You have no talent: An introduction

I have no particular talent, I am merely inquisitive.

Albert Einstein

There are only a handful of words that genuinely set my feet to tapping and get me out of my chair for a veritable dustup. I hate to even say them. It’s painful to me. Here they are: talent, potential, drive, engagement, and absolutely…sure there are more and I will think of them later.

Talent does not exist. You don’t have it, you cannot possess it, and you cannot gain it. There, I’ve said it; it’s out in the open. This is not a post about semantics. I ask that you read with an open mind and that you stave off  your response until you are sure you understand what I’m getting at. It may take several posts.

Social constructs are invented based on non-scientific, but usually observable sets of phenomena. Take something like midlife crisis. When someone refers to it, we have a series of behaviors that rush to our minds. The 50 year-old who goes out and buys a sports car or completely changes appearance. That individual might quit their job and do something that they have always wanted to do. Whatever that might be, but it’s usually something out of the ordinary. I had a professor in undergrad who bought a red convertible, quit his academic job, and went off to become a minister. Why? “Midlife crisis.” It was the catchall excuse for the things that he had wanted to do but had yet to do in his life. Is there any neurological, sociological, quantifiable evidence to suggest that this phenomenon exists? Nope. But we acknowledge it. Old wives tales. Personal myths.We keep them alive and give them energy; we perpetuate them even though they do not exist. They stick around because we agree that they exist. There are far more remarkable events in the life of an individual, but these are the ones that gain prominence and become positions of defense in conversation. We fail to acknowledge that some of these beliefs undermine our credibility.

Talent regularly becomes a hotbed of conversation and eventually argument. I am reminded of a quote from Frank McCourt’s musical The Irish…and How They Got That Way where a woman states, in regard to fairies, “I don’t believe in them…but they’re there.” Some of the most reasonable and scientific of individuals go soft and sentimental–usually because they are thinking of a child with fondness–and start talking about the natural, God-given, inborn, or gift of talent that a person may possess. People use the term talent even though it is in opposition to other, strongly held, educational beliefs. The term mystifies something that should be very transparent and accessible–the development of competence through education, mentoring, and deliberate practice.

Talent is a label given by people who do not know the amount of practice  that has been performed in order to develop observed skills. It is a microinequity. It is an insult. It says, “You have skills that in my judgment, you did not earn.” Isn’t it a much greater ‘gift’ to have worked hard at developing a demonstrable skill? The owners of these skills are, as are most, unreliable in reporting their own levels of interest and effort. When asked if they practice, they under-report. When inquired about their interest, they are blasé. Isaac Stern, when interviewed by Ellen Langer about his practice habits says that he practices sometimes while ‘watching television programs’ and laughs. Musicians are notorious for under- and over-reporting their practice (depending on who they are trying to impress).

Stay tuned for Pt. 1 and please post comments/questions for inclusions in coming posts!

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11 Comments

  • Not sure if you follow this blog: http://theline.edublogs.org/2010/06/03/a-brief-history-of-things-i-vow-to-never-say-again-as-a-teacher/, but I definitely think you should! Thanks for presenting why not to use the word talent.

  • Dr. Timony,

    There is some science to support this thesis. A recent study of chess players did not find their mastery to extend beyond average in games or puzzles that would seem to require similar skills as chess. Even more strikingly, when the pieces were moved into random board positions – positions highly unlikely to have been reached through normal game play – grandmasters had a much more difficult time. This study implies their mastery seems to come from practice and experience, not innate talent. I wrote a little about this study in the context of playwriting here:

    http://fluxtheatreensemble.blogspot.com/2010/03/chess-and-playwriting.html

    That doesn’t mean that nurture has completely conquered nature, but it does mean that the idea of inborn talent as a necessity for quality creative expression may indeed be a myth.

  • Dear Dr. Timony,

    Very well said. My experience is that saying someone “has talent” is not only an insult, it is also a cop-out. If all it takes is hard work (and evidence and experience tends to support this), this means in principle anyone can do it.

    This of course doesn’t mean that anyone can become a world famous concert pianist. There are many other factors that also lend themselves to developing a world-class skill (environment, opportunity, support, physical limitations, etc.). But, at the very least, there is no excuse to not try one’s best.

  • Saul Souza wrote:

    I agree with you, and believe that we need to be educated in the ways of being happy. We are raised to believe that success is equal to being the best. Being the best is a term used for those who work hard and have talent and potental out of the ordinary. But then again are surprised when John Doe comes out of the blue and has extraordinary results and we even make movies about these guys and we are all moved. So talent does not exist but Tiger Woods, Ussaim Bolt, Michael Jordan exist, Einstein… when their existence and admirable reputation for being the best at what they do is proven then we will better understand. IN MY OPINION, they became so good because they loved and passionately dedicated their life to something that matched their abilities, body structure, mental preparation, environment to nurture their passion and love for the activity. Most of us dont really discover what we love ever so we are merely average people who have average results.

  • Doc Irysch wrote:

    So any person, if they practiced enough, could play basketball as good as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson?

  • JennNoTalent wrote:

    Um yeah. No. Seriously? Tiger Woods was an excellent golfer at the age of two. Are you seriously implying he got that way from practicing/being forced by his father to play? I suppose that is a possibility. However someone at two who is that good AT TWO has to have some sort of freak-talent at birth.

    Based upon your theory, I should have a singing voice worthy of a record contract or an audience. Nope. I have sang since I was 9 years old (I am 32 now). I have taken lesson after lesson after lesson. Been in choir after choir after choir. I know HOW to sing. Do I sound good doing it? NO! Do I have a talent for it? NO? So, I have thereby proven your theory wrong. If you don’t believe me, I will be more than happy to send you a tape.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Tiger Woods is a prime example of someone who was trained at the earliest age by a competent mentor. Why is it hard to believe that he would become an excellent golfer?

