), and, for all practical purposes, effectively push their rules and desires on the rest of us. If you’re not shooting to be the 1% of the 1%, there’s a very good chance that, well, you don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. I’m not saying it should be that way – I don’t think you can have an effective democracy where society is controlled and influenced so heavily by those at the top; but that’s is the way it is right now.

    Further, beyond material wealth, we have an amazingly networked and interconnected world right now, the unparalleled ability to record and review everything that happens and has happened, and the largest population of humans ever known to exist at the same time (7 billion and counting). You have to the best of the best, if you want to leave a lasting and meaningful mark on the face of history – or even your local cultural enclave (seeing as you are competing against not just your local peers, but every one else around the world, and possibly everyone who ever lived that we have records for, depending on your area of expertise).

    So, specifically regarding athletics, unless you are engaging in them because you find them fun, you probably should give up if you can’t go gold/pro. Sports tend to destroy human bodies pretty effectively when played at a highly competitive level, and there’s no reason to trash your health if you can’t get a huge pay day out of it, make a mark in the history books, or really, really enjoy playing them.

  • Well. That was definitely a thought provoking post. I’ve waffled back and forth along with your very salient points, so much so that I’m pure tee dizzy. One minute, yeah, that! The next minute, no, not that!

    IDK. On the one hand, I think there’s something to be said for the “natural aptitude” brdubard brings up. On the other hand, do we all just naturally migrate to it somehow? For instance, I didn’t have a clue if I could write – for a long time. I’ve been a heavy reader all my life, and eventually I thought, “I can do this too.” Then I tried. And yeah, It’s. so. hard. Does anyone else think I can write. Shit if I know. Some like it. More don’t, probably – at least at this point. (more work to be done) What if I’m writing like a fiend, and pushing, pushing pushing, and I don’t really “have it?” How would I even know?

    This is going to leave me with a big fat question mark hovering over my head for a long time, like that little funky rain cloud in cartoon panels.

  • I don’t know if this correlates directly or not, but for what it’s worth I went to Grad school for film and the school I attended made a big thing about bringing industry types in from various crafts and declines to talk a little about their job. Invariably, the “breaking in” question was asked, and with every single person, no matter if they were a screenwriter or a cameraman or an executive, the answer to “how did you get your start” always boiled down to they were in the right place at the right time. They knew someone who introduced to someone or got their script to someone who was able to make a phone call. It was always something along those line, and when you boiled it down it was basic luck. Of course, they had to have some bit competence in their job to sustain a career, but what got their foot in the door, invariably could be chalked more up to mere chance than any kind of talent. Of course, as Scorsese says in the beginning of The Color of Money, “For some players, luck itself is an art.”

    For a while, I worked in development for a fairly major studio in Hollywood, and I noticed that the success of a screenwriter had as much to do with networking and being good in a room as much as it had to do with the actual ability to write a good screenplay. Tenacity plays a crucial role as well. I know so many good writers who at a certain point just said “fuck it”, gave up and moved on the something else.

  • March 2, 2015 at 3:16 PM // Reply

    So much love for this whole post. I found this enlightening, in particular: 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.

    Because, of course, if you believe in being gifted and talented, then it is only logical that these attributes will not be assigned to those who aren’t respected by large numbers of people.

    I’ve lived with talented people, and what I saw was that talent only carried them so far. They received great accolades early in life for being brilliant at their ‘thing’, and when the going got tough, when those who’d worked hard and studied and practiced caught up with them, all of the sudden, their ‘thing’ wasn’t so hot any more, and working to be better than they currently were wasn’t something they knew how to do. I used to beg the powers that be for one tenth of the talent I saw in these people. Now, I’m kind of glad I had to learn to work for what I want. It has served me well in all walks of life.

    I don’t know why we as a society seem to value intrinsic ability over sheer hard work. Yes, you need a certain amount of intrinsic ability to do certain things. Is it easier to start with natural ability and *then* put in the work? Hell, yes! But it is not everything. Talent just indicates where you start on the ladder, not where you finish.

    • And I love your post.

