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?


Video: “On Craft” #3

I recently filmed another short craft video as part of my involvement with the South Gate Creative Writing School here in Denmark (link). In this video, I talk briefly about how I overcome writer’s block. For the final version of the video in which other authors discuss the same, check out the school’s youtube here.

Here I talk about three ways that I overcome writer’s block (although I have many more):
1) Have a side project/pet project/fun project in a different genre
2) Aesthetics/moodboards
3) Talk to your friend about your block OUT LOUD

SJ Whitby’s “Cute Mutants” – a superhero scenario that’s all heart, voice & inclusivity

Read if you like:

Voice, snark, diverse cast, superpowers, badassery, shit-talk, anarchy, talking objects, fast pacing, found family, ensemble cast, A+ parenting/D- parenting, healthy representation of sexuality/ies, coming-of-age themes, X-men, Stray Kids

SJ Whitby’s writing is all about heart. Heart, heart, heart. Broken hearts, happy hearts, hopeful hearts, fearful hearts. Alongside all that heart, you’ll find a voice so discernable and palpable that it drives you to read the next page, and the next, and the next, and the—you get my point. I read the first page of Cute Mutants and instantly felt like I’d known Dylan, the main character, forever.

When I first opened my package and held the book, it felt so polished. The physical feel of it was incredible. It’s definitely one of the most thoroughly processed self-published books I’ve had the fortune of holding in my hand. The formatting is perfect, and the cover art is stunning. It literally looks like it could’ve been printed by a publisher, which tells me just how much work and effort that went into finalizing the project. I was so, so, impressed and find it so, so, admirable.

Right, so, let’s move on to the actual content of the book.

There’s transgender rep, there’s asexual rep, there’s pan rep, there’s BIPOC rep. It’s one of the most inclusive books I’ve read in a long, long time – and that’s partly because it’s self-published and thus doesn’t answer to the biases in the publishing industry. There’s been no gatekeepers here, and it makes for a glorious reading experience. It’s a safe space. You feel welcome. You feel bold.

The inclusivity doesn’t mean there’s no struggle in the book, however. The cast all struggle with your typical coming-of-age problems. Think first loves, discovery of sexuality, separating from parents, disinterest in school, peer pressure, pressure to conform, battling social anxiety in various forms. These more generic struggles are mixed in with the struggles of newly discovered superpowers, an event that happens after the whole cast kiss the same girl at the same party.

What’s mind-numbingly clever here, I think, is the way that Whitby has made the superpowers a physical manifestation of the cast’s deeply personal struggles that often show in their social interactions. Dylan, for example, can talk to objects as a result of social anxiety. Another character’s appearance physically morphs into matching her inner mood at all times because she struggles with her self-esteem. A third character has literal demons crawling around inside her chest as a manifestation of psychological trauma. It’s a clever and fresh spin on the superpower trope that adds a healthy amount of character depth to the conflict at large.

Given that it’s not a book focused on prose, but rather on voice, the pacing does get fast at times, which worried me at the beginning, but overall, it didn’t disconnect me from the characters. I think a lot of that has to do with Whitby’s chokehold grasp on voice. In other books, the fast pacing might have frustrated me, but it worked for me in this case.

This is a book about family, friends and first loves. It’s a book about acceptance and hope, although it doesn’t feel like that at first glance. It feels rather like the opposite. It’s a book about growing up and successfully making a space for yourself in a world that doesn’t give you much room to do so—at whatever cost it takes. It’s a book worth reading, basically.