“Talent”, the Six-Letter Word

Very few among us demonstrate exceptional performance in fields considered by most to be extremely difficult…

… sports, music, art, chess, mathematics, and quantum physics… to name but a few.

They are often referred to as “gifted”, “talented”, “naturals”, “geniuses”–fundamentally different from the rest of us–based on the widespread belief that there are a rare few individuals who “have it” and a vast majority of we ordinary people who “don’t”.

What are we mere mortals, those of us without sky-high IQs, perfect pitch, photographic memories, exceptional size and strength, or exquisite hand-eye coordination supposed to do?

Labeling Theory & Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The casual and careless labeling of people as “talented” (or not) has profound implications for everyone–the “talented”, the “untalented”, and society as a whole…

  1. Those labeled “talented” may be accorded special attention, opportunities, and rewards that are denied to those who are “untalented”.
  2. Those who are rewarded for their “talents” may adapt their behavior to maintain such rewards–a dependency on extrinsic reinforcers that is unsustainable and not necessarily in their best interest.
  3. The “talent” label invites undue adulation for those who “have it” and unjustified resignation by we mere mortals who “don’t have it”.
  4. Being labeled “talented” may make one a slave to one’s gifts–by instilling expectations that lead to unhealthy perfectionism and competition.
  5. Believing that things should come easily to them may lead “the talented” to depression and despair as even “the biggest talents” discover their limitations.
  6. The “talent” label encourages a culture of stagnation where the “talented” are content to rest on their laurels and the “untalented” are encouraged to quit before even trying.
  7. Those who believe they are “untalented” may consider themselves unworthy of doing important things. Worse yet, they may believe they are not responsible for doing important things.

Possible Explanations for “Talent”

Let’s begin by admitting that remarkable skill does not necessarily prove the existence of some innate gift. Such may also be explained by a variety of other factors: motivation, personality, character, prior knowledge, problem-solving experience, social supports, work ethic, social pressures, competitiveness, self-confidence, access to excellent teachers and mentors, and the time, health, and safety to pursue one’s interests… to name but a few.

It’s typically not possible to know from someone’s performance alone how they attained their level of competence. And wondering how they got that way naturally begs some questions: Were they born great or made great? Are they a genetically-gifted rarity, a socially-gifted rarity, or a highly-motivated rarity? Can you think of some others?

A Case Study: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart is commonly viewed as an exemplar of the truly gifted prodigy–the existence proof that you either have it or you don’t. But the less-appreciated fact is that he was born into a richly musical and privileged household.

While there’s no reason to doubt that Wolfgang Amadeus was born special, it is less widely recognized that he was also raised special. Mozart’s genius blossomed in an exceptionally nurturing environment that provided both a highly-focused education and unconstrained freedom to pursue his music.

Imagine what kind of music Mozart may or may not have made if his genetic blueprint was born to subsistence farmers in the Tirol, on 52nd Street as Thelonius Monk’s younger brother, or to an Aboriginal tribe in the Amazon this very day. Of course, if his musical DNA was delivered to the same parents as a baby girl we would have never heard of her.

Make No Mistake

By now its should be clear that it’s a huge mistake to define “talent” only in terms of performance rather than potential… only in terms of inherited predispositions rather than the capacity to learn… only in terms of observable skills rather than character traits… an only in terms of narrowly-defined capabilities rather than a view of the whole person.

Furthermore, it would be a huge disservice to use the word “talent” to discount or diminish the hard-won accomplishments of successful people or to use one’s supposed absence of “talent” as a crutch to justify one’s lack of accomplishment.


Back to the question asked above: What are we mere mortals, those of us without sky-high IQs, perfect pitch, photographic memories, exceptional size and strength, or exquisite hand-eye coordination supposed to do?

