Friday, February 21, 2014

The Myth of Talent

There was a thread over on Mythic Scribes recently (can't find it to link just at the moment, sadly) which once again got me thinking about talent. I used to be a believer in the concept - there just seemed to be things which came so naturally to me, and which others seemed unable to grasp well on a very basic level. Naturally, the opposite was true in certain fields. So I believed that each person has within them some few "talents" or natural dispositions that were inborn and unalterable. They'd always have advantages in certain tasks, and disadvantages in others.

I guess you could say I still believe in talent, though I no longer believe in talent as a single phenomenon. Rather, I see talent now as something of a derived composite of certain other characteristics. These may be truly basic, some the result of nature and others of nurture, and they are probably most likely to change early in life - our formative years, but they are by no means static after that.

Puncturing the myth of talent is important, I think, because of how often I see people say "well, I'm just good at X activity. It's not something I can teach." To which I think "Bullshit. Damn near everything can be taught." And learning what truly lies at the root of our talents can help us develop them even further.

That's not to say that teaching it will be easy. When I think of writing talent I always consider empathy as its predominant component. It seems to me (though I am ready to be argued with) that the ability to understand and share a wide range of emotions - even to be able to experience them at will - is the most important tool for an artist. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that the primary purpose of the arts is in growing human empathy, the better for helping us all be a little less of an asshole to each other from time to time.

But I digress.

The point is, empathy can be taught. Likewise for any other of talent's components - for writing or for any activity (because the components  of talent change as the task does, of course). Dramatic and comedic timing, for instance. Hard to teach, but possible.

That part - hard to teach - is the real reason why people like to think of talent as some insurmountable static trait. It's just easier to think "they've got it, I don't." We like to do what we're already good at, after all. There aren't a whole lot of people in the world prepared to put in the work required to learn talent.


  1. I would not totally throw the talent as part of the equation aside, for writing or anything else, such as painting, signing, playing baseball, etc. One can teach the mechanics of writing and the basics of storytelling. From there, I believe one can become competent or even better, especially with internal drive and focus and effort and practice.

    But like the composite of skills and abilities that allows one to write, some people are just better suited, prepared, developed...or talented, in a certain area.

    Can an average Joe work hard and have success at writing? Probably. Make a career of it? Possibly. Might others have the potential to do better, or even accomplish the same with less effort? I think so, because of what was discussed above. But that's how I see it.

    1. Doesn't sound like we necessarily disagree on the point. I'm trying to pick apart what elements make a person "just better suited" to something - I believe that those elements, too, can be taught, learned and developed even later in life. It's hard as hell, sure, but possible. Though, the value of increasing your "talent" (meaning the underlying attributes that together create what we call talent) with something later on in life is debatable - as you imply, talent is something that is generally built upon with skill.

      My main thrust with all this is that I don't see talent as some inscrutable and completely static advantage. It, too, is made up of other things and those things can be developed.