The myth of talent

March 6, 2007 at 4:22 pm (general philosophy)

I have always been fascinated by peoples understanding of the concept of talent. I have heard many times in the artistic world that you either have ‘it’ or you do not. I am curious as to what peolpe think ‘it’ is, and can ‘it’ be learned, or must you be born with ‘it’. I am of the belief that, barring physical impediment, anyone can learn to achieve at a high level of proficiency at any art (or just about any task, for that matter). There may be a small genetic variable in the elite of any field (a long legged person is genetically predisposed against being a good sprinter), but this accounts for a very limited number of people. I pose this question, because I have worked hard to achieve what level of ability I have in my field (writing), and I find that comments about talent devalue the work that I have done, and imply that God (or something) gave me these abilities, and I deserve no credit for them.So, what do you think talent is, and where do you think it comes from? Is it real, or just a myth?

Advertisements

25 Comments

  1. lodestone said,

    I sympathise with your feelings greatly; I think that anyone who is good at a particular discipline resents the assumption that they didn’t have to work, and understands that it always does take work.

    I do think, however, that you lean too far towards being a blank slate proponent, which isn’t that tenable any more, I think. (Have you read Pinker on the subject?) But rather than claiming that a person is a born violinist, we could say that someone is born with a predisposition towards the desire or ability to become a very good violinist.

  2. soniarott said,

    Absolutely. My position isn’t that predispositions do not exists, but that those predispositions are primarily an explanation for desire to learn, and perhaps ease of learning (but even that I suspect is largely reliant on pre-natal and early post-natal development), but not ability. I have not read Pinker (I would welcome a summary if you feel so inclined), and am sadly poorly read and unscholarly in general, but will keep an eye open for him.

  3. zoom said,

    All my life I have been the subject if this question. The funny thing is, when you are a prodigy, you really are mostly unaware of it, and are amazed when people comment, and take it for granted that everyone can do what you do at the early age you do it. It has to do with ease.

    Personally, I think it is the way the brain is developed in the womb. I really don’t have much faith in the genetic idea. It seems to be more isolated than that. When other toddlers were scribbling, I was drawing. By ten my painting was near indistiguishable from my portrait artist father and in fact began doing half of his underpaintings at that age. (and not getting paid or recognition I might add). I was not being taught how to draw and paint, I could just do it, and I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. A lot of conditions helped my artistic ability, and I spent most of my time drawing, but it was obvious that it was something more afoot. It just seems to come from an unconscious part of my brain, I don’t ponder over what colors to use/blend. Perhaps it is savantism, just not as idiotic

  4. reformed nihilist said,

    Would you accept the proposition that you did, in fact learn how to do these things, but you learned them early, and with relative ease? I think that what most people mistake for innate talent is a predisposition to learn in certain ways. It’s the phrase “I was not being taught how to draw and paint, I could just do it” thtat concerns me. You may have recieved no formal training, but your experience taught you how form and color, false perspective and visual acuity worked, and you applied these understandings to painting and drawing. Does this sound in the least plausable?

  5. lodestone said,

    Soniarott wrote:
    ”I have not read Pinker (I would welcome a summary if you feel so inclined), and am sadly poorly read and unscholarly in general, but will keep an eye open for him”.

    The book in question is The Blank Slate, and what it basically does is take every possible perception and justification of the Blank Slate theory and totally demolish it. A very satisfying and accessible read.

  6. akg said,

    soniarott wrote:
    ”I have always been fascinated by peoples understanding of the concept of talent. I have heard many times in the artistic world that you either have ‘it’ or you do not. I am curious as to what peolpe think ‘it’ is, and can ‘it’ be learned, or must you be born with ‘it’. I am of the belief that, barring physical impediment, anyone can learn to achieve at a high level of proficiency at any art (or just about any task, for that matter). There may be a small genetic variable in the elite of any field (a long legged person is genetically predisposed against being a good sprinter), but this accounts for a very limited number of people. I pose this question, because I have worked hard to achieve what level of ability I have in my field (acting), and I find that comments about talent devalue the work that I have done, and imply that God (or something) gave me these abilities, and I deserve no credit for them.

    So, what do you think talent is, and where do you think it comes from? Is it real, or just a myth?”

