On “Talented” Being (Unintended) Blanket Praise

When I was about 14-15 years old, my teacher told my class she believed talent was 50% natural and 50% work. She was talking about me. That year, I’d begun shooting off the grading scale in English, consistently scoring 13s. In the Danish grading system at the time, 13 was nearly impossible to get. And not in an A+ way, but in an A++++ way. It was meant to be that way. It was the ultimate grade you weren’t meant to achieve, but which was (almost begrudgingly) given to you in a “congratulations, you’ve beat the system” sorta way.

The point here is this: I believed my teacher back then.

I believed my “talent” was 50% natural and 50% hard work.

Now, however?

Now, fifteen years later, I view “natural talent” and “hard work” as synonymous—not dichotomous.

Being called “talented” feels a lot like your book being called “unique”. It doesn’t actually say a whole lot about your achievement beyond the fact that you’ve achieved. It’s like an umbrella term. It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s a blanket compliment, really. To me, calling someone “talented” feels like diminishing the time they’ve spent honing their skillset to this point. Not only that, but it makes their skill level sound unattainable to others. You put the emphasis on the result instead of the process—on what you have achieved instead of what you did to get there—which can be discouraging to other creatives. And the last thing we need in our creative industries is more discouragement among each other, am I right?

“Talent” is a work ethic, so praise the work ethic.

Praise the expertise.

Praise the niche knowledge.

Nurturing an ethic/expertise/niche knowledge sounds far less intimidating than nurturing a “talent”. It sounds accessible. Safe. Like this is something you could do, step by step, and not lose your way while doing it. It sounds like a hill to cross, not a mountain to climb.

Discourse is powerful like that.

Discourse can make us stumble—or push us along.

The once popular idea from Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) that 10,000 hours of work made you an expert has nowadays been debunked by the authors of the original study referenced in Gladwell’s books—yet I think the concept itself still holds true, even if the exact hours don’t.

Time equals expertise.

time = hard work = talent = hard work = time

And it’s different when people find this time. Some people are lucky their parents help them find it, so they get an early start, but this doesn’t mean their start is better or more valuable than someone who starts at age thirty or sixty. This brings me to my next point.

If parents recognize what their children love and help them nurture it, teaching them that spending time doing what they love is acceptable no matter what it is (and especially if that love is one the parents don’t understand themselves), then chances are the child will grow up to become an expert in what they grew up loving. What they grew up loving will become their field of expertise. Their livelihood.

Their “talent”.

Because they were encouraged to spent time on it.

Because they worked on it.

Because they loved it.

Let me end this self-indulgent blabber on the quick note that sometimes “talent” has a physical element that’s easily mistaken for natural ability. Such as a pianist having large hands, a basketball player being tall, and just being able-bodied in general. This physical elementhas nothing to do with hard work (hard work can’t give you bigger hands, or make you taller, cool as that’d be), so this element often ends up being perceived as natural ability. Which is then conflated with talent.

But I wouldn’t personally call this talent. I would call it having the upper hand. I would call it luck. Would call it recognizing your advantage.

 But that’s just me.

What about you?


Sources:
http://www.6seconds.org/2020/01/25/the-great-practice-myth-debunking-the-10000-hour-rule/

1 Comment

  1. I think you are on the right track. It is the nurture vs. nature argument all over again. Nature give an individual (physical) traits and (mental/personality) proclivities but that doesn’t automatically parlay into success. The nurture portion of the equation is recognizing the nature and developing it with training and time (as you so eloquently state). A child with a proclivity for music will never become a solo violinist with a prestigious symphony until they have been nurtured through lessons and practice! Likewise a child who loves basketball but is the shortest one in their school (no matter the amount of time spent honing skills) will be very unlikely to play on a professional basketball team. It is never one or the other but a confluence of both the will and desire coupled with the time and effort in service to the gifts of genetics and luck.

    Liked by 1 person

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