      As someone who was described as talented when he was younger, I would love to have been able to trade that talent for the drive I’ve seen in people who have succeed; with the exception of athletic talent for athletic drive. While I can work hard, I find it difficult to find the motivation to do so unless someone specifically depends on me or my work. As such, I quickly fell way behind my peers after college. I just find it hard to care as much as they do.

      Athletics is a special case. Given the extremely competitive nature of athletics, the huge pool of potential candidates, and the ungodly number of factors that fact into physical growth characteristics; talent plays a huge role in whether or not a person would/could engage in sport at an olympic or professional level. If someone doesn’t start high enough on that ladder, no amount of training will make them competitive. Even the people who are high on that ladder have to under go an insane amount of never ending training and conditioning.

      Though I supposedly had a lot of potential in certain violent sports, I would still prefer the potential over the drive. From the damage I’ve seen friends and other athletes do to their bodies in the pursuit of their dreams, I’d much prefer to have the talent and waste it than have the drive and not be able to live my dream or live my dream but be left with a broken body several years later. Or to die while playing a stupid fucking game, whether that be due to injuries sustained from play or due to complications from performance enhancing drugs.

      As for why society seems to value intrinsic ability over sheer hard work. From an economic point of view, everyone wants to be able to minimize their cost. Hard work is, generally, a huge cost. Someone somewhere has to pay for that work some how. Maybe it’s your employer training you on the job (money out of their pocket), or your teacher at school (money out of the government’s/taxpayers’ pockets), or your parents’ willingness to give you room and board while you hone your skills (money out of their pockets). Someone has to pay for hard work, and everyone wants it to be someone else – especially when it can take two or more years of hard work to become decent at something.

      On the other hand, intrinsic ability is viewed as having no cost. If you are innately talented, no one has to teach you or educate you or bother to help you in any way. You just pop into existence fully formed and ready to produce/perform for them. Thus people want it, and want others to have it. Because, as a society, we are largely driven by a myopic form of capitalism that is only worried about how the most immediate and visible of costs impact the shortest of terms.

      • March 2, 2015 at 6:36 PM // Reply

        On the other hand, intrinsic ability is viewed as having no cost. If you are innately talented, no one has to teach you or educate you or bother to help you in any way. You just pop into existence fully formed and ready to produce/perform for them. Thus people want it, and want others to have it. Because, as a society, we are largely driven by a myopic form of capitalism that is only worried about how the most immediate and visible of costs impact the shortest of terms.

        This made me smile because over and over again, I keep hearing from employers how no one knows how to work anymore. 😉

        • Who can’t help but be amused at capitalism’s indomitable corrosion of our species’ cultures and values possibly leading to our organization a self-imposed oligarchical police state? Right? 😉

          In all seriousness, I’m glad it made you smile; however, this is one of those things that really depresses me. 🙁

  • I think you’re right. Talent whether it is real or some arbitrary is kind of beside the point. If you do nothing with it, how valuable is it? I think that if there is such a thing as talent it has to be something you make yourself, through your work, your vision, your will and balls to the walls effort. Maybe people are comforted by the concept of talent, that it gives them something to fall back on if everything goes to shit, or makes them feel special in a world where no one feels special. But I would rather use words like ability, skill, creativity – they seem more appropriate and a helluva lot more relevant than talent.

    I don’t know if I’m talented but I sure am determined to kick ass as much as I possibly can. To me, that’s probably the most important thing.

    Good rant. Thanks.

    Annie

  • I agree with your end conclusion. An innate ability means nothing without passion and slogging hard work (and then somehow magically finding the people who will enjoy one’s creative effort because all creative work is completely subjective). I really needed this blog post today. Sometimes talents can feel like giant gold chains around the neck. If I’m not working with all of them…practicing to stand under the weight…I end up feeling like I’m on the ground with my face in the dirt (because they’re so damn heavy)…and even if I’m working on one of them…how do you get back up off the freaking floor? You have to take the chains off. I have to stop thinking I’m a “talent” slave because the talents are there to serve me not the other way around. That means I need to ask myself…where is my passion pointing on the talent wheel? Which do I really want to work on? The blue talent? The green one? The pink one? Which talent make me feel like singing Zippidity Doo da? Which one(s) will bring me the most pleasure even if everyone else on the planet thinks my creative efforts are crappola? It’s time to take the freaking heavy chains off and have some fun.