    I think the myth is that if you put your mind to it and work really hard, you can do anything. Some people are just naturally better at things than others. I believe recent studies suggest that intelligence is strongly determined by genetics. I think some people are more “predisposed” to have strong visual or musical skills, they may have a better ear, can better express themselves through artistic media, etc. I am nearly certain that mathematical talent is something that comes naturally to some people. You will probably find classes where people struggle, they just don’t get things, they need to study hard and memorize to be able to pass the tests, and to some it all falls into place naturally.

    Some people are shy from a very young age, and remain shy, and some people are able to be more expressive, something required for acting. Things like acting and singing simply do not feel natural to me, especially in front of others. I’ll take back what I said at the beginning, as I think if one were to really work hard at it, like myself, maybe I could feel comfortable in such a setting, and could maybe learn the art of acting, as you may have, but there is indeed such a thing as natural talent, if not at least a talent gained at an age too young to deserve credit. If you were raised in such a way that fostered extroverted behaviour, it may be easier for you to be an actor. That’s not the best example, I know. But I think the point remains that there are certain skills that people shouldn’t have credit for. I do pretty well at math, and rarely have to try, but some people genuinely struggle with elementary concepts. Since I don’t try harder, it’s not as though I deserve to be better at math than some others, I just am.

    In my personal experience, I don’t competitevly play any sports or do any art, but academically I think that without trying, I could pull off an 80-87% average in high school, and trying gets me an 87-93% average. Also, I think the majority of the students who were in my high school classes who were good at stuff just were, and those who weren’t as good just weren’t, and how hard they tried was a small factor.

  7. zoom said,

    Reformed Nihilist wrote:
    Would you accept the proposition that you did, in fact learn how to do these things, but you learned them early, and with relative ease? I think that what most people mistake for innate talent is a predisposition to learn in certain ways. It’s the phrase “I was not being taught how to draw and paint, I could just do it” thtat concerns me. You may have recieved no formal training, but your experience taught you how form and color, false perspective and visual acuity worked, and you applied these understandings to painting and drawing. Does this sound in the least plausable?

    I taught myself. The motor skills of my hands seemed to develop earlier than normal. I could draw with both hands at five years old (I was left handed and forced to use my right) and was doing perspective-like drawings without knowing what it was. I had a well developed spatial acuity. Matter of fact, my father did not want his children to be artists, so he locked his art tools and paints up and would not allow me into his studio when he was painting. (I caught glimpses and saw the finished art). My mother, on the other hand, saw that I would be an artist so she secretly played games with me that helped to develop my powers of observation. I think that it would be safe to say that I could copy anything I observed and could even draw it upside down, effortlessy in the first grade. So I was a good draftschild. As far as the color, that I am sure came with playful experimentation, but there was something about my knowledge of colors and combining colors that was savantlike. I had tremendous focus and still do. I think that that is part of it. I believe it is the way my brain wired itself, is that another way of describing innate? Hope this helps.

    Don’t know if this is related but I was a ten month baby.

  8. muxol said,

    i think talent can be the result of both predispositions (i.e. genetic, developmental) or hard work or a combination of predispositions and hard work. it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

  9. klaatu said,

    Has anyone seen that movie, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by Coen bros? I am reminded of when the fat french guy hears the piano-playing girl and says, “Oh, she would make a good typist” or something like that. ahh, funny!

    Anyhow, I am of the opinion that talent exists (after knowing zOOmz), and that it can also be supplemented by skill. The reality is for sure not so simple as “you have it or you don’t”. I also made complicated drawings at very young age- and people were always telling me I had ‘talent’- eventually I couldn’t dispute that I did, despite the fact that much like zOOmz, my parents never wanted me to be an artist (they trained me in music) and even I didn’t want to be one at times. I was always average in terms of skill, but managed to make pictures that were just so weird in meaning that they were unique. But I never had to try at it and always pulled it off.

    There’s no way that human brains all have equal ability… they are probably more varied than any other organ person to person. And thats only to begin with, the childhood is also key- the brain does not stop growing until adulthood.

    And I know for sure that with some art, I just look at it and see nothing there. Like a vacancy, a bunch of forms that are just contrived, copied- produced by formula. Thats lack of talent.

  10. percipere'chan said,

    “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”.

    I think AKG is right, it can rate as high as mythical.

    I think also, Motivation is a key factor.

    [reporter:]
    “How did it feel to fail all those (hundreds?) of times?”

