Or rather the existence of talent is so widespread and common that its potency clocks in at around the near-impotent range.
Here’s the thing:
My buddy used to work for Community Support Services, which helps mentally handicapped people live bright and vibrant lives. His main client was Jerry. Jerry still ranks in the top ten list of the most naturally funny people I know. Wit for days in spite of his handicap. I’ve met homeless men who used to be opera virtuosos here in the city, begging for cash on the train. And I’ve met millionaires who gave up on their knack for painting. Talent is everywhere. Talent is no respecter of persons. The Muse gives her graces to the weak and strong alike.
Which, of course, offends the capitalist whose livelihood depends on privilege.
But Jerry, the mentally handicapped comedian, had one thing up on the millionaire who quit painting: Jerry didn’t rely on his talent. Jerry honed his talent — he expressed it simply, but when he’d get a laugh, he’d say, “Yeah, that’s funny. It’s funny because…” And he’d tell you why you laughed, which was never funny. But next time? You can bet Jerry’s wit would be sharper.
So does talent exist?
As a freshman in college, I read a book entitled Talent is Never Enough. It’s a simple, almost cheap in its simplicity, but the principles revealed in its outline tell you everything you need to know:
Belief lifts your talent.
Passion energizes your talent.
Initiative activates your talent.
Focus directs your talent.
Preparation positions your talent.
Practice sharpens your talent.
Perseverance sustains your talent.
Courage tests your talent.
Teachability expands your talent.
Character protects your talent.
Relationships influence your talent.
Responsibility strengthens your talent.
Teamwork multiplies your talent.
The people I know who receive the compliment “You’re so talented” or “You’re so creative” more than anyone else have no more talent than the rest of us. Does talent exist? Does the kind of talent that truly separates the great from the groveling exist?
Let’s tease this out.
You know what the guys and gals who are better than me and you have?
They have an unshakable belief and confidence in their talent when others doubt. They have a passion for their work that dwarves the apathy of their peers. They initiate new works all of the time because they know the hardest part of skydiving is simply jumping out of the plane. And then gaining altitude and doing it again. Ready, fire, aim. They focus on a few great things rather than many acceptable things. They prepare to execute on these plans and initiatives. They practice over and over — doing as many drills in adulthood as they did in childhood. They persevere beyond their peers, knowing that when the competition thins out the closer you get to the top of Everest, the greatest among them grew too stubborn to stop. They take heart knowing courage is no virtue, but rather every virtue of their talent at the moment of testing. They try to learn something about everything from anyone they meet. They practice integrity knowing that a man without control is like a city without walls — the world loves the fall of kings as much as they love the rise of peasants and that includes your talent. They take responsibility for the consequences of their talent, of what their talent could offer the generations that follow them, of what their talent could offer their neighbor or their family. And they know that collaboration is they way the artist delegates: there are no lone wolf artists.
So no. You won’t catch me saying the people better than me are so talented or so creative.
They work harder. That’s it.
They posses no more talent than you or me or anyone else. For that reason I’m setting out to make tomorrow’s version of Lancelot will be better than today’s. As another author said, Talent is Overrated.
The book Making Ideas Happen says:
CREATIVITY X ORGANIZATION = IMPACT
If the impact of our ideas is, in fact, largely determined by our ability to stay organized, then we would observe that those with tons of creativity but little to no organization yield, on average, nothing. Let’s imagine a wildly creative but totally disorganized thinker. The equation would be:
100 X 0 = 0
Does this bring someone to mind? Someone who has loads of ideas but is so disorganized that no one particular idea is ever fully realized? You could argue that someone with half the creativity and just a little more organizational ability would make a great deal more impact.
50 X 2 = 100
The equation helps us understand why some “less-creative” artists might produce more work than their talented and inventive peers. A shocking and perhaps unfortunate realization emerges: someone with average creativity but stellar organizational skills will make a greater impact than the disorganized creative geniuses among us.
Sub out the word “creativity” for “talent” in the above equation and about everyone reading this will feel triggered.
As Stephen Pressfield said:
“We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.”
When I asked at the start, “Does Talent Exist?” and then subsequently answered in the negative, of course I meant to provoke you. I meant to provoke you because I wanted you to become defensive of all of the “really talented” people in your life to whom you compare yourself. I did this deliberately because I wanted to bring you full circle and see that talent is a dime a dozen — that the talent of the Michael Jordans and Elon Musks of the world lives in you.
You must see this before moving forward. You talent is as great as theirs.
And your talent will never be enough.
They simply worked harder.
cover image by Hernán Piñera