As an artist and educator I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of talent. To be transparent, I mostly dislike the word. It’s so often casually tossed out in a manner dismissive of the efforts of the person receiving it.
Oh, you’re so TALENTED.
As in, you were just born with a magical ability to show up long after others get bored. Born with a skill that took time and effort and patience to hone. Born with the thousands of hours you’ve meticulously invested. I call it the “genie-blink” theory, as in people assume that artists must cross their arms and magically blink their work into existence.
It comes from a benign place, this compliment. A sort of old-school piousness that anoints its chosen ones. Talented. Smart. Pretty.
Then again, it’s this same piousness that so often historically chose which people to value based on other criteria: race, ethnicity, gender, status, religion. Not so benign, perhaps. I’m not trying to compare a compliment to some sort of puritanical system, but perhaps they should both be laid to rest for the same reason – that the whole of a person matters.
And what is talent, anyway?
It’s the person who spends hours of their free time drawing. Plucking guitar strings alone in their bedroom. Dancing while no one is watching. Practicing free throws on repeat. Talented kids are so often the ones with literally years of practice more than their peers.
Whatever it is, where does it come from? Love. An inner drive. A personal challenge. The encouragement of a parent or teacher. It doesn’t matter – whatever the source, the devotion is real.
Sometimes it stays, this devotion, and sometimes it fades. Sometimes the “talented” one takes a career path that matches their childhood love. Sometimes they get bored and move on to other things. Or, perhaps they finish what they’ve started – reach the depthes of their deep dive and then go on to something else.
Sometimes talent is simply exposure. Having a peer that piques an interest. A role model that makes something lofty seem possible. Or, exposure to the world at large. Nature vs. nurture.
I remember learning that children in remote parts of South America naturally learn atmospheric perspective years ahead of their urban peers. They aren’t taught the concept; they discover it. Living among mountains helps them see the earth fold into the distance in a way that children from other areas cannot.
Talent? Or simply the quiet observation of the world around them?
We’re taught the concept of nature vs. nurture, as if there’s some magic dividing line between the two. But I’ve watched fledgling birds being taught how to fly. Do this, the father chitters on a breezy day, exaggerating his motions. I’ve watched ducks being taught how to swim. Like this, the mother nudges, paddling her legs above the water to show the one awkwardly swimming in circles. We all need practice, and we all need help.
As a teacher, I’ve witnessed the pitfalls of talent. The student who dismisses their inner passion because they assume they don’t have it. The ego that stands in the way of real learning from the one who supposedly does. The pressure that comes from being deemed talented and feeling a pressure to constantly perform to some lofty standard.
These impacts are real, and avoidable. But they take a shift in perspective. One that sees talent as simply a seed planted in fertile soil; a passion that is cultivated.
So, toss aside your thoughts on talent, your antiquated notions of skills and worth. And embrace whatever your inner voice calls you to do. And then keep doing it until it appears to come so easily that others mistake your effort for magic.