    [Edison:]
    “Fail? I discovered hundreds of ways not to make a light bulb.”

    Nihil,
    I think another of those key factors (aside from possible ‘predispositions’) is the ability to not let your failures detour you. Sure, everone will have times where they think “that’s it. I just can’t do this.”, and simply fail at the task. But for the things that are really important to accomplish, failure is at the low end of a reciprocal relationship with learning.

    I don’t find it fruitful to lay an absolute for whether anyone can do anything. But if you were an actor, but were genuinely motivated to be, say, a painter, if you painted what you knew, harnessed your emotion to guide you, I’m sure you could pick up the knowledge about mediums and color blend along the way. If, you wanted to be a mathematician, how does it fit in with your views? What benefit would mathematics impart on your perception of your world? What ever it is that you deign to do, your motivations must somehow be in alignment.

    In grade school (up through university), I did terribly in my writing classes. I didn’t get it. Punctuation didn’t make sense. Grammar didn’t make sense. Outlines didn’t make sense. Having a thesis didn’t make sense. I tried really hard. Put my mind to it. Barely made an average grade. I had one paper out of all of my career in university that I was really proud of. I got a B.

    Out on my own, I wrote for myself. I wrote freestyle. Stories about dreams I’d had. Poetry. Papers on things that confused me. I discovered what I had to say.

    These days I don’t frequent, but attend many an ‘open mic’ night. I receive as much praise for my drawing the audience into my writing as I do the significance and eloquence thereof. Facial expression, body language, and vocal intonation I may have predisposition to. Writing, I did not. But I was motivated to learn. Failed as often as I succeded. And can now write a poetic answer to a problem as quickly and as well as I could write a philosophical paper on it.

    (does it mean anything extra if my trouble with grammar and punctuation stemmed from the fact that I preceived it as frustratingly imprecise compared to mathematical operators and associations?)

  11. lodestone said,

    AKG wrote:
    I think the myth is that if you put your mind to it and work really hard, you can do anything.

    That’s not, however, what we’re suggesting. What we’re saying is that it’s hard work on top of something innate which makes you particularly good at something.

  12. zoom said,

    Perhaps you might need to add that it is the love of the work that motives you to excel, and not only the effort.

  13. reformed nihilist said,

    Lodestone wrote:
    That’s not, however, what we’re suggesting. What we’re saying is that it’s hard work on top of something innate which makes you particularly good at something.

    Not exactly. I’m actually suggesting that with hard work (harder for some than others) and motivation, one can achieve a level of proficiency just shy of the elite in nearly any area of human endeavor. The achievement of excellence has never been done without a great deal of effort (that I’m aware of). Even the prodigies in a field tend to work very hard, only sometimes it doesn’t appear that way because they enjoy it. Playing is effort as well. I don’t play hockey, and I would find doing so effort or work. Someone who loved to play would expend a great deal of effort honing their skills, but they would consider it playing, not work. The effort is still there either way. I think the concept of talent, too often becomes an excuse to;1) cop out (“I can’t do it, I guess I don’t have the natural talent”) or 2) to not expend extra effort to improve (“I don’t have to work any harder, I’m talented”).

  14. lodestone said,

    Reformed Nihilist wrote:
    Not exactly. I’m actually suggesting that with hard work (harder for some than others) and motivation, one can achieve a level of proficiency just shy of the elite in nearly any area of human endeavor. The achievement of excellence has never been done without a great deal of effort (that I’m aware of). Even the prodigies in a field tend to work very hard, only sometimes it doesn’t appear that way because they enjoy it. Playing is effort as well. I don’t play hockey, and I would find doing so effort or work. Someone who loved to play would expend a great deal of effort honing their skills, but they would consider it playing, not work. The effort is still there either way. I think the concept of talent, too often becomes an excuse to;1) cop out (“I can’t do it, I guess I don’t have the natural talent”) or 2) to not expend extra effort to improve (“I don’t have to work any harder, I’m talented”).

    I just about agree with you. The “something innate” I mentioned I would consider to be a predispensation towards that hard work. In other words, the reason someone is good at something is because they work hard, and the reason they work hard is because they have an innate predispensation to do so. This is a generalisation, of course—there is conditioning to consider —, but it is a useful one.