  • Thank you for your insight about the burden of being told you’re talented in one particular thing. I’ve been struggling with a character who deals with that very conundrum. You stated it so clearly, you’ve given me an idea about how to bring that out. Thanks again.

  • Case in point about how worthless talent is, compared to success… I’ve written about 10,000 words so far–I’m self-publishing my first short story on Smashwords in the next month or so. Before that, I wrote very little. I’ve had a story in my head for 22 years that only now I’m starting to turn into a novel. That 10K short story is kind of a test bed to see what people think of my writing, and what good their feedback will do for my 22-year-old unwritten novel. By no means do I consider myself talented.

    My wife, who’s very objective even though she’s my wife (or maybe because), knows what good writing is–she’s the perfect example of a bookworm. She gets through a book each week or less, a mixture of suspense and thrillers with the occasional romance. She doesn’t believe she can write worth shit, but she might make a good editor. She’s editing my short story. I’m waiting for her to get a look at my second draft after telling me I need to clean up a few parts, and elaborate on a few other parts.

    Here’s the punchline. She’s read the 50 Shades trilogy. She considers my writing to be way better than E. L. James’ writing. She found James’ story characters to be flat, the plot weak. The subject matter is what made those books a success. Will I consider my 22-year-old story worthy of a silver-screen adaptation? That would be cool. But heck no. I doubt I’ll see the success the James has seen, even though my writing is apparently better than hers. She not talented, but she’s successful, and her success proves how worthless talent is.

  • Metaphorically I am standing up and applauding you. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as talent but if there is then it’s only a spark, just the tiniest mote of light that must be cossetted and husbanded carefully if it’s going to be any use.

    Talent is like luck. My Dad, a keen amateur golfer, used to quote the great Lee Trevino as saying “The more I practice the luckier I get.”

    I think when it comes to writing it’s not so much talent as interest and hard work. A person is either interested in story or they are not. If they’re interested in story then they’re either interested in words or they are not. If they’re interested in words then they either like reading or they don’t. They either enjoy listening to people or they don’t. If you’re interested in story and words and you like reading and listening then maybe you’re willing to put in the practice to write.

    Maybe you will write and re-write and learn to look at your own work as objectively as possible and track down people who give you useful critiques and choose to spend time with people who support your ambition. That’s not talent. That’s application.

    I think we call it talent because a lot of the work doesn’t feel like work. I watch films and read books and comics and I have conversations I enjoy with people I like. But all the time the part of my brain that loves story enough to want to be a writer is harvesting it all. I’m learning about story structure, I’m re-writing dialogue in my head because there’s got to be a better way to say it, I’m listening to the way the things that people don’t talk about show what they’re really thinking.

    But none of that is writing unless at some point I sit my arse down and actually write something. That’s the bit that feels like work. But while you’re doing it the story sometimes seems to come out of no-where. The characters don’t sound like you. They do stuff you weren’t expecting. The plot wriggles in your hands like a living thing. That’s the bit that feels like talent. But that’s really down to all the work that didn’t feel like work.

  • Wow, this covers a lot of territory. As I’ve gotten older and participated in a variety of written communications – journalistic, user-generated, business-tech for profit, poetry, personal communications – I’ve come to a few conclusions on the subject. And since this is the first conversation about it I’ve ever participated in, I have to say the TerribleMinds meets the first criteria:

    1. It has to communicate, and communication is about other person, not you. This is a polite way of saying if no one reads it because they didn’t want to, you failed.

    2. Taste counts. What a lot of people say “can’t be learned” is really aesthetic sensibility. There are a lot of people who can illustrate yet don’t understand the “I’ll know it when I see it” quality to art and pornography 🙂 Likewise, I’ve worked with writers who should and could be good, but who don’t quite get what is beautiful about writing, done well

    3. The ten thousand hour rule still works. Regardless, how much you work at what you do makes a huge difference. A great non-fiction book whose name I forget notes that while many great talents fail, NO great artist, scientist, and athletes succeed at the world class level without 10,000 hours in, and

    4. The right environment for your art makes a difference in your success, regardless. We all know that certain subjects, revelations and truths, have their moment in the sun. I recently reread Lady Chatterly’s Lover… omg, the writing is terrible. I loved it as a teenager.

