What is “talent”?
Dictionary.com lists as the first definition “a special natural ability or aptitude” and uses art as an example – ” a talent for drawing”.
It is a word that is often used to compliment an artist for their work. “She’s a very talented artist.” “You have so much talent!”
It is also a word often used to express one’s lack of ability. “I wish I could draw like that, but I just don’t have any talent for it.”
To understand what’s wrong with this idea, let’s look a little more at the word “aptitude”.
An aptitude is a component of a competency to do a certain kind of work at a certain level, which can also be considered “talent”. Aptitudes may be physical or mental. Aptitude is not knowledge, understanding, learned or acquired abilities (skills) or attitude. The innate nature of aptitude is in contrast to achievement, which represents knowledge or ability that is gained
(from the Wikipedia entry for “aptitude”, emphasis is my own)
This is why I rarely describe an artist as being “talented”. I even shudder a little when I catch myself saying it without meaning to. It’s not an easy habit to break, but I’d like to ask everyone to make that effort to break it with me. Consider the implications of what you’re saying when you call someone “talented”.
Many artists have no artistic talent at all. They are highly skilled and create beautiful work, but it all comes from years of working hard to learn and perfect their craft. Try using those words instead. “He’s an amazingly skilled artist!” “She’s an artist who creates beautiful pieces!”
I know, I know… I just argued that talent is different from skill. So if you can’t look at someone’s work and know if they were born with artistic talent or not, how can you know it’s skill instead?
Even talented artists have to develop their skills. Talent doesn’t do the job for you… it just makes getting started a bit easier. A talented artist who doesn’t develop their skills will become mediocre rather quickly.
And don’t sell yourself short if you’re not an artist! Ask yourself what your mental dependence on talent is doing for you. Is it holding you back because your belief that an artist must be talented sabotages your own efforts? Or is it your excuse for not making the time to develop skills?
I joked a couple of days ago on Twitter that my buddy Brad Stover has “a magic camera that makes people look good”. I can’t take photographs the way he does, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the camera isn’t at fault. I’ve seen photographers talk to each other about their work. “Which camera are you using?” is only one of the questions they ask, often followed by questions about lenses, lights, time of day, film processing, etc. There’s a lot of talk about equipment, but also about how the equipment was used. About knowledge and skill.
I can’t take pictures like that because I’ve never put serious effort into mastering that craft. Not because I lack talent with a camera in my hand, but because I have not done the work to develop the skill.
The next time you’re tempted to say, “I wish I could draw/paint/take photos/bake like that, but…” ask yourself something. Do you really wish you could do it? So much that you’re willing to devote your time and energy to learning, practicing, and mastering it? Or do you simply wish you could get those results without having to learn the craft?
If you really want to do it, don’t hold yourself back with a misguided dependence on “talent”. It’s not a requirement.