Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Oh hey, I transferred my blog to a fancier platform. This article is from April 2019.
Your concept of talent is probably founded on lies. Waiting for permission from talent is a trap that will keep you miserable.
Our culture is full of lies, puppies, especially as regards art and creativity. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest lies that divorces people from their own creative drives: Talent. Or rather, the cluster-fuck of fire-quenching sub-lies snarling around talent, that warp it from a helpful gift to a monstrous gatekeeper.
What Even Is Talent?
Merriam Webster defines talent as “a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude” and “the natural endowments of a person.” Talent is aptitude. And what is aptitude? An “inclination,” a “tendency,” a “natural ability,” and a “capacity for learning.” What does that mean? It means that talent is the mysterious natural force which sparks your interest and shortens your learning curve in a given pursuit. Why do we come wired with greater interest in some subjects than others, even from very young ages? Why do we seem to pick up some subjects faster than others? These are the mysteries—neurological, philosophical, or metaphysical in origin—which, for lack of greater understanding, we name talent. That is all that talent is. Capacity for learning is special and wonderful, undeniably useful, and common as dirt. Any talk of talent that de-centers or denies the learning process, as most of our cultural myths do, is romantic fiction—an awe-struck fucking lie.
We make talent much too precious. We forget what it is, accord it too much power, and in doing so, neglect other, greater powers, like passion, curiosity, practice, play, study, and effort. Let’s list out some of the biggest lies about talent you’ve probably heard, and may have internalized, and see why they’re wrong.
1. Talent is God-given, and fully formed from birth.
This lie says you have it or you don’t, and people who have it have always been great at what they do. Talent means being able to sing like an angel or paint like a master from toddlerhood. It means teaching yourself how to read or calculate equations before preschool. Talent looks like being able to pick up an instrument and play without ever having taken a lesson. No, no, no! This phenomenon may happen, and we can call it a type of talent for lack of better language, but look—these cases are relatively rare, and they’re weird. A kid popping out with the ability to competently play an instrument they’ve never touched before is a lot like a kid popping out fluent in Aramaic. Ok maybe it happens, and it’s cool, but if it’s real, it’s something beyond talent. That kind of ability shouldn’t be seen as a prerequisite for a creative career any more than xenoglossy is a pre-req for a successful career in translation. You’d never tell a student in classical or religious studies they’ve no future in their field if they haven’t been speaking Latin and Greek since age four, whether that skillset is taught by parents or graced by the ether. It’s an absurd notion either way, right? So why is it painfully common to tell music students they’ve no hope if they haven’t been playing or singing well since age four? That your career is already over if you’re not an expert or prodigy by high school? Nonsense!
2. Talent comes easy. You don’t have to work at it.
This lie says that talent is easy, or it isn’t talent. Talent isn’t a boost in learning, so much as a free pass over learning. It just comes naturally. When you have talent, you barely have to work. The process is a breeze. Nope! Talented people still put in their hours. They have easier days and tougher days, leaps and plateaus, just like anyone else. Their learning curves will, by definition, be shorter than some others’, but they still have curves. Process is never a cakewalk at every turn, not for anyone. This lie comes from not seeing, and therefore discounting, all the work that goes into turning talents into skills. Some people begin earlier than others. They play at an activity throughout childhood, and that gives them a head-start in formal studies. Some people receive better quality instruction and supplementary tutoring. That’s a leg-up too. We tend to call these advantages talent, when in truth, they boil down to effort and instruction, very often derived from privilege.
3. Only some people are talented.
This lie says that talent is rare. Talent is not for everyone, only a small group of special people. Prodigy is rare like xenoglossy is rare, sure. The preternatural abilities we hold up as the benchmark for for talent may well be rare. True talent, in the sense of aptitude, inclination, and learning ability, is very common, and just as commonly discounted. We think and speak about talent simplistically, when its mechanics are incredibly complex, and in the gap between expectation and reality, we miss so much. There are as many talents to be had as there are disciplines, activities, and specialties. That’s a lot of fucking potentials! Parents and teachers usually only scout for a handful of aptitudes, like art, math, writing, and athletics. Aptitudes outside the narrow range on the radar are likelier dismissed as interests or curiosities, and might not be as encouraged, if even noticed. To complicate things, learning ability falls on a spectrum, from great ease to great difficulty. You can be exceptionally talented or a little talented. Learning ability divides further by activity. We don’t have one spectrum for learning ability on the whole, we each have hundreds of spectrums for different tasks and fields. You can be exceptionally talented at reading the body language of mice, moderately talented at games of strategy, mildly talented at painting, mediocre at chemistry, and struggle immensely with spelling. More complicated, talent derives from two distinct drives: learning capacity, and inclination. Inclination means interest, and we tend to overlook that side of the equation, because it sounds too much like preference, and preference looks self-indulgent, maybe even whimsical. Interest comes with its own set of spectrums, and might not align with learning ability. Say that, on the axis of learning ability, you’re exceptionally talented at reading the body language of mice, moderately talented at games of strategy, mildly talented at painting, mediocre at chemistry, and struggle immensely with spelling. But on the axis of interest, you’re exceptionally interested in chemistry and cell biology, moderately interested in strategy, mildly interested in geometry, neither interested nor disinterested in mice, and extremely disinterested in visual art. Even more complicated still, talent thrives under recognition, encouragement, and access to relevant resources and instruction. Say we have two people with identical wiring, as described above. One is raised by a chemist and a lawyer with enough money for private schools and tutors. The other is raised by a commercial artist and an English teacher, and attends a rural public school with large classroom sizes, outdated books, and constant standardized testing. Which child grows up talented at what? Talent is common, but it’s rarely seen in its intricacy.
