Confronting the Issue of Talent
tunnel-visioning on things outside our reach

The topic of talent is certainly one that causes some division between people. Clashing opinions, heated arguments of its significance, definition, whether it exists or not, and more.

And what better way to contribute to this mess than to share my own opinion about it? Hooray. Time to get out the pitchforks, baby.

Well, having seen many different types of opinions regarding talent, and holding some unhealthy perceptions about it myself, I think it was about time to properly lay out how I see the concept of talent as a whole, after giving it much thought over the years. My goal in thinking about talent is to see it in a way that is healthy; a way that isn't going to unnecessarily antagonize people, or lament the possibility that I could very well be hopelessly incompetent.

I'll be covering a more broad range of topics regarding talent, such as its relevancy, and some perceptions that people have about talent that I think to be either overblown or unhealthy.

Does It Exist?

I'll be honest, I used to think that natural aptitude wasn't a thing, not because I really thought it didn't exist, but because I knew that the idea as a whole discouraged people. However, I don't think that denying it is the right way to solving the mental weight that it brings to some people; it's best to view talent in a different way instead.

A friend a few years ago approached me about this issue. He wasn't sure if talent existed either. "Isn't it only the hard work and determination of people that leads to skill?" he asked.

I basically gave him a simple thought experiment: imagine giving 100 children the task of learning an instrument (the piano, let's say). Given that all the children start at the same age, have the same level of motivation, and practice the same amount of hours, is it a guarantee that all of them will be the same skill level after a certain period of time?

"Well, not likely at all", he said. And how would it be likely? The variability of human biology as a whole is enough to have people who are "naturally better" than some people, whether it be a physical or neurological advantage.

But note that this presumes that all 100 children are doing the same thing. They know how to practice, they're all motivated, they're putting in the same hours, know how to effectively use those hours, and a lot more things not accounted for. Not to mention, the environmental factors involved with nurturing skill: supportive parents, education, and so much more. The only thing that I assumed hasn't changed is what they were born with. This leads to a massive point that essentially sums up my viewpoint of talent as a whole.

Is It Even Relevant?

I think people give talent more credit that it deserves. It's not to say that it doesn't exist, but rather it's more important to acknowledge that there's so many more things that are within our scope of influence that "talent" almost becomes irrelevant.

I definitely believe that some individuals are truly inspired. However, I think people deify the idea of talent more than everything else that requires it to even grow; there are more things outside of talent that are almost a necessity, and yet we focus on the one thing that is beyond our scope to change.

You could have talent, but give up at the sight of struggle. Have talent, but has so large of an ego that you can't see your own mistakes. Have talent, but have no education, thus not bringing out your true potential. Have talent, but are pressured to pursue something else, killing your passion entirely. There are so many things outside of talent that fight against it, that getting everything on your side and not having talent probably leads to having a greater advantage than having talent but nothing else.

There's this saying that "hard work beats talent", and I don't know why people left out the people who are both "talented and hard-working", but I suppose this is left out for a reason. It highlights that a hard-working "untalented" person will beat a person who's talented but lazy. The brain is fundamentally built upon repeated action, and having the "talent" doesn't mean the brain will build skill by itself.

Talent is more like fertile land: people can bemoan the fact that their land isn't as good as their neighbours, but they don't even consider the fact that they don't water their crops.

Excuses

I think that the bigger issue of talent is not that it exists, but rather people use it as an excuse for inaction. "This person is so talented, so why should I be bothered to do the same thing?"

Well, is this one talented person able to do everything? They are simply one person doing something good, but it doesn't mean that they're going to contribute on everyone's behalf from the sole reason that they're better than everyone else. The world would be sorely lacking of art if only the "Da Vincis" or "Michelangelos" were the people to contribute to that sphere.

Even if these people are talented, what is that to you? Is there some sort of overbearing social pressure to not pursue something just because someone has done it "better"? Also, when does this comparison hold and when does it not? A large majority, if not all children, are terrible when they first start taking up something. Does that mean that they should give up because someone out there is already better than them? If not, why should this comparison only apply to older individuals who aren't experienced in said activity? If we're not going to apply this to every age and to every person, why should we then cherry pick the perceptions that only exists to make ourselves feel bad?

And plus, what does it mean for someone to be more "talented" than another? If you compare say Da Vinci and Van Gogh, who's the better artist? Who's more talented? Their styles are so vastly different that it's not worth comparing the two. How about two human beings in general, comparing their "talent" and value? You could find something to isolate in order to compare the two individuals, but the value of an individual shouldn't be based on merely one or two skills that they invest in. And even then, each of those separate skills also have their own various facets that become very hard to compare between individuals. At that point it's a fool's errand to even try to compare people and their "talent".

What People Actually Want

I have a slight hunch that some people like the idea of being "talented", but not wanting to do the thing that they want to be talented in.

A good example of this is when some people miraculously stumble upon my artwork in real life, they often tell me that "I wish I could draw like that!" (which rarely happens since I don't purposely show my work to other people IRL).

Now, the first thing that always pops into my mind when people say this is "what do they really want?" Do they want the skill of drawing, or do they want to actually draw? I'm willing to bet 99% of the time that the people who "wish" to draw only like the idea of being skilled at drawing, but actually drawing? Eh... no thanks.

To want the skill and yet not wanting to actually do the activity is completely backwards. What's the point in voluntarily building skill in something that you don't even enjoy doing? Skill is the result of action, so building a skill in something that you don't even like doing doesn't happen unless it's through necessity or force. Why should I then wish for skill in something that I don't even like doing enough to take the initiative?

