Don’t Call Me Talented 4


If you’re here, then you already know I’m a writer. You might also know I’m a guitarist—and not a half-bad one if I may say so myself.

These are the two creative activities I enjoy the most, and I’ve gotten good at them through practice and study. At least hundreds of hours have gone into each of these, though I certainly haven’t hit Malcolm Gladwell’s magic 10,000 hours of mastery yet.

Yet.

I’m mostly self-taught in both writing and guitar. Sure, I went to school (and I’m in college currently) where I learned to write, and I briefly took guitar lessons and was part of guitar ensemble my senior year of high school, but most of what I’ve learned was the result of challenging myself. And not a small amount of trial and error.

This is why it bothers me when people say I have talent.

Let me first say, though, I know I’m at least a little bit of a jerk for saying this. If someone wants to compliment my abilities, I should let them, right? Well, sure. And usually I’ll just say thanks and that’s the end of it. It doesn’t really bother me that much, but a small part of me also feels slightly insulted when I hear this.

But stick with me, because calling someone else talented can actually be damaging to yourself, as well.

Merriam-Webster (yeah, I went there) defines talent as “a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude … general intelligence or mental power … the natural endowments of a person.”

It’s this last part where the problem arises. Sure, you can call someone smart, and that’s fine, but it’s similarly as problematic. The idea of having “natural endowments” that make you better at something basically assumes your skills come naturally to you, like you were born with such abilities.

The truth is, the people you might consider “talented” had to work for their skills. Even smart people had to learn how to think and, well, learn. “Talented” people make difficult things look easy.

What these people have is not talent but willpower and determination. These people know how to challenge themselves, and have had to learn from the masters who came before. They might even have coaches or a very good support network.

Ultimately, what they have is skill. Skills are honed with years of practice. There are a lot of mistakes you never have to see, maybe even some broken bones along the way. It’s similar to that phenomenon of being jealous of happy couples on Facebook despite never seeing all the bad times, the fights, and the occasional doubt and loss of hope which comes with a real relationship.

Calling someone talented is akin to telling them they never had to work hard for anything, as though it came to them naturally.

The notion of “talent” implies some people are just born better at some things than others. But we’re all born the same: As ugly, naked babies who can’t even hold our heads up or crawl. We all objectively suck as tiny humans. But we learn to crawl, then walk, then run. Our vocabulary expands from mumbles to single words to sentences until we can eventually hold a conversation with another human being.

It’s easy—natural, even—to get jealous of people who are better than us. I do it all the time. But just getting jealous helps no one. In fact, it can even be a little insulting to the target of your jealousy. It’s telling them they don’t deserve to be as skilled as they are, like the years they spent at their craft don’t matter. Getting jealous only robs them of the praise they deserve for putting in the time to develop their skills to mastery.

There are some people who have physical advantages over other people, of course. For instance, Michael Phelps has a larger wingspan than most men his size. But he wouldn’t be as good as he is at swimming if he didn’t put in hours a day at the pool.

And he wasn’t always that good. True story: I used to work with someone who swam against him in high school and won.

Like I said, I’m not innocent of this either. I’ve seen people so skilled at writing or music that I wonder why I even bother if I can never be as good as them. It’s made me want to quit at times.

Then I remember they’re older than me, or they had a lot of music training. I can track their writing abilities back to before they found their voice. Some musicians have video and audio available of their early attempts at music. Even some musicians I follow have only gotten better over the years, and they were already great when I discovered them.

I think it’s important for everyone to recognize that greatness is not born, nor is it the result of sheer luck. I admit when people ask me where I learned to play music, I get a little swell of pride when I can honestly say I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve even learned to do some things I’m not normally very good at well enough people have asked similar questions. For instance, when I mocked up a couple book covers for stories I’ve written or am writing, a couple people asked me who I commissioned.

Okay, now I’m bragging.

The truth is, no one is actually going to be insulted if you call them talented. The real damage caused by calling someone talented is to yourself and your own assessment of your abilities. You can’t be jealous of someone who’s better than you at a skill and do nothing about it. You have to challenge yourself to learn to be as good as them.

In fact, challenge yourself to be better than them.


Photo by Haley Powers on Unsplash


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.


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4 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me Talented

  • A.S. Akkalon

    These are great points. I’ve heard a similar argument made about children – they say you should never praise a child for being smart, but instead praise them for working hard. Getting praised for being smart gives the impression that how well they do or don’t do has nothing to do with their efforts, it’s just a gift they do or don’t have. It makes them think they can’t affect their outcomes in life, which is a dangerous attitude to impart.

    So… you must be very smart to have reached this same conclusion. 😉

    • David Shank Post author

      Yep. I was called smart as a kid. Apparently I picked new things up pretty quickly and that was enough for everyone to shower me with praise. I think it was kind of damaging because I would give up on anything I wasn’t immediately good at and I rarely studied for anything throughout high school. I was also put in a gifted program and because I never learned to work hard, I didn’t do well in that and actually asked to be removed from it because of all the extra work. I just wanted to be a kid 😛

  • Elizabeth Drake

    This reminds me of the discussion we had with our oldest daughter’s teacher. Our oldest daughter is in kindergarten, but doing math at a 2nd grade level and reading at a 4th grade level.

    Still, we ask the teacher to NEVER call her smart or gifted. We only ever praise her for working hard or trying her best.

    She may have a natural ability, but it won’t amount to anything if she won’t work hard.

    • David Shank Post author

      This is wonderful to read about. This isn’t something I had thought about until around my mid-twenties. I remember even back in high school being told I should be getting better grades because I’m smart. Like studying and putting in an effort weren’t the more important factors. I ended up feeling like if I didn’t have a natural inclination toward something, it wasn’t worth the effort. The only positive effect this had was that I focused on the things I was already good at and got even better at them.