Is Talent a Thing?

ameme

According to this guy it is.

I recently had a week–as writers/artists/grad students/humans often do–of supreme self-doubt.

Why, I wondered, did I bother writing if nothing was ever good enough for those I was seeking approval from? Maybe I just wasn’t talented. Maybe I just didn’t have it in me to write the book everyone else obviously wanted to read instead of the one I was working on. Maybe I wasn’t meant to go to grad school. Maybe this writing gig just wasn’t for me.

[cue sad trombone]

Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. But let us linger for a moment longer in the time of crisis.

Did you know that according to Psychology Today,

bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice…When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

I’m sure many of you had this experience growing up. On the whole, ‘bright’ girls are told they ‘are talented.’ Talent is either something you have or you don’t, like the article says.

This is the reason, according to the article, why so many girls

grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves–women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Sound familiar?

I don’t think this is true only of women. I think all writers get this. If they were told they were talented in youth, suddenly a challenge can present as “I’m simply not talented enough to do this.” Leading to never even trying. Giving up, as I almost did.

Is Talent with a capital T a useful concept?

I am honestly not sure if talent is real or not. I think some people have natural proclivities toward certain activities. Some people are naturally built for athletics. Some people have a knack for cooking.

But.

If that person with a knack for cooking quickly abandons it, then so what?

The ever-sassy Chuck Wendig argues that talent as a concept is not only totally not useful, but is actively toxic to the writing process.

It can make you give up way too early. It can pit authors against each other. It can make it seem, at the end of writing a sh*tty first draft, that the mountain ahead of you is so high to climb you might as well never even try.

“Talent” is fabricated.

Add that onto the fact that the basis for “talent” is totally arbitrary, based on what people like and dislike at the moment. And get this: Everybody likes different things. Woah. Weird concept, huh?

Plus, the original author of that “Things I Can Say About an MFA” article, who believes that some people have talent and some people don’t, comes from a position of power in the institution of education and of writing. He is part of the group of (mostly privileged individuals) who set the standard for what is good writing and what isn’t. But here’s the thing–because he is in power, he doesn’t have to just say “there are some things I like and some things I don’t like.” He gets to trade “things I like” with “talent.” That is not a power that most of us out in the real world have–all we can do is write and sweat and write and hope that he smiles upon what we’ve done.

Talent ignores hard work.

In the comments section of that Wendig article, one young writer shared his experience. He said an older writer constantly told him how lucky he was to be “talented,” to not have had to work as hard as he did. But the younger writer worked just as hard–the older writer just hadn’t seen all the work before that:

[People who believe in it] think “talented” people make it look easy because they didn’t see the work that led up to a high level of skill – which means they have gross misconceptions about how much work anything worthwhile takes in the first place.

Greatness takes work. Lots and lots of it. Only when you work really really really really really really really hard can you achieve success.

My self-doubt began to abate after reading that Wendig article. It was then that I solved the problem as I solve most of my problems–by stopping the train of thought and doing something active. I got up the next morning and wrote some emails to my writing mentors, I revised a story, and read some books. Getting something done made me feel much better–and also I actually got things done instead of worrying if I could get them done.

And so I propose this new mantra: Stop thinking. Start writing.

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1 Comment

Filed under The Writer's Life

One response to “Is Talent a Thing?

  1. Great post. Although I’m not 100% on board with your mantra, as I’m going to be thinking… about writing. 😉

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