4. The talent of prodigies is the only kind that matters.
This lie says that exceptional aptitude counts, but mild to moderate aptitude doesn’t. It says that folks with lesser talents can’t possibly catch up to the prodigies in their fields. Bad wrong wrong bad! Prodigious talent is more likely to get noticed and recognized because it stands out. And because it stands out, because it is all weird and special, it’s more fun to talk about. Because it’s more fun to talk about, it’s more celebrated. Prodigious talent is nifty and it’s showy. Fine. That doesn’t mean it’s the only talent that matters. Lesser aptitude paired with greater interest can produce the same level of skill. It takes effort to spin a talent into a skill, even more effort to use a skill to make stuff. Possessing talent doesn’t automatically mean using talent well. Skill and labor produce results, not potential. Talent helps, but it’s only an aid and a guide, a means and not an end.
5. Skill is the same as talent.
This lie equates talent, the boosted potential to develop an ability, with skill, the acquired ability itself. It sees finished work and thinks, “pretty nice work there, so much talent.” It’s a slight and seemingly innocuous confusion that generates a lot of grief. In some ways, it doesn’t matter, once you can do something well, how hard you worked to get there, or how long or short your learning curve was. You have a skill for keeps, so long as you exercise it. However, once you do get real good at a thing, others will start calling your earned skill talent. They’ll make unconscious assumptions about how you got there, and erase your learning curve as you arrive at any level of expertise. They will look at your abilities and assume they were at least partially innate. Because talent is celebrated, this error can bring some benefits. (Sidenote: if someone calls you talented, they're giving you a compliment. Be nice, even if you don't agree.) That said, this causes some problems. People tend to compare their student efforts to finished master works, not because they consciously deny the hard work of masters (they may or may not), but because they’re deeply programmed to believe that skill is impossible to attain without talent. They’ll see skilled work that they code as good and therefore talented, and assume it’s impossible for themselves, their friends, or their children to catch up to. That means they’ll discourage themselves, their friends, and their children from trying. Discouragement in the face of perceived talent kills actual talent. What a waste! The other big problem is that many people devalue skills and expertise they believe derive from talent. They can’t imagine how long something takes to make, or how many years and dollars someone invested to acquire their skills. That mindset influences how much people are willing to pay for and support skilled work, especially in the arts. At worst, when people believe another’s hard-earned skills are God-given talents, won by cosmic lottery, they might project a belief that that person has a spiritual obligation to share those “divine gifts” for free.
6. If you’re talented, it’s probably at one thing above all others.
This lie says that Renaissance people are rare, and most of us have one thing, if anything. We should figure it out as soon as possible and specialize. This lie was huge back in my 90’s childhood. I was fortunate to attend a good public grade school that actively valued creativity. But it did this in a kind of screwy way. There was this seldom-spoken assumption that each kid had a thing--one thing—for the teachers to search out and encourage. Not only that, but each kid had a different thing. There was one class artist, one class musician, one class clown, one class star-athlete, one class politician, and okay, maybe a few class scientists and mathematicians—we needed more of those. Outside STEM and soccer, one kid per talent. Once your teacher ID’ed your thing sometime between first and third grade, it could stick with you for life, or so it seemed then. Now, my teachers meant well, and they did this to everyone. As multipotentialites go (credit to Emilie Wapnick for that rad term), I’m one of the lucky ones. Against my own wishes, I was designated class writer, but as long as I knocked out enough writing assignments and kept my grades up, my other hobbies were supported, then encouraged more as I improved. My overall creativity thrived, and my artistry got there eventually. Again, I was lucky. I’ve seen similar thinking seriously derail others who weren’t allowed access to resources and instruction within their interests. These myths crush creativity, waste potential, and deny real talent when it doesn’t manifest as desired or expected. We need to do better for each other. Here’s how: weigh interest and preference much more heavily when assessing talent. Interest is motivation to log more time and effort. Talent follows motivation and curiosity, even if it doesn’t appear right away on the surface. Allow people, especially kids, to explore multiple mis-matching interests in depth, and leave room for interdisciplinary talents and skills to emerge. Drop unspoken talent quotas and abandon the baseless idea that the “best” kid in the art class is the only kid who can do well in art longterm. Drop the expectation that there’s any such thing as “best” in subjective, diverse, and taste-based fields. That’s not truth, it’s not art, it’s not even free-market capitalism (which is bad enough). It’s the cult of monopoly.
