‘Talent’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Talent does matter

Ignore talent at your own peril. Understanding and accepting our innate abilities and limitations is important for healthy growth.

For years, the self-esteem trend in American society has always irritated me. “You can do anything, be anything you want.” “The only limits are the ones you accept.”

Yeah. Fine. I’m all about dreaming big and opening one’s mind to the world of possibility.

I am an escapist. I LIVE in the world of possibility.

I also know damn well that I will never run a five-minute mile, no matter how hard or how often I train. This level of performance exceeds my body’s capacity.

Recognizing, and accepting, this personal limitation doesn’t mean that I should quit running. But it does encourage me to choose a realistic starting corral when I sign up for races. It also offers direction in setting personal goals by helping me understand where I am and where I can expect to be. Maybe I shouldn’t, for example, set my heart upon qualifying for the Olympic track team.

Deny talent if you will . . .

If you’re reading this post, then you’ve no doubt seen the various writing articles that denounce the notion of talent as a cop-out. Like the Rodents of Unusual Size in the legendary Fire Swamp, many writers prefer to believe that writing talent simply doesn’t exist.

They’re idiots.

Every skill—physical, mental, emotional—involves some measure of innate aptitude. Every person is unique and uniquely suited to do different things.

Of course, we can all improve our skill level through effort. At the end of the day, drive and dedicated effort tend to dictate success—an admittedly loaded and completely subjective word—more than anything else.

But to deny the existence of talent is absurd.

An A+ for effort

Growing up in Central Texas, I had a classmate who excelled in everything she did: every area of academic study, every sport she joined. She also had the strongest work ethic of anyone in the class. This girl spent hours every night on her homework and hours every week training for whatever sport was in season.

This bright, hard-working student ended up with the third-highest grade-point average in our class. Neither of the top two students worked nearly as hard for their grades.

Is it fair that she worked harder and still came out behind? Nope.

Does the fact that she missed out on both valedictorian and salutatorian devalue her effort? Of course not.

Her final class ranking merely illustrates that hard work only goes so far.

Get off your butt

At the same time, having greater aptitude doesn’t equate to permission to slack. I have zero respect for talented individuals who perform at higher levels but don’t exert any effort. (Here I’m making a clear distinction between taking it easy and making something look easy.)

Each of us has a responsibility to make the most of our natural abilities, whatever they may be.

Raised in the Bible belt, I still recall—and fear—the parable of the talents. Basic gist: A master entrusts talents (a significant sum of money) to each of three servants, apportioning the talents based on the abilities of each. The first two used their talents wisely and doubled what the master had given them, while the third buried his one measly talent and returned it upon the master’s return.

In case you’re not familiar with the tale, it doesn’t end well for the third guy. The moral comes down to “use it or lose it.”

A better standard

Talent is a thing, okay? It’s part of the equation that helps determine what returns we can expect by investing our time and energy.

That said, talent—either its presence or its dearth—should not dictate our path.

Joy and passion should serve as our guiding light.

If we truly love an endeavor, then pursuing it is its own reward.

In many respects, the creative life is a journey, not a destination. We all start out as beginners, with varying levels of natural ability in different areas. We are charged with developing those abilities and putting them to use. For the most part, however, creating one amazing thing—or a succession of phenomenal songs, paintings, stories, whatever—isn’t the goal. As we improve our craft and advance our skill, those previous masterpieces typically pale in comparison.

Every person follows this path when pursuing a passion, whether it’s tennis, carpentry, poetry. Regardless of innate talent, the process remains constant.

Talent does, however, influence our trajectory and our end point.

Desire trumps talent (to a point)

Maybe you want to support yourself as a novelist. Unfortunately, you’re not having any luck with the traditional publishing route. You can self-publish. You can also hire people to help you promote your work if marketing falls outside your skill set. But if your writing skills don’t meet certain standards, you probably won’t have much luck realizing your dream.

This doesn’t mean that you should give up writing. But perhaps you should put a little less pressure on yourself and accept that maybe you need to spend more time developing your skills before expecting your writing talent to cover your mortgage and groceries.

If you truly love something, then you won’t mind putting in the hard work required to master that endeavor. This effort and dedication can overcome a lack of intrinsic talent.

Even so, acknowledging and assessing your own talent in a particular area, and balancing those gifts with the joy experienced in their pursuit, make it easier to create a healthy framework for following your dreams.

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