I liked to draw before I even had the conception of wanting to get better at drawing. Heck, I liked to draw before I was even good at drawing. If these people liked drawing, they would've started drawing already, but the idea of skill looms over their desire to draw. This isn't even in the realm of talent anymore, but just pure interest and endurance. I'll get better than a "talented" person sooner or later if said person can't even hold their interest for long enough for any skill to develop.

And if hypothetically the skill could be bestowed to anyone instantaneously, then people won't even hold that skill in high regard anyway, because then everyone could do it. If drawing was as natural as breathing, then it wouldn't be seen in the light that it is being seen for as long as it has existed. There's no satisfaction in a skill that's easily replicable. Wasting our time on social media is certainly an action that is easily replicable, but I don't think people boast about that at all. People don't flaunt their ability to walk and eat, either.

Talent and Age

Another problem that I've seen with the conception of talent is how if a person misses the right "window" to develop their skills (usually early childhood to teens), then they've missed their chance to cultivate their "talent" and now they have to live a life of not being able to do that skill in a high level. How in the world did this perception even arise?

Sure, the brain is more neurologically plastic at a younger age, but a brain doesn't stop making connections regardless of how old it is. I think a large part of why people stop learning when they get older is because they just straight up don't want to learn, or this misconception that old people can't learn. 10 years of experience is still 10 years of experience, regardless if you got that experience when you were 20 or 70 years old.

It's not to say that old people aren't slower at learning and retaining information (it's glaringly obvious, as a matter of fact), but they can certainly make up for it through their experience in other fields and being self-motivated and disciplined; things which children have a really hard time doing on their own.

From what I've gathered, the term "talent" or "prodigy" is almost always something that gets tacked onto young people. Rarely is it ever older people that are labelled as talented, because I think there's an expectation like "well, they're old, so it should be expected that they're good". World-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn said that she was still being called a prodigy at 29 years old, until the term was suddenly dropped when she turned 30. Rather strange, isn't it?

After a certain age, it seems that people attribute a person's skill towards their actions, rather than a given talent. Folks who start later in life and then become proficient are often labeled as "hardworking", "disciplined", or "driven" rather than "talented" or "a prodigy", likely because of their age. People find it more plausible that a person's work ethic led to their skill if they're older, compared to if they were younger, despite the fact that younger "talented" people have to put in a lot of work too.

It also seems that those who are young but talented are often mistaken to be more mature, when in fact that isn't always the case. Children who can do something better than adults are still children, and they do what your typical kid likes to do. Just because they become more of an asset at a younger age doesn't mean we should take away their childhood as well.

And speaking of maturity, skill isn't going to compensate for any amount of immaturity. You could have a brilliant scientist that acts like a child and is insufferable to work with. Talent can truly bring the ego out of people, which certainly hurts other aspects of life that are outside of skill, like relationships.

A Loaded Term

The term "talent" in itself is loaded with its own set of stigma, expectations, and other undesirable things that being labelled as such is almost a curse.

I think one of the more undesirable uses of the word "talent" is its use as a catch-all term. I'll be brutally honest in saying that most people typically use the word "talent" as a compliment because they cannot think of something specific to compliment on. Which takes more effort: "I like how you did X in this way, how it really brings out Y", or "wow, you're so talented"? I see the term "talent" more as a lazy person's compliment than an actual compliment.

This may be a result of ignorance; that is, they don't know what to compliment on specifically, but even if it isn't too overly specific it requires more effort than shouting "talent". I'd rather have someone say that I chose good colours for a piece rather than say that I'm "talented", because it's so broad that it doesn't reinforce anything. This is not to mention that using "talent" as a compliment undermines the hard work that the person has done to cultivate their skill.

Certain stigma towards these sorts of individuals also involve making them feel that they're unworthy to experience hardship because of their talent. "You have no right to complain about your ability because you're so good". This level of thinking definitely strips away the humanity of these individuals, because what are talented people but people? They can suffer from mental health issues, harmful self-perceptions, trauma, and the like. A person's skill doesn't exempt them from the hardships of being a human being.

A Different Focus

Instead of looking towards something that is so nebulous that you could argue whether its existence is present between individuals or not, how about we focus on the things which matter that are within our control?

One of these things that we have is time. I'm pretty sure that all of us could use our time better in one aspect or another. There are a lot of things that take our time and bring no value. No amount of talent is going to save a person from squandering the non-renewable resource that is time.

Another aspect that is within a person's power to develop is their character. A person's talent doesn't suddenly make them a good person. I've definitely observed many occasions of the halo effect, where people who are perceived as intelligent, or even good-looking, are seen as good individuals. The problem with this is that intelligence isn't necessarily a sign of good moral standing.

Could you really say that those serial killers who meticulously plan everything and execute it all to perfection are stupid? How about some of the war criminals in WWII? These acts of evil don't spontaneously occur like some chemical accident in a laboratory; they are often planned and meditated upon in an intelligent manner, but that doesn't negate the fact that it's morally reprehensible.

If you don't think yourself to be smart or talented, at the very least aim to be a good individual. Marcus Aurelius in Meditations summed it up pretty well:

... just because you've abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don't give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.

Meditations 7.67

A Huge Mess

I think the large perception that people have towards talent is a huge mess. People deify the concept to an unhealthy degree, discouraged to the point where they stop doing something that they love doing just because someone else could do it better. With that level of reasoning you might as well throw in the towel because you will always find someone in the world, past or present, that is better than you in one way or another.

Everyone's differing opinions of what talent is and what its implications are make for some rather messy social interactions also. I sometimes see people who don't like the definition of "talent" and yet use the word to describe other people. Why would you label people that you highly esteem a term that you abhor? It doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

Does talent exist? I'd say that it does. However, it's a word that can be interpreted in so many different ways and is such a loaded term that I've simply stopped using it in any context. It brings up more questions and arguments than it does lifting up other people.

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