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Talent is a Myth (Stick with me, I know what I’m doing here…)

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If you know me, you know that I occasionally become inspired by circumstances and have somewhat entertaining rants. If you don’t know me, well I just told you what to expect… 😛

One of the things that creative types, and the types that would aspire to be creative, struggle with is the notion of talent. My whole life I’ve been told how talented I am, or am not. For most of my life, I have considered being told I’m talented to be a compliment and also a part of my personal definition.

Amanda [uhmanduh] -noun A talented artist. (Learn more about Amanda here.)

Sometimes I would find myself wishing for more talent. If I was a little more talented, then I could do this or that great thing. Oh well, I’m only this talented, so I can only do these things, I guess. Hmm..

A couple of years ago, I read the book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin. It was about, well, how talent is overrated. Catchy title , right? Descriptive. But, despite the fact that the title of the book didn’t wander too far off into Creative Land, and that it was a book meant for business-suit-wearing types, it had a lot of interesting information that made me start to think seriously about the assumptions I had made about myself and making art. Now, a couple of years later, after mulling it over a bit and making a lot of careful observation of creativity in its native environment (gotcha), I have come to the conclusion that talent really may just be a myth. And even if it’s not, I just plain don’t have any. And what’s more, I don’t even want any stinkin’ talent anyway.

“But,” you may be thinking, “how is that you make such pretty pictures and paintings and drawings and all the other things that you do if you don’t have any talent? And if there’s no such thing as talent, how come you can do it, but I can’t?” (assuming you don’t, though you might, in which case, nevermind).

The short answer is: Because.

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But since I like you, I’ll elaborate a little. The thing is, I’ve been practicing drawing since I could hold one of those fat little crayons they give preschoolers. I drew on paper, walls, doors, my brother, anything that would hold still. I literally have thousands of hours of practice at drawing. You’d be good at drawing if you practiced that much too. You really would. And painting is the same. I started making paintings when I was fourteen. And because I already had confidence in my drawing skills and believed I was ‘talented‘, I wasn’t terribly frustrated that the painting didn’t go well at first (mega-understatement). So I kept at it, and a decade or two later I got kind of good at it.

Are you seeing a pattern here? It’s not talent that makes a person really good at a skill, it’s hard work. It takes a lot of dedication and determination to practice anything for ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours of practice is what the prevailing theory of mastery is among some of those smarty pants book authors and psychologists who study stuff. The idea is that if you practice for three hours a day for ten years, then you’ll be a master of practicing something.

Ahhh, but the catch is that you have to practice well, not just aimlessly plunk away the notes to Highway to Heaven on your brother’s busted guitar. Nope, you gotta get some sore fingers and make some mistakes. And then you have to figure out what you are the worst at, and do that over and over until you are good at it. This is called deliberate practice, and it’s what separates the hobbyists from the geniuses.

“So what?,” you ask. “What’s the big deal about whether or not there’s a such thing as talent? Does it really matter anyway?”

Yes, I think it does. And here’s why.

When you go visit your doctor and afterwards they hand you the bill, you pay it. You might moan and groan a little about it, but you pay it. You usually don’t negotiate with them or try to convince them to give you a break. After all, the doctor has a staff that has to be supported and the doctor went to medical school and worked really hard as an intern and yadda yadda yadda. It’s the same when the mechanic hands you the bill, or the plumber, or whomever. They worked hard and earned their license or certification, so they should be paid for their work. Right?

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So, here’s the interesting part. Just like your doctor, I went to college and paid a large amount of my own money for the privilege to do so. I studied hard and got good grades. I stayed up for days on end to complete projects. I wrote lengthy research papers about a zillion different topics. I graduated with a respectable GPA and am the proud owner of a piece of paper that cost the equivalent of an Italian sports car.

However, I soon discovered after school that my skills were, shall we say, negotiable in value to the average citizen. While the plumber can tell you that his service will cost $80 per hour and receive no argument, I have observed that there’s a different thing that happens when an artist quotes a price to a client. (Disclaimer: not all clients, not even most, but enough.. there now.) Suddenly the conversation becomes full of flattery and compliments. Oh, you’re so talented. This isn’t hard for you to do. It won’t even take you very long to do.

It seems that because artists have talent and it’s ‘easy’ for them to do things, that somehow makes their skills less valuable on the open market (again the disclaimer: not all clients, not even most, but many, yadda yadda). I’m pretty sure it’s easy for your doctor to dash into your exam room, half listen to your complaint, write something illegible on a prescription pad, and run out the door again. He’s done it hundreds of times. For years. But it’s different.

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But even more than the occasional attempts to negotiate a better price, there’s the general disregard of a person’s lifelong pursuit and passion that kind of gets my goat. A musician, an artist, or an athlete will often exhibit a passion for mastery from a very young age. They become consumed with the pursuit of their passion and find every opportunity to practice and improve. Everyone can think of someone who was like this in high school. While all their friends are busy with their social lives, they will be found studiously at work perfecting their skills. But somehow all this WORK goes unnoticed by their peers.

