Talent and Skill: Magic versus hard work
I’ve always done creative stuff like drawing and writing and playing musical instruments, as far back as I can remember. By the time I was a teenager, my work was decent enough to be published in my school’s literary journal and the tiny local newspaper and showcased in special recitals. That’s about the time I started getting the comments that still drive me nuts.
“Oh, you’re so talented!”
“I could never do that.”
Here’s the thing. When someone says, “You’re so talented,” what they’re really saying is, “You have some sort of magical inborn gift that allows you to do this with no effort at all.”
Even back in high school, I worked my butt off to reach the level of skill I had. And believe me, I’ve improved a lot since then, and not because of some magical inborn gift, but because I was willing to work very hard at it. Very. Hard.
So every time someone tells me I’m talented (with that starry look in their eyes), what they’re really doing is negating every bit of the time and effort I’ve put into it. They’re writing it off as some sort of magical gift and not the result of actual hard work, as if I haven’t spent thousands of hours practicing and taking lessons and diligently scrutinizing the work of people who are light years better than me just so I can increase my skill by a few tiny notches.
I find it interesting that I rarely get the ‘talented’ comment from people who also do creative things that require a lot of hard work, even if they don’t do exactly the same sort of thing that I do. They understand the struggle, the effort, the blood-sweat-tears aspect of it all.
That leads to the second comment: “I could never do that.” If you believe that artistic, writing, and musical ability are magical inborn gifts, then you’re absolutely right. But they’re not magical inborn gifts at all. They’re learned skills. If you’re not interested in writing or drawing or playing music or some such thing, that’s just fine. Whatever blows your skirt up. But if you wish you could do any of those things—listen closely here—you’re going to have to work at it.
Maybe you drew a picture once and it was horrible or people totally misunderstood what it was supposed to be. Maybe you wrote a story in school and it got a bad grade. Maybe you picked up a guitar and couldn’t make it sound like you wanted it to.
Those are just beginnings. Even prodigies have to take lessons, work hard, and practice like hell. If you tried something once, that’s all you did – try it. You didn’t work at it. You didn’t study and practice and ask someone who’s better at it to help you. You assumed you didn't have the magical inborn gift, but the fact is, there is no such thing. Everyone starts somewhere pretty far down the ladder. Moving up that ladder requires work.
So the next time you’re wowed by a musician or a writer or an artist or any of the other dozens of kinds of creative souls out there, consider the possibility that they got where they are by loads and loads of work. Consider the possibility that if you’re interested in that sort of thing, and if you’re willing to put in the time and effort (that’s a big if, I know) then maybe you could be that ‘talented’ too.
Because the only way to know whether “I could never do that” is true is to actually do the work. It’s not a magical inborn gift, I promise you. And yes, it really is worth all the effort.