    5. Quality of personae. I read a wonderful essay in which a writer confessed he could not write his characters in a particular novel well because he harbored a secret belief in his own superiority to those characters. Personal growth was required to become a better writer, and he did the work. When I now read something I love best … typically non-fiction, but occasionally a fictional character … I believe most and aspire to be the kind of person that can tell that kind of truth, one that can get to the edges of their own beliefs and uses the experience to expand upon them. Hooked.

  • I don’t have talent, I work hard at something I love to do, but I have never considered myself talented. Like you Chuck, I have a genius IQ and it didn’t get me anywhere, or stop me from making silly choices in my life. It was only when I was older that I realized I had been trying to live a life programmed by someone else. I got told I couldn’t do art (but I had pretty eyes – that art teacher still gives me the creep when I think about him), but at aged 45 I decided I didn’t accept that and did a creative art and design degree – now I love to draw in my spare time.

    I got told I couldn’t write fiction, my dialogue was too stiff, and I couldn’t create anything – well HA! I now make my living writing fiction books and its a really good living as well. My stories flow, my characters surprise me with the things they say and do, and I love every minute of it and I defy anyone to try and come in and take it away from me.

    Desire is not talent. Hard work is not talent. A strong desire, a love for what you do, followed up by some solid hard work – that’s not talent, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be good at what you are doing and love every minute of it – who needs talent when you’ve got this in your life?

    • Good for you, Lisa! As a fellow forty-mumble-er I can totally relate to your story. Yeah, that genius IQ label is nothing but an albatross – if not hanging round your neck, then at the very least pooping on you from a great height.

      (Although I’ll be honest, I only scraped into the ‘genius range’ by a few points myself. And I suspect it’s bullshit anyway. Call on me when I’ve just split half a pint of milk down myself because I got this impulsive need to check my watch while holding the open carton – yeah, ask me how much of a flippin’ ‘genius’ I am then..!)

      Once you get that ‘gifted’ label it’s never the same. Do really well at something, get top score, create something people really like and… nobody gives a shit. Why would they? You’re gifted, duh, that’s what you do, come back when you can actually SURPRISE us. But if you SCREW UP just a teensy bit – got a B instead of an A, hand your homework in late one time or – worse! – FORGET TO DO IT – and oh my god, suddenly the world ends. How could you DO this? What the hell happened? Do we need to have you psychologically assessed and possibly committed to a mental institution now? YOU FAILED, THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU DO SO YOU MUST HAVE DONE IT DELIBERATELY JUST TO SPITE US OH MY GOD YOU’RE TURNING INTO THE DEVIL-CHILD RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES..!

      And so you grow up believing that making yourself as invisible as possible is infinitely preferable to drawing attention to yourself in any positive way. Nice, quiet life with no shouting and hand-wringing every time you doof up, because you don’t let anyone see you do anything.

      Until you hit forty and turn into Bolshy Middle-aged Woman, when you start thinking, “screw THAT for a game of billiards, I’m gonna do my thing and NO-ONE’s gonna stop me!”

  • Talent exists. I worked in the ad business for many years, employed a lot of writers and coached a lot of would-be writers. Some stars simply shone less brightly than others, despite showing the same amount of dedication, drive and hard work. But it’s not a matter of talented vs untalented. It’s a spectrum. Some people with great ideas simply could not write a graceful paragraph, no matter how much coaching and effort was applied. Others could produce words that really sang but struggled to come up with truly original ideas. We’re all different and all have different aptitudes. That doesn’t mean, however, that anyone else should be allowed to tell you whether you have talent or not – it’s something you need to discover for yourself and it may take a lot of work before you go “Hey…I’m talented after all.”

  • Thank you for this, and in particular for pointing out the trend regarding diversity in various fields. I cannot begin to express how much I’ve seen that bias in effect, and it’s nauseating.