7. If you’re untalented at something, it’s not worth your time.
This lie says it takes talent to improve at a thing, and, if you can’t significantly improve, it’s not worth doing. Only bother with the stuff you can do easily and well. Shoot for the quickest learning curve possible in a practical field, then focus and produce. Trying too hard at something you’re poor at can only be painful and embarrassing. This lie is garbage. Yes, time is finite, and yes, we are swimming in the waters of global capitalism, and need to focus and produce to different degrees. That said, hobbies and passions are worthwhile, whether or not we indulge them full time. We’re squishy critters, not factory machines. Fun matters. Curiosity matters. Challenge matters. Ability as a beginner should have no bearing on the worthiness of any endeavor. Ability as a beginner never looks like ability as a seasoned practitioner. Some learning curves are very long, it’s true, but they’re never static. Improvement is always possible. Digging into something challenging, and sticking with a long, slow learning curve can be illuminating, deeply rewarding, and improve your abilities in other fields. Embarrassment can go suck an egg. So can anyone who tries to shame you for doing something you love at less than a master level. Unless your hobby is something like arson, murder, or piracy, your free time is for you, and no-one-else’s business. (If your hobby is murdery pyro-piracy, best not to be talented. Also, stop.)
8. Talent matters more in artistic fields than practical ones.
This lie operates on two fronts. On one front, it weighs talent over effort within artistic potential compared to non-artistic fields. It says to succeed in art, you have to be incredibly talented at a young age, but to succeed in engineering, you have to apply yourself hard over years of training. On the other front, it sees talent in artistic fields more readily than in non-artistic ones. If someone has amazing skills in dance, they must be very talented. If someone has amazing skills in calculus, they must have studied hard. This lie both springs from and reinforces the assumption that so-called practical STEM fields have more worth than artistic fields. This stratified model collaterally devalues practical labor and service based fields like care-taking, customer service, and trades, which are all highly skilled, but recognized as neither hard-working nor talented. All fields benefit from a combination of talent, labor, and skill. All the things in all the fields! It’s not either/or it’s both/and/other/else. If you can’t resist a good hierarchy, try this one on for size: Results > potentials. Skills > aptitudes. Interest + Aptitude = Talent Instruction + Effort + Focus + Time + Talent = Skill Instruction + Effort + Focus + Time + More Time = Skill Skill + Labor = Result Talent is only a fraction of the bigger picture. Prodigies and stars exist, but as a small minority of valuable players. Outside that level of greatest, preternatural ability, work, instruction, and time can cut the difference between those with and without innate talent. This holds in all fields. There is room in the marketplace for makers all along the skill range from pretty good to greatest possible genius. At home, art and craft are for everyone. Skill level shouldn’t interrupt what you like to do in your spare time at all.
Too often we speak of talent as a necessity, a dealbreaker, a gatekeeper, a god-given and unalterable thing. Talent may be innate, but skill is not. When you wish for talent, you’re probably actually wishing for either skill or ease. Ease is often an illusion and skill is earned, even by the talented. Whether you’ve counted them or not, you have talents. You have aptitudes and you have interests. Interest is at least half the battle. Preference matters. Talent will grow where your curiosity points, with or without your expectation, as long as you show up for the work. Asking for evidence of talent before trying something you love is like begging permission from a mute, indifferent specter that can’t be called down by word or desire. It’s not gonna happen. Stop waiting for permission or outside recognition. Brush away the lies between your hands and your creative pilot flame, and turn your fire back on for yourself. Shoot for skill over talent, and before you know it, you’ll trick people into thinking you had talent all along. You’ll know better, of course, and talent’s fickle graces shall haunt you no more.
Wishing you the best of luck deprogramming any internalized discouragement! Got any notes, or tips you want to share? Add a note or ask a question in the comments! Crave more sweet creative musings? Sign up for my newsletter to receive exclusive shop talk, process shots, art tips, and creative exercises.