“What a great writer!” I remember my second-grade teacher praising me for my daily journal. I must be really good at this, I thought. I then kept at it with confidence. These words that were spoken over me bore great influence on my sense of identity as a child and beyond. I continued to write, believing that I had a knack for it. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. She could have written that in everyone’s journal, for all I knew. But because I believed it was true, I practiced. And because I practiced, it became true.
People often throw the word “talent” around when talking about someone’s achievements — particularly artistic, musical, or athletic. “Usain Bolt, now there’s a natural talent.” “Picasso, truly gifted.” Yes, those things are true. When Usain Bolt started running, he was far and away better than most others starting out. But if he’d merely relied upon his talent, he wouldn’t have gotten far. He begged his parents to allow him to work with one of the best coaches. He ate a proper diet for a runner, went to sleep early every night, spent time in the gym, and practiced hard during his training seasons…for years. And then he achieved greatness. Likewise Picasso: he didn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, I think I’m going to paint a dude with one eye and a mouth on top because I’m a talented genius.” He was the son of an art teacher who dedicated his entire life to painting, even when it led him into poverty, at which time he sometimes used his paintings as kindling to keep warm. Picasso didn’t just miraculously achieve success.
We aren’t entirely to blame for believing that people who are good at things are just talented. The media plays a huge role in keeping up this narrative. One headline in particular comes to mind: “Coffee shop worker, 25, Runs First Ever Marathon Qualifies for US Olympic Team” (Daily Mail UK). Talk about a sexy story. How did this ordinary, latte-making gal hit the big-time? Talent, duh…right? Not exactly. The woman being referred to here is Molly Seidel, whose running accolades are endless. Her first marathon ever? Yes, her first time running in a marathon, but then again she was building upon years of coach-guided hard work and racing. A random barista can’t just decide one day to run in the Olympic trials. To qualify for a half marathon, which Seidel did, she had to run at the unthinkable pace of 1:13:00 or faster, so as to secure her spot in trials. Not as glamorous, right?
Telling someone they’re talented may be meant as a compliment, but it actually stands to discredit a person’s dedication and hard work. A friend who is an excellent artist once told me how annoyed he feels when people tell him he’s gifted. He then proceeded to share the story of how when he was a child and there was nothing to do at his grandmother’s house, she would give him a pencil and paper and tell him to draw. He started drawing his favorite animal, an elephant. It was terrible. He drew another and another and another until one day, his elephant looked pretty good. He then learned to shade and draw with correct proportions and never stopped practicing until voila…talent…
Using the word “talent” to give a blanket reason for someone’s success is bothersome, but it’s only a small part of the problem with the overall narrative. The bigger issue, I think, is that it gives people a reason not to even try things. “I wish I could do that, I just don’t have the talent.” This mystical thing, talent, allows you to put a person into a tidy little box and explain away why you couldn’t do something even if you wanted to. This belief breeds lazy, unimaginative people who sit on their couches stuffing popcorn in their faces at night, staring at “talented” people on TV and wondering why they were never struck with that kind of luck.
Look at almost any successful person’s biography and you will see sacrifice, struggle, high heights, and devastating lows. Of course there are outliers, savants, and people of luck or good fortune, but far more often than not, talented people are just people that worked incredibly hard and made the decision to strive for greatness every single day.
The real question is, Do you want to be talented? We all have potential to be great at something. Are you willing to put in the hours it takes? If not, and you are finding fulfillment in other ways, beautiful. But if your answer is yes, then start working toward the thing you admire in other people, because chances are, they’ve been working at it for a long time themselves. Ask someone what they did to get to where they are. Stop feeling sorry for yourself for your lack of talent. Set the alarm or turn off the TV and get rolling. It won’t always be fun or inspiring, and there will be a lot of times when you think it would be easier just not to try. But people never look back on life and regret trying.
I was “talented” yesterday when I ran 12 miles in the hills and I’ll be “talented” today when I work out and eat foods I don’t really feel like eating because they fuel me to become a better runner, and I’ll be “talented” again when I go to bed at 8:30pm instead of turning on the TV. You can be talented, too, trust me…The question is, Are you up to the challenge?