    The most toxic part of the idea to me (on an abstract, individual level, anyway) is the intersection of its subjectivity and its masquerading as The Thing That Matters For Success. I don’t really care if it matters or not – if I can’t measure it and I can’t change it, then I might throw in a fudge factor into my Ultimate Equation for Life Success to account for possible noise it introduces, *maybe*, but what good is a variable I can’t measure and can’t affect?

  • Thank goodness there were no bees today, I was starting to look around franticly for the bee swarm every time my cell phone buzzed.

    Talent is just a seed. Smaller or bigger, it’s still nothing until it grows and it doesn’t grow without effort, help, the right environment, a little fertilizer maybe…oh, I guess eventually it might need the bees.

    The work to cultivate the talent you start with is what matters. Otherwise, the seed grows and produces nothing.

  • March 2, 2015 at 6:29 PM // Reply

    Yup, being told you’re talented can definitely stop you performing at your best. Richard Feynman had that exact problem (he discusses it in his biography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics and then suddenly he couldn’t think anymore. His work ground to a halt because of the weight of expectation. Only after he realised that he didn’t have to hit that bar every time could he start working again.

  • I feel like there’s really two separate kinds of talent and they’re really being conflated here. The first is the “natural aptitude” that others have mentioned — the kid who was born with perfect pitch or the eidetic memory or the perfect anatomical configuration for tightrope walking (I exaggerate to make the point). These show up early in life and attract undue praise from teachers/parents/pandering adults of all ilks.

    Our natural aptitudes our worthless unless we *hone* them. If you’re born with perfect pitch you’ve got a leg up on all the rest of us sorry suckers who can’t sing our way out of a bathtub, but all it is is a leg up. It says jack diddly about whether or not you’re going to be the next Pavarotti.

    The other kind of talent isn’t about “natural aptitude” at all — it’s about doing the time, sweating the sweat, and sticking things out for the long haul. There are no easy roads to mastery no matter what your natural aptitude is — just because you’ve got perfect pitch doesn’t mean your sense of rhythm isn’t just as mediocre as everyone else’s.

    I guarantee that no one has a natural aptitude for writing brilliant novels. Maybe a writer is great at description but beats their brains out trying to wring anything resembling a cogent plot out of their brain. Maybe someone else naturally writes fantastic dialogue but couldn’t describe their way out of a paper bag. No writer is inherently great at everything.

    So the path to writing a brilliant book or composing the next Moonlight Sonata is an awful lot of hard work and dedication, no matter what one’s natural aptitudes might look like. Would having perfect pitch or a brilliant hand at dialogue help? Well maybe — but those things are neither necessary or sufficient for success.

  • March 2, 2015 at 7:17 PM // Reply

    So what do you call the unlimited capacity for creating stories? Writing skillfully and revising effectively and getting published fall under the dedication/perseverance/luck umbrella, but if bursting at the seams with stories (not just ideas, but fully-fleshed plots) for your entire life isn’t talent, what is it?

  • Yeah, I pretty much agree with everything in this post. When the original Toxicfuck McBittershits article showed up on Twitter, I replied with one of my all-time favorite quotes from game developer Edmund McMillen, designer of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac:

    “There is a very discouraging illusion to success. You know, usually with a success story, you just hear the success part and you don’t see the process, and you think: ‘Aww, man, that person got lucky and it was so easy for them. It looked effortless.’ You don’t see the grueling heartache, the rejection, the loss, and all the stuff that’s sacrificed in the process. You just see ‘Wow, a fucking million dollars!’, you know? Out of nowhere! And it’s hard to fight that.

    There’s also the whole misconception of ‘talent’. Talent is a word that people who are babies use to describe themselves [not having] in order to get away with doing nothing and being lazy.

    Talent doesn’t exist. That’s actually a lie.

    People who are good at things are good at them because they enjoy doing them, and they get better the more they work at it. There’s no such thing as this person who’s just born with the ability to do awesome stuff. They might be born with the ability to enjoy doing something so much that they get good at it, but it’s a stupid excuse. You hear the word ‘talent’ mostly used for people who are trying to find an excuse for why they’re not happy with the situation they’re in, because they ‘don’t have talent’, when it’s just complete bullshit.