    Your self-report of an inability to sing despite attempts since age 9 does not disprove “my” theory. Actually, it more likely contributes to the validity of my theory. Interest at an early age makes practice seem a pleasure and is thus underreported in history. That is to say, if you had more interest and it was valued and supported more voraciously in early years, you may have had better outcomes. You may not. It could simply be that you do not possess both the interest and the necessary physical attributes for this to be possible in your mind. Think of Bob Dylan and his crystalline pipes…or Tom Waits…both obviously have the dulcet tones that have made them famous worldwide… Clearly sarcastic but you may find several singers who did not have the typical skills or qualities that many would deem necessary to become famous–or is that a skill of its own?

    Would you credit Shaq with basketball talent because he is tall? Is it more likely that because of his size he was encouraged to play and experienced success at an early age which then spurred his motivation to practice?

    You are quick to dismiss what you do not have. I would suggest that you look at what skills you do possess and see if the skills that you DO possess are better explained rather than the ones you do not. It seems that you are suggesting dichotomy where one may not exist.

  • Dr. Tim, Does a child prodigy pocess talent? I would say that anyone with a unique gift to excell at something more quickly than another who may be practicing the same pedagogy (of music for example) has talent. Although the word does sound understating in such a case….intelligence also is a tired and sensitive word.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Prodigies have two common traits. The first is the one that gets all of the attention: a level of interest and focus that allows them to process and retain significant amounts of information in a short period of time. The second gets less attention because it is far less newsworthy: by the time they are older, they are usually about average.

    These types of examples are the ones brought up when discussing the myth of talent. People want to believe in some inexplicable means by which someone acquired tremendous skill. They hate it when the answer is interest and practice.

    As in the example of Tiger Woods, his father proudly states that he had him learning from the earliest days to master those skills. He was not banking on some “unknown talent,” but he sounds pretty sure that by piquing interest, valuing practice, and encouraging achievement he could go on to do well.

  • Non- talented wrote:

    Dr. Timony my home never encouraged anything except books…… it was believed if I join dance classes it would compromise on my score
    and today I see my friends with better talents and in better colleges than me….. almost everyone one of them has something that they claim proudly that they are god at not to mention the multi-talented ones who are so modest about it… now i feel like a fool amongst everyone.

  • Random Person wrote:

    Non-talented ill tell you something about my life (sry for my english)

    when i was kid (rly little, like 3) my father let me start sky nautique, and in all my life everyone always said to me was super talented, and so i was so sure of that, that i believe it for many years

    noW this is my usual dat at age of 6:
    i wake at 4:00, i start even in december with -10 degree praticing in water(and usually cryng in those cases) then at 8:00 i go to school, when i go out from school and go to swimming pull for 2-3 hours then i keep praticing sky nautique untill i can(untill there is enough light), then pratice on land with a simulator
    untill i go to eat at 21:00
    all 12 month

    thats not talent, its hard work ( or slavery in this case >_>)

    to prove that, everyone on my team(more then 10 ppl) doing the same pratice was one of the best of the nation on their category and everyone was like talented?that make no sense, they was normal ppls

    and it may seem fun, but trust me, its not
    i “started” living when i stopped doing sky nautique as a slave (my mother divorced and i was FREE)

    had similar experience in many different things, like university
    ppl keep telling me im talented, that just make no sense, i study 4 times they do, and when i do it, i do it untill i understand everything more then my prof or untill i sleep on the books (almost everytime)

    and i want to point that before university(where i got all the max in all courses for 3 years, always at first try) i repeated 3 years in the middle school doing 8 instead of 5 years ( i didnt like it, they was forcing me to study there, it wasnt my decision, i was studing like everyone else, doing just homeworks 1-2 hours a day)

    do you want to be good at something? works much harder then everyone else, and more you fail more you try(result never comes fast, they need a lot of time)
    dont hide behind the “im not talented”
    thats just in your mind, had to many proof of it in my life

    of course there are other things to consider, for example, someone teached in sports from early age will have a better and fast way to learn other sports in the future then the others(and when i “teached” i dont mean doing it sometime, like 3-4 times a week for 1-2 hours, but rly doing it, almost everyday for atleast 6-7 hours)

    now i did good in a lot things, but i know there are stuff where i cant be super good at it anymore
    ill give you a example to understand

    to sing(with the voice), im so bad at it, and i know even if i pratice 10x times the others there will be better ppl then me, then the easy answer its “oh, so the better ones are more talented then you at singing”
    wrong

    my mother suck at singing with the voice, and every mother (almost every) sing to their child like before sleep or when u cry
    and in my growing i had this voice singing rly bad everyday
    thats the reason cuz there is better ppl then me even if i pratice more then them, there are stuff you learn in your grow phase that are rly hard to completelly change, the positive and the bad ones

    but in any sport i learn faster then anyone else with the same amount of pratice(if i could switch this with my first 12 years like a normal child, i would make it) cuz i praticed a lot with my body in other sports (sky nautique, football, tennis, swimming)in the growing age that my brains have already the necessary to understand what to do by instinct and learn fast any sport that require many movements

    so, there is nothing like talent, just pratice, earlier you begin better is, harder you try better is
    and if someone who is good at something sais he isnt praticing it or he praticed something similar in his life(like driving the car, if u drive the motorcycle before it, it will be easier to learn) or he is a liar, we are all humans :/

    PS: when someone ask me how much i study (usually they do when i do better exams) i dont say i study 4 times as them, ppl dont like to ear those things.
    and even if i tell them, they dont study more then they was, they just complain like telling me its not good to study that much, i need to go out more or stuff like that without even knowing if i do them or not, just to prove themself that even if they work more they dont get better

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