  15. zoom said,

    I certainly don’t enjoy working hard. Matter fo fact, I work hard at finding the easiest way to do things.
    It can also be that the person is born with the ability to focus acutely on things.

  16. reformed nihilist said,

    zOOmz wrote:
    ”I certainly don’t enjoy working hard. Matter fo fact, I work hard at finding the easiest way to do things.
    It can also be that the person is born with the ability to focus acutely on things”.

    Mental focus is a developed skill as well. You may have become very good at it as an infant/toddler, so you don’t recall the process of learning it.

  17. klaatu said,

    Many would say that this girl has little or no talent. Yet, she rules the school. Would Britney characterize the ideal of making up for talent with “hard work”?

    Opinions?

  18. reformed nihilist said,

    Klaatu

    Sure Britney has talent (if we use the term to mean a high degree of ability). She dances very well, she sing pretty well, and she certainly seems to have a talent for self-promotion (although that could be talented handlers). Does that mean I am rushing out to buy her CDs? No way! Acknowledging talent does not mean appreciating styles. I think she sings songs with banal lyrical content and dubious musical worth, so even if she sing them well, I don’t enjoy them

  19. klaatu said,

    Britney worked hard at her singing and dancing skills, and she was trained as a young girl. How do you know her success is not the result of genuine hard work? It certainly seems like she makes up for the lack of talent with the dancing, and those wonderful coy looks she gives.

    In fact, I think that Britney is perfect example of your ideal. She is non-Talented, but successful as a musician because she is so highly trained.

  20. zoom said,

    Reformed Nihilist wrote:
    Mental focus is a developed skill as well. You may have become very good at it as an infant/toddler, so you don’t recall the process of learning it.

    Are you sure about that? I don’t know. Both of my parents were very focused but not sure how to judge whether it is genetic, innate or learned. Must have learned it very quickly. Are there studies on mental focus in infants? My brother had ADD really bad. Strange how kids can grow up so close and be so different. I am not convinced that it is not developed in the womb or have genetic implications.

    Interesting thread. thanks sonia.

  21. reformed nihilist said,

    zOOmz wrote:
    Are you sure about that? I don’t know. Both of my parents were very focused but not sure how to judge whether it is genetic, innate or learned. Must have learned it very quickly. Are there studies on mental focus in infants? My brother had ADD really bad. Strange how kids can grow up so close and be so different. I am not convinced that it is not developed in the womb or have genetic implications.

    I based my initial opinion on personal experience, as I have developed a greater ability to focus using ‘tricks’ on myself, but I have found this link that suggests that ADHD has a genetic predisposition, but can be treated behaviourally.

  22. reformed nihilist said,

    Klaatu wrote:
    In fact, I think that Britney is perfect example of your ideal. She is non-Talented, but successful as a musician because she is so highly trained.

    The thing is, I don’t believe in capital T talent. She had some level of predisposition (without a genetic study with her as a subject, I don’t know if we can determine the extent), and she worked her lovley *ss (sigh) off to be good. I don’t think that is any different than anyone else who achieves a level of excellence in any field. The only variable is how much effort, which is a subjective variable.

  23. zoom said,

    Personally, I don’t see the talent. And there has to be hard work but then she has a whole army of specialist to make her seem talented, and look sexy. Without all that she would just seem another average girl. Now take someone like Charlize Theron or Jody Foster. Now there are talented women. IMO.

    or Gary Oldman! (no he isn’t pretty)

  24. akg said,

    Lodestone wrote:
    ”That’s not, however, what we’re suggesting. What we’re saying is that it’s hard work on top of something innate which makes you particularly good at something”
    .
    Nope. I did particularly well in my first year algebra course and did not do hard work to get that mark. I did very little work in high school calculus and did very well. The same goes for high school chemistry. And these courses were generally considered hard courses

  25. reformed nihilist said,

    AKG wrote:
    Nope. I did particularly well in my first year algebra course and did not do hard work to get that mark. I did very little work in high school calculus and did very well. The same goes for high school chemistry. And these courses were generally considered hard courses.

    The way I am using ‘talent’ is to refer to a very high level of achievement. I’m sure that the courses you are talking about were considered difficult for their level, but would hardly describe them as requiring a level of ability that would be considered talent.

    But even if we do take your example, you did learn the given maths, rather than innately knowing them. My objection is to people who assume that talent is an innate understanding, rather than an ease of learning or innate interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: