Talent: How to tell if you have it

Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute
Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute (Photo credit: epSos.de)

(Warning: This is a long post, and not for the faint of heart. No sugar-coating, here.)

The first thing I want to say is that talent is a gift, not an accomplishment. Accomplishments are achieved through effort. No effort: no credit. Using one’s talent to achieve something impressive usually requires some effort, maybe even quite a lot of effort, but a person with little or no talent may deserve far more credit for achieving far less simply because of the amount of effort involved.

The second thing I want to say is that there are different degrees and types of talent –  as some astute readers of my previous post pointed out. Talent isn’t all-or-nothing, and even in a given field, it comes in different flavors.  Within the field of fantasy fiction, the talent of J.R.R. Tolkien differs from that of, say, Ray Bradbury, whose talent is different from that of Louis Carroll.  A.A Milne and Dr. Seuss both wrote wonderful fanciful works for children, but those works are very different in just so many ways. Each of these writers produced something unique and special in its own way, and I don’t think any one of them could have done as well at what any of the others did.

What qualifies me to write on the subject of talent, you may ask. Well, how about half a century of trying to do things – of succeeding and failing – and of watching other people try to do things and succeed and fail…

Let me give you some examples.

There was always a piano in the house when I was growing up, and I tried three times in my childhood and youth to learn to play, at least twice through paid lessons. I remember best the last and most prolonged effort. It was marked by a discouraging rate of progress that stalled completely when I began learning to add simple chords to the melody. I simply could not get through The Irish Washerwoman (played at half-speed) without making a mistake (usually several). It seemed the need to play multiple notes simultaneously with both hands was more than my nervous system could handle.  My general lack of talent for things requiring manual dexterity was confirmed when I later tried playing the recorder (baroque flute) – on which you play one note at a time but using more than one finger for each note – and touch-typing, which uses only one finger at a time to produce each letter.  The bottom line: When it comes to rapid-finger-movement manual skills, I’m slow, I make a lot of mistakes, my rate of improvement is glacial, and my skill plateaus at dismally low levels.

Now contrast my experience with drawing: When I was in elementary school people started saying, “That’s really good, Carol; I wish I could draw like that.” Those early drawings weren’t that good, actually, but I guess they were better than what other kids could do, and I kept getting better at such a rate that the compliments kept coming. People would also ask how I’d gotten so good. I couldn’t tell them. I’d drawn spontaneously from an early age and I spent quite a lot of hours doing it, certainly, but I did so because I liked it. It wasn’t effort, for me. I was generally pleased with what I produced, but kept trying to do a little better because I just wanted to.

I had no art lessons as a child. While I took art classes in junior high and high school, those classes were largely just opportunities for students to show what they could do and experiment with different media. There was very little taught of a how-to nature. I did learn a few things in art classes at the college level, but I wouldn’t have been taking college art classes if I hadn’t already been pretty good at it.

Now, one could hypothesize that there’s something fundamentally different about playing a musical instrument than about drawing – that if I’d spent enough time at the piano, I could have ended up with a scholarship to a music conservatory. I don’t buy it. Take my father in law (not literally). He grew up in rented rooms above a blues bar in Pittsburgh before WWII. The family didn’t have much, but they did have an old piano. (I think maybe his mom gave lessons on it.) Well, he taught himself to play that thing by sitting down and trying to play the things he heard wafting up from downstairs. He had no lessons, and he couldn’t read a note of music. He played entirely by ear, and in a horrendous key that was all sharps, but he was good enough that when he enlisted in the army at the age of eighteen, everyone in his unit knew him as the piano player. He played the accordion too. Basically, if it had a keyboard, he could play it. But if you ever said, “Gee, I wish I could play like that,” he’d tell you to just sit down and try to play something.  Sure, you had to work at it some, but basically that was all there was to it as far as he was concerned.

My father in law always kept a drawing on the wall that I’d done of my husband about the time we were married. It seemed I couldn’t visit without having him go on about how good that drawing was and how he didn’t know how I could do that. Finally I told him that for me drawing the picture was like him playing the piano. It wasn’t that hard for me because I had talent for drawing, just like playing the piano wasn’t that hard for him because he had talent for playing the piano. He finally seemed to get it.

Okay. So I define “talent” as an innate ability to do something that a lot of other people can’t do. It may also manifest as an ability to do something better, or with less effort.

We generally apply the term to the ability to do complex and impressive things – not to trivial traits like tongue-rolling, or obvious physical attributes like being tall enough to reach the top shelf. I assume that talents are written in our genes, if we knew where to look – but I would also bet that they are multi-gene traits that would be pretty hard to sort out completely.

And, based on my vast (ha ha) experience, I’ve identified a few basic characteristics of talented people.  And, if you still have the stomach for this, here goes:

1. Talent manifests early – not necessarily early in a person’s life, but early in a person’s efforts to do a thing. In a group of students trying something for the first time, the ones with talent will stand out, if not in their very first effort then within the first few efforts. If there is any delay it will be because someone or something is holding them back – there is some misconception, they’re being told to do things wrong, (the judges are taking bribes), or they’re hampered by some identifiable handicap.

