Do you believe in talent? Is there a fairy fluttering around blessing special folks with abilities and flying over the rest of us unlucky souls?
I don’t believe it.
I prefer to use the word skill and give credit to the countless hours spent honing one’s craft. For a while I was somewhat fanatical about my disbelief in talent. And like an unpersuasive street preacher I thought I could rid the word talent from the world’s vocabulary.
It didn’t work.
I discovered that announcing “talent doesn’t exist” is a sure way to freeze a conversation. Go ahead and try it. I predict that most people will smile and back away slowly. Who invited the crazy guy?
I thought the choice was between believing the talent myth or evangelizing the virtues of hard work. I missed the alternative. If people want to believe in talent, let them. Here’s why...
Talent is an illusion. And like any good magic trick, the way to leverage the illusion is not to go around explaining how the trick is done. Magicians don’t correct their fans by saying, "No, it’s not really magic. It’s just a trick." Likewise, nobody likes the guy who says, "It’s not magic, I saw him slide the card up his sleeve."
So if you are the type of person who regularly gets referred to as "talented," accept the compliment graciously.
You don’t have to reveal the secrets of your illusion. Nobody really cares how you did the trick. And if they do ask for your secret, tell them the truth. You worked harder than any normal person would think reasonable. That is the truth disguised as magic. The magician Teller explains that the secret to magic is that the best tricks are “a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.”
So if your hard work is mistaken for talent, go ahead and perpetuate the illusion.
Except for in one very important situation. Kids.
With kids it is always better to praise the effort, not the outcome. When Jane wins a blue ribbon, you express how proud you are of the effort she expended to earn the award. When Jimmy loses his chess game you can still praise his effort. Win or lose it is never about a flaw in the child or a special power that only they possess.
If self worth is connected to imaginary concepts like talent, children will be devastated by tiny failures. Why did the talent fairy bless Jane and skip me? But if children learn that effort is the real currency, they will be more likely to invest in themselves for the rest of their life. Show them the secret early so that when they grow up their skills will be indistinguishable from magic.
If you liked my story today you should check out chapter 14 of Art of the Living Dead. It’s called Magic and the Illusion of Talent and it contains some quotes from Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jony Ive. I love this one from Michelangelo:
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
Thanks for reading. See you next week, same time, same place. Stay creative.
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