    You get talent when you work at something and become good at it.”

    To take the definable, traceable criteria that led a person to success and ascribe all of that learning and effort to a concept as ephemeral as talent does them a humongous, unforgivable disservice.

  • I didn’t like to read as a kid. I remember being six or seven and, to my families horror, being told to read a book before leaving for a trip and screaming in anger, “I hate reading!” and throwing it to the ground. But I loved quotes and used to tear the “Quotable Quotes” section out of all my mother’s Reader’s Digest and rewrite them. I attribute this to later starting to write poetry, around junior high.

    I really got my courage up my freshman year and submitted some of my poems to my high school’s annual poetry contest. I got them back with a note saying some encouraging nicety and remember being sorely disappointed I didn’t even get an honorable mention. I continued to write but never competed again. In the last two weeks of my senior year, it randomly occurred to me to give some of my poems to the well-liked English teacher who helped run the contest. I asked her to look at them because other kids really liked her. She took them and said to come back a few days later. When I went back to her, she sat me down and looked very serious saying, “If you had entered the contest this year, you would have taken first place.” I was shocked to my core. It has been one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. You can never win if you don’t compete. I don’t take much stock in talent because my writing got better but even so, it means nothing without the courage to fail.

    At some point in my young adult life, I really wanted to start writing novels. It took me a long time to develop the discipline to start writing something other than poetry. I had always leaned into the things that came easier and I thought because I’ve written all kinds of other things like poetry and newsletters and grants and speeches that I would take to novel writing easily. I was wrong. This is HARD. I knew my writing was Terrible in the beginning but it wasn’t the first time, right? I’ve stuck with it, I’ve gotten better and it’s taken a long time. Because I prefer to believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” from Outliers and I figure I’m hovering somewhere around 5,000 in, right now.

    The third draft will be done by the end of the spring and I’ll finally be ready to beta-test with some readers. Because I will always enter the contest now. Otherwise, how will I ever know if that kid who hated to read could write a half-way decent book after-all? Screw talent – be committed, surround yourself with people that do it better than you and never give up.

  • I tell my son he is smart, and then I explain to him that that means he has the ability to learn things, not an innate knowledge. I never tell him it will be easy, or that he doesn’t have to work — just that he has the raw ingredients.

  • OH MY GOD THANK YOU!!!!!!

    Is the resounding response from me and my three very talented sisters, all of whom have been cracking under the pressure to be the best artist, photographer, musician, and even better artist, from day one.

    Fuck that.

    I don’t want to be the next Van Gogh; I like my ears… and money.

    I want to write, dance, and weave. Was I born with those abilities? Hell no.
    But I love them.
    They complete me.
    And now that I’m finally out from under the weight of people’s expectations, I’m getting really good at all of those things. Because I give a shit about them. Because I’m willing to work myself to the bone for that next level up.

  • March 2, 2015 at 10:52 PM // Reply

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and this post is almost exactly what I was thinking. That’s pretty scary!

    I was ‘talented’ in art growing up. Except that I knew that the only thing I could really draw well was horses. Everything else I needed a reference picture. Now, I know that professional artists use references. However, all my teachers from elementary to high school didn’t feel the need to explain that. We were all just given an assignment, which was basically to draw what we wanted, and then if it was to the teacher’s liking, we got an ‘A’. Several of my classmates in high school were encouraged to seek other electives. I kept thinking I would be one of those, but apparently I was ‘talented’ enough to keep going. Even though I switched to all the different art programs through-out my high school days.

    That, plus going to a college that had a very bad graphic design program, and getting a job where I simply changed the size of a document and pasted a pdf or eps, put me off art for a long time. I’m only just now getting back into it, and it’s like starting all over.

    I was also ‘talented’ at subjects other than math. By which I mean that my senior thesis was written from reading the first chapter of a book I found really boring, and I got highest honors from it. Oh yeah, and I wrote it the night before it was due, in a rush, and flustered, because I was working a part time job at the time and had less time to focus on my homework.

    That whole ‘talent’ thing kept me from writing my own original stuff for a long time too. In high school I wrote a short story about a girl who wished she were as far away from her family as possible because they were just so ‘mean’ and ended up in a beautiful but deadly world that showed her that maybe, just maybe her family weren’t so bad. My teacher made me change it to a boring story about divorce and the girl running away to live with her father. She liked it, I hated it, and when she had me send it to a contest for teenage writers, I sent it in as it was, handwritten with red notes all over it. Yeah, talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Ever since though, I’ve written maybe a few short stories that were my own. Before that, I had written quite a lot. I did write quite a bit of fan fiction after though, and I am still trying to quiet the voice in my head that says I’m just not good enough.

    So, whenever anyone says ‘oh, you’re so talented’, I just grin manically, nod, and then change the subject.

  • “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.” Man, can I relate to this! When I was in 5th grade, some well-meaning teacher administered an IQ test for me. She apparently had little or no experience with scoring the things, because it was determined I had an IQ of 136! Clearly not true, but my parents were working class and didn’t know to question the score, and so it was used to place very high expectations on me, resulting in years of confusion and self-esteem problems for me because I simply couldn’t perform academically to the level adults thought I should. Especially in mathematics. Over the years, it turned out that what I was good at was taking tests. The topic didn’t matter, because multiple choice tests can be passed by someone who knows little of the topic. If they know how to eliminate the obviously wrong answers, they can improve the odds of guessing correctly to 50%. So overall, Chuck, I agree with you. IF talent is a real thing, focusing on it’s value rather than on persistence and work ethic can be a very damaging thing.

  • You’ve touched on a very touchy subject.

    I was never considered “special”. But somehow I was always at the top of my class. I was never considered successful or born to be successful in high school yet, I consider myself successful. It seems things can be assigned and actually be random. And even here, I’m left wondering.

    So. I graduated High School in the top 10 percent, never being labeled special or even likely to succeed.
    I went into the Air Force. Spent 20 years there and retired as a Master Sergeant. This is the bottom rung of the top three non-commissioned officer corp. I did not have the assignments required to achieve the top 2 rungs but I did have wonderful assignments that made my family happy.

    I left the AF and took on a private enterprise role as a project manager for multi-million dollar IT installations.

    I left that after a few years to retire for real, leaving the stress filled IT industry for a quieter life.

    Not long afterward I began to write. This is not a new thing. I’ve done it multiple times in the past but just didn’t know how to move past the infantile starts. Now I know because, yay, the internet.

    So. Do not let anyone tell you that you do not know what you’re doing. I didn’t. But I learned. You can learn too. Go for it. Search it out. You can do it.

  • I think people use the word ‘talent’ to refer to a good many different things, and this is why conversations about how to recognise or act on your own, or your students’ potentials, will persist indefinitely. Have you seen the volumes of literature in cognitive psychology alone that try to unpack the idea?

    Your post also reminds me of some weird something that Plato wrote, in which he was speculating on the great gifts of the poets in the ancient world. Those guys were like travelling rockstars, delivering performances of epics with added improv. How DO they do it? He asked. And then he said something like – sure, blah blah talented, that could ONLY be a gift from the gods, but you know what, it comes with the terrible curse of madness. MADNESS! So there.

    This sounded to me like a bit of sour grapes, you know? But then I thought of all the times and places throughout history, and in my own life, when I’d seen pursuit of the arts referred to this way. An unfortunate backhanded compliment sometimes. That (and the whole damn history of the idea) are also toxic.

  • Hi Chuck, I agree with most of this post, and have an interesting (Well, to me it is) tidbit to add:-
    Watching my three year old grow and learn, I’ve realised that her “talent” is not necessarily something she was born being able to do, but something she has an interest in and focuses on learning about, hence a greater ability to do said thing. I think it comes down to what the child is interested in, from baby age, and then what they WANT to learn about. She, for example, does not like drawing, to my woe. I hated that idea until I realised that when I asked her to draw a face, she would scribble a word. Now I love it. She likes to learn about letters and tries often to write words. I’m hoping this means she will like reading and writing as she grows (yay). The point is, what people call talent may be a child’s preference of learning because of their personality? I’m not saying this answers everything, just a little observation to throw into the mix 🙂

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