Here’s the really interesting part. If one of the more socially inclined students is asked to do something, anything, creative… they will immediately become defensive of their attempts at making art and say, “I’m just not creative. I don’t have any talent like so-and-so.” It seems kind of strange to me, but it happens all the time.

A few months back, I went to one of those cool places where they let you drink wine with a bunch of your friends while they coach you through making a cute painting. I didn’t know many of the people there, but I knew a few. I never said a word about being a painter, but someone else spilled the beans for me. (You know who you are.) It made a few others uncomfortable enough that they started making comments about how crummy their paintings were. And I thought how strange that was. You wouldn’t feel defensive about not being able to perform surgery on your friend. You didn’t study it, you haven’t learned how, it seems pretty logical therefore that you wouldn’t know how. But you are comfortable with applying a band-aid to a boo-boo. To me, it’s the same thing. I mean, except for the life and death part. That’s different.

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The point I’m trying to make is that art isn’t really some big mysterious thing. Talent is not what is required to make art, motivation to do the hard work is. There’s lots of ways to make beautiful things and anyone who is interested should do it and enjoy it for what it is, which is FUN. And when you see someone who is doing something exceptional, don’t compare your stuff to theirs and feel inferior. Instead, recognize that they have worked really hard to achieve the level of skill and insightfulness that you see in their work. And understand that if you wanted to do the same thing, you could. You really could. And if you don’t want to devote 10,000 hours to it, that’s ok. You don’t have to do that to enjoy making the things that you can make. The amazing thing about making any kind of art is that there’s a place for everyone at every level to find enjoyment. Not everyone has to be as insane as me and spend every waking moment thinking about how to learn to do it bigger, better, and more amazing.

Ok, so I’m stepping down from the soapbox now. I know that you may be sitting there scratching your head thinking how this is the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. I’d really love to hear your take on this idea of talent. Please be sure to leave a comment and let everyone know what you think. We’re interested!

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One last thing. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you will see that I’ve added a widget so you can enter your email address and subscribe to my blog. It would be great if you would, and I promise I can’t see your email address and I will never spam you. It will simply send these insane blog posts directly to your email inbox so that you can be the first to know when there’s new stuff to see and read.

Thanks again for visiting. It’s always great to have you stop by.

Amanda Summerlin

Amanda Summerlin

Artist and Explorer at Amanda Summerlin Photography
Hello. My name is Amanda. I make neat pictures of nice people, drink coffee and whiskey (sometimes at the same time), and travel. I love traveling so much, I won't charge you any travel fees to photograph your wedding. Check out my travel info page for all the details. And see my blog for all the cool photos.
Amanda Summerlin

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  • Spring - Well. I'll start off by saying you're absolutely right. You took the words right out of my mouth. I can't stand how people just assume that being an artist isn't hard because it's "the talent we're born with" and that's a bunch of crap. As I recall, I didn't come out of my mother with a camera in hand snapping perfect portraits from day one. I definitely remember how I picked up the camera, saw a perfect moment that I wanted to keep, so I pushed the shutter and there it was. There were times when I saw something in my mind and for the life of me, I couldn't get it to come out the same way on film. You have to bust ass to get things the way you want them, no matter what your passion is. So, thank you, Uhmanduh for writing this. It's perfect.

    Wait. Did I even just make sense? hmm…ReplyCancel

  • Melissa Williams-Brown - I'm about 99% with you…I agree that a lot of people confuse talent with hard work and lots of practice. And, I SO agree with your comments about people thinking what our time is worth is negotiable. I think it's funny, people want the most important events in their lives captured on film…weddings, etc., AND they want it to be perfect; however, they complain about the price. Would those people do that if they needed some life-saving/life changing surgery from their doctor? I don't think so. I know I wouldn't!!

    Now, the 1% of me thinks that to be good, and by good, I mean *really* good, does take *some* talent….or maybe aptitude is a better word. Practice makes it better but I think a little bit of it is aptitude.

    That's my two cents.
    MReplyCancel

  • Amanda Summerlin - Wow, thanks you guys. Spring, you made complete sense. It's a lot of work to figure out how to make the box of light do what you want it to do. And I'm with you about the aptitude thing, Melissa. Although I tend to prefer to use the word 'interest'. Or even 'preference'. Everyone has different things that they find interesting, and interest fuels motivation.ReplyCancel

  • Sean - No one has talent. Not even me (there I said it). But figured out that to be good at something you can’t just take lessons, you have to screw around with it until you figure out the pattern and apply it to everything else. I make awesome flash games but it took me an hour to get it right. Now I’m awesome. (taking game requests. Game to be posted on newgrounds. Publish date varies.)(pps. what program do you use to make the site?)ReplyCancel

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