The bottom line: Talented people don’t work and struggle through years of mediocrity and then suddenly discover – wow! I’ve got talent! Barring some conspiracy of fate or humankind, if you’ve been working on a thing for quite a while and the talent hasn’t come shining through, it’s not going to.

2. For talented people, effort yields progress that is relatively rapid and continuous. This applies to activities that require acquisition of skill or knowledge. (The word relatively is important here.) If progress could be plotted on a graph, the more talented person’s curve would rise more rapidly and top out at a higher level than that of the less talented person. Talented people can, of course, hit temporary snags or plateaus, but they tend to reach higher levels than less-talented people before this happens – and, it’s temporary. They can also, of course, be adversely affected by those external circumstances or handicaps mentioned above, but an observant person should be able to figure out what these are.

So, if you’re trying to learn to do something – and trying, and trying -­ and you just don’t seem to be making progress, it’s time to worry. If there’s nothing obvious getting in your way, and you’re not at the level you want to be at or need to be at to achieve success in your field, it’s probably time to find a new field.

3. Talent is self-rewarding. Talented people often work quite hard at what they do, but they tend to do so voluntarily. They may say that they “love the work” or that it “isn’t work” for them. This is because talent leads directly to success, and success is rewarding. (It helps that they also get lots of praise.) If their lives permit, talented people tend naturally to pursue their talents once they find them – assuming they have any interest – because they’ve found something that works for them. The more diligent and driven will pour in effort and will soar, the more indolent may persistently dabble. Talented artists “struggling for their art” are generally struggling against external circumstances, or perhaps against a conflicting personal handicap (Beethoven with his hearing loss). Perhaps their work isn’t appreciated by the society of their time, or they are being pushed to perform at extravagant levels to satisfy the demands of their patrons or the public. Those who choose professions that depend upon their talent may struggle because of the need to support themselves financially.  Their art may not pay enough. In other words, art is relatively easy for the talented artist.  Being an artist may not be.

So if the pursuit of your dream seems to be all work and no reward – on any level – that’s another bad sign.

4. Talented people know what they are trying to do, and just do it. I think it’s said of Michelangelo that he could see his intended creation within the block of marble and all he had to do was remove the bits that didn’t belong. What I’m getting at here includes this concept but goes beyond it. Talented people tend to evolve within themselves a “vision” of what they want to create or achieve. They can see it, hear it, feel it. Even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, they know what they’re trying to do. And, because they are talented, doing it is a relatively straightforward matter of putting in the time and effort. Relatively straightforward, I say. Some skills may have to be learned. Michelangelo wasn’t born knowing how to use a chisel. Once he’d acquired that basic skill, however, I doubt he had to think much about it. Learning one’s way around a piano is probably a bit more involved than mastering a chisel, but once you’ve gotten there, if you’re talented, basically all you have to do is play.

So, to put it bluntly, if you consistently feel like you’re floundering, odds are it’s time to get out of the water. The course ahead should be clearer than that, and the necessary steps should feel do-able.

A related point involves being able to distinguish quality from the lack of it. The ability to discern quality is not, however, a defining characteristic of the talented person. Obviously there are lots of people who know quality when they see it but have no ability to produce it themselves. These people may become patrons, aficionados, or critics. I can imagine, also, that a talented person might be able to naturally and effortlessly create wonderful things without himself being able to see what was so special about them. People can be blind to their own talent, and yet follow it because it’s what comes naturally. In general, though, knowing what you’re trying to do and knowing what quality is are pretty close to the same thing.

It’s a whole lot easier to write well if you at least know what good writing looks like.

And finally:

5. A word to the talented is sufficient. Talented people often don’t need a lot of instruction.  Depending on the activity involved, they might not need any. A person with musical ability could demonstrate their talent on a deserted island – with their voice, or improvised instruments. Someone with a talent for computer programming is going to need a more specialized environment.  Less-talented people will try to improve their performance by reading advice columns, following rules, or going to seminars on “ten ways to improve your… (whatever)  Talented people will find these same pointers either obvious, or unnecessary – and occasionally just plain wrong.  They either just know these things instinctively, or they figure them out for themselves. And if there is a trick of the trade they haven’t found on their own (yet), telling them once is sufficient (or showing them – semantics and technical jargon can get in the way). They get an instant aha!  and implementation for them is just a matter of doing it.

So, if you’re getting critiques on your work from knowledgeable people, and you can’t figure out what they’re telling you to do, you’re in trouble. Ditto if you keep on getting the same criticisms even after you think you’ve made the corrections.

Talented artists don’t paint by the numbers; they just paint.

Talented writers don’t write by the rules; they just write.

Sometimes life demands that we keep on struggling to do things we’re not very good at – like balancing the checkbook. I felt I needed to become a touch typist, and after thirty odd years (some of them really odd), I am a touch typist – just not a very impressive one, and I never will be. Generally, though, I don’t recommend beating your head against walls. Life is too short. If you find you don’t have talent for a thing, leave it to those who do – unless there’s some pressing reason why you must do it (or you just really want to), and you’re content with doing a less than stellar job of it. There is no shame in this.

Do the best you can, and then go find something that you are good at.