Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Is Talent Real?

We had a party to go to Sunday night and I fell into conversation with a professional artist ... at one point, he was saying that he firmly believes anyone can learn to draw. "It's all eye/hand coordination. If you can tie your shoes or thread a needle, you can draw. Then all you need to learn is the basic forms and how perspective works."

I thought about this for a second, then asked him, "Do you believe in talent?"

No, he said. He doesn't. "It's all practice. Talent is just another word for lots of practice." This was coming from a guy who, by my measure, is a talented artist and makes his living drawing. But there he was, disavowing his own talent.

I've seen this question asked a few places, and it seems that the people who defend talent the most vocally are amateurs or earlier in their journey. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but most of the professionals I know put much more stock in hard work, in grinding it out day in and day out, than they do in pure talent.

Here's what I think: maybe talent is just another word for being born with certain attributes that support a certain endeavor. You know. A kid shoots up to 7'2" when he's 18 and goes into the NBA. His height isn't talent, but it makes it possible for him to play ball. Or a student has an excellent memory for 3D shapes and texture ... a possible sculptor hidden in the mix? A kid is born with perfect pitch. Or an excellent memory. If you choose to press these attributes into the pursuit of a certain profession, viola! You're talented.

Big whoop.

If it even exists at all, I think what we call talent is merely the key to entry. At some point in any artistic endeavor, pretty much everybody you meet is going to have talent, or whatever passes for it. I can pretty much guarantee there's nobody on the New York Times best-seller list who isn't an accomplished and highly skilled writer. So like my artist friend said, it really does come down to hard work ... and talent is beside the point, an afterthought.


Mark Terry said...

You gave me a chance to trot out my version of this, shared damn near everywhere including my blog and Erica's, which I stole from Stephen King, who stole it from someone else.

Talent is a knife. We're all given one. Sometimes it's big, sometimes it's small. Practice, practice, practice is how we sharpen the knife. Even a tiny knife if sharpened enough--think scalpel--can cut through damn near anything. But it can't if it's not sharpened.

Melanie Avila said...

I think you've nailed the key point in the argument: what we're born with. I'm one who always says I think there needs to be a foundation of talent, but what I think I really mean is just what you said -- a person is born with certain qualities that makes success possible. That doesn't excuse them from hard work, it just points them in the right direction.

spyscribbler said...

I've been teaching little musicians for 13 years, and I don't believe in talent at all. Not in the slightest. The only relevancy it has to success is that those who have a big predilection for music and piano tend to be unable to work, and are soon surpassed by "average" students. At which point people stop calling them talented and start calling the "average" students talented.

And seriously, that talent can be taught. Eventually, all students can sound talented. Talent can be taught.

Tena Russ said...

Brilliant essay. Aptitude will only get you so far. It's supportive, but not a guarantee of greatness. Maybe the real talent is in recognizing the need to W.O.R.K.

Mark Terry said...

One way or the other, I think "talent" is about the cheapest commodity out there. It's what you do with it and train for that gives it value.

LurkerMonkey said...

This is one of those areas where my thinking has changed as I got older. When I was younger, I strongly believed in talent. Maybe I just didn't like the idea of really hard work :)

Erica Orloff said...

Hmm . . . I'm not as far to the extreme as Spy. I have a kid who is a musician and requested--make that BEGGED--for violin lessons at 3 years old. She definitely arrived in this world with something that is akin to talent. A gift. Genetics. Talent. Something. Label it what you want . . .

But she works her butt off now to take it from a "she's talented" realm to "she's talented enough to make a living at it and travel the world" level, which is her goal.

As the mother of four, again, like Spy, I can see in my own petri dish what gifts my kids arrived on earth with. But what they end up doing with those is another equation entirely.


LurkerMonkey said...

The more I think on it, the more opaque it seems ... A strong interest in something from a very early age isn't exactly talent ... it's a driving interest. If a kid pursues that driving interest into adulthood, and if that kid is fortunate that their driving interest is coupled with gifts and attributes that are well matched (e.g., height for a basketball player, good pitch for a musician, whatever) there's a pretty good chance he or she will excel at it, based on years of practice and passion alone.

Then again, every so often a Mozart comes along and what the hell do you call that? At its extreme, my wife tends to believe that that kind of transcendent ability is about two steps away from a learning disability. It's "spectrumy," as she calls it. I don't know that I agree necessarily, but then again, when you read bios of those kinds of people, they are often extremely maladapted to live in the regular world.

But ultimately, I agree: it's all about the gifts and skills people are born with and how they are used.

Jude Hardin said...

Talent transcends what can be taught. A million people (basically anyone with ears and fingers and reasonable intelligence) can learn to play a million pianos, but only a handful of those players will ever move listeners to tears.

Hard work and persistence are essential, but I believe talent is a real thing.

Erica Orloff said...

I agree with Jude (and your wife, Lurker). Your last word in your original post is that talent is an "afterthought." I think that just discounts a certain element too much.

And I agree with your wife that there are some that are spectrumy. My Demon Baby is falling very clearly onto a spectrumy spot, and I have been talking to specialists about him. Some of his gifts . . . have no BASIS in anything he is taught. I don't know how to explain a kid who won't play with any toys (ever) but will only take them apart (along with vaccums and radios) and construct robots out of them at age 3. I can't explain his oddities. And now he's showing an extreme interest--beyond the norm--in music. Will he be a Mozart or a criminal mastermind. Don't know. But I know he falls to an extreme outside the norm. He has talents I can't quite fathom. But it's not an afterthought, for sure. It's essence.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I completely believe in talent - and in aptitude. I also know that talent can go untapped, even completely undiscovered - and aptitude can be ignored.

But the above, if found, acknowledged and fostered, are what lead not only to greatness (even if only in one's own family or mind) but to happiness. Because if we're doing what we're meant to do, what our insides drive us to, then we are at a sense of peace. Frankly that has nothing to do with talent.

I also think that while some people have talent - and some have many - some people do not. That doesn't mean they can't be good at something - or even wildly sucessful - it just means their talent may lie elsewhere and might be a hobby instead of a livelihood. How one embraces talent is personal.

Eric said...

I have to disagree with the idea that talent does not exist. I for one can tell you, that despite years of trying to be even passable at basketball, I'm the white guy who can't jump. But to be more precise, I think there is an aspect of any endeavor that can only be fully achieved by someone who "has it". All the drive and effort in the world is not going to change things sometimes, and think it's necessary to acknowledge that. There are people who are just naturally good at certain things. While you may be able to teach them the rules, structure, tactics (however you want to phrase it) of a given activity, some people will hit a wall they just cannot get past. I don't believe in the idea that anyone can do anything, if they just try hard enough. Sometimes, acknowledging that the answer is "no" is not necessarily a bad thing.

LurkerMonkey said...

I wondered when talent's defenders would show up ... :)

A few thoughts. Eric, I think actually you and I agree on something. All the passion in the world won't get you anywhere if you don't have certain attributes necessary to be successful. Like height for a basketball player. It's essential. But is that really a talent? Is the fact that Shaquille O'Neal is 7'2" and 320 pounds a talent? Or is just a fortunate coincidence with his natural drive? Everybody knows you can't play certain sports at the top level if you don't have "the build." So does that mean having "the build" is actually a talent?

I don't think so personally. I think it just means you're lucky that your build and your interests line up.

From there, it's a pretty short jump to intellectual attributes.

Jude & Erika ... here's an interesting true-life story. One of the world's greatest violin players once agreed to a public experiment. This is a guy who, Jude, regularly moves people to tears. He agreed to play violin in a New York subway for a few hours to see what would happen, playing some of the most technically difficult music in the world. Would people stop spontaneously, moved by the immense power of this man's music? Would he draw a crowd of admirers, mesmerized by a true virtuoso?

Guess what happened?

Over the hours, two or three people paused for a few minutes. A few threw some coins in his open violin case without even slowing down. And the VAST majority cruised right by without even noticing. Later, he said it really shook him.

So you tell me. When people are moved to tears, when they are touched, is it possible that it has just as much to do with them as the artist? Perhaps they go into a concert hall primed to be moved. They WANT to be moved. So they are.

Sure, there is a question of semantics here, Amy. Call it talent or attributes. Either works. But I guess I'm sticking with it ... all of it matters a heck of lot less than the willingness to work really, really hard and, hopefully, match your natural attributes with your passion.

Jude Hardin said...


With any art, the audience has to be open to the experience. A great actor could perform Hamlet's soliloquy in the subway, and he too probably wouldn't get much attention (except maybe from the boys in white coats). That doesn't diminish the actor's (or Bill Shakespeare's) talents; it just proves that the subway is a ridiculous venue for such a thing.

And height doesn't necessarily translate to basketball talent. There are guys taller than Shaq who are absolute klutzes and would never even stand a chance of making it on a decent Jr. college team, just as there are guys under 6' who will blow your mind with their ball-handling and shooting ability and speed. And good old Michael Jordon proved that being a genius in one sport doesn't necessarily make you a genius in any sport. He was the best basketball player who ever walked the planet, yet he couldn't cut it on a MINOR LEAGUE baseball team.

Some people are simply born with superior abilities in certain areas. We call that talent. It's a real thing.

Erica Orloff said...

Gotta continue to disagree with you. I actually know about that guy and saw his YouTube clips. But here's the thing, I think it says a LOT more about our harried society than it says anything about talent. I have stopped for buskers on the subway and been moved to tears. I walk into the Met and well at certain paintings. It's how I view life.

Here's another thought I had. Look at something like American Idol. Take 100,000 people. ALL of whom believe they have talent. Boil it down to 12 contestants. You can fairly objectively eliminate about 7 of them off the bat. Then it boils down to taste. And it boils down to some unquantifiable "it" factor, a talent to transform a song. Whether you watch the show or not, that's the principle of it.

I know for a fact I could take voice lessons for fifty years and never develop that, nor develop some kind of ability to ENTER into a song and create art. Yet I have THOUSANDS of songs on my iPod, and consider myself very knowledgable about music both because I am the mother of a musician and the daughter of an exclusive record collector. I don't have the talent gene to DO it, but I can recognize it.

Which leads me back to writing. I think because we can all (most of us anyway) construct a sentence, we think that it's a matter of learning all the rules and just doing it. But people who are like that will never be more than journeyman writers. There is a talent element . . . it may not even determine best-selling success. But there are people who have it and it's not an "afterthought."
And I REALLY like what Eric said.