We can begin with the following realizations:

  1. Natural endowment alone typically cannot explain the acquisition of expertise.
  2. Most talents, however large or small, are latent–waiting to be discovered and nurtured given the opportunity and right kind of support.
  3. Performance is easy to see, but seeing potential takes love and commitment. Perhaps that is why “talent” seems so rare.
  4. “Giftedness” often masks “disability” and “disability” often masks “giftedness”.
  5. A “big” talent does not make you more valuable than others… and a “small” talent does not make you less.
  6. Success in any endeavor has far more to do with opportunity and hard work than we care to admit. Alas, admitting this truth is not terribly popular… for it renders us all so very responsible–to ourselves and to each other.
  7. While most of us don’t have perfect pitch, exceptional hand-eye coordination, a photographic memory, an athlete’s frame, or a genius IQ, we still have so much else to offer. Why not include sensitivity, passion, humility, empathy, curiosity, enthusiasm, industry, courage, persistence, patience, gratitude, honesty, kindness, compassion, diligence, discipline, perseverance, optimism, and devotion? Why are these not considered talents? After all, aren’t these things–these very “ordinary” things–the very things that propel and channel your innate endowments, no matter how humble or exceptional they might be, in service to a life of purpose and meaning?

Myth: The gift is talent; You either have or you don’t.
Truth: The real gift is LOVE; you either have or you don’t.

17 thoughts on ““Talent”, the Six-Letter Word

  1. Oh, Frank, does this ever ring true with my experiences! It’s only in my later years that I have given myself permission to try activities that were “too hard” or simply not encouraged for a child who was quick at book-learning, and therefore banished to an education, and a career, that was ONLY book-learning.

    I remember at age 13 or so, standing in the doorway of — what, English class? — and yearning to be down the hall in the beautiful messy colorful (anarchic!?) art room. I remember trying to learn piano at age ten, spending my practice time in a cold basement expecting my father to say “that’s enough racket, now; I’m tired of hearing it. Why can’t you just play it the right way?” I gave up, for a long time. Half a century!

    It was only in my fifties and sixties that I began to immerse myself in learning how to make art and music. These ARE learnable skills, I tell people. And such a source of joy, now!

    1. Great to hear from you, Teresa, as always.
      Thanks for the resonance and for adding your experiences, however sad, to the conversation.
      I share your pain and laments about a half century of potential stifled and joy denied, but glad you eventually rediscovered your lost self.
      Hoping this finds you well wherever in the world you are!

      1. I am bouncing back after a summer of relatively minor ailments; thanks for asking! I am off to New York tomorrow to enjoy paintings by Matisse and Derain, a show by Stephen Sondheim, and dinner with friends. I almost feel like a grown-up!

  2. “Success in any endeavor has far more to do with opportunity and hard work than we care to admit.” This is brilliant. When I look at the most gifted and successful musicians, athletes, writers, business people, most of them have one thing in common – hard work! I often think of my favourite band Queen and the iconic performance they delivered at Live Aid. They could have just relied on their talent, shown up and delivered a decent performance. But they rehearsed for days and put together one of the most iconic 20-minute sets every performed. That’s about more than talent!

    1. Thanks so much for the most kind words and for sharing your experience, Michelle.

      AMEN!!! to your perspective on Queen’s set at Live Aid. I’ve only seen the video, but OMG what a transcendent moment and an exemplar of how to use one’s talent in service to a greater noble cause that united an entire stadium and beyond. Still gives me goosebumps. May I ask: Where you there?


      1. No, I was not there. I wish I was. Interestingly, that was my 21st birthday and I vividly remember watching the concert on TV. My sister called from England to wish me a happy birthday and she was watching it too. Definitely a testimonial to the power of music to unite people.

  3. Yet another great article LB Frank! I tend to think in terms of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

  4. I possess few “talents”. A couple of places I’m above average is writing and running when I was younger. It really ticks me off when people tell me I’m “lucky” I’m so “gifted” at these things. People discount the work that is put into any success. I know this comment furthers the concern you’re writing about, but I want to rant.

    1. Rant at will, old friend. I feel the same way when someone approaches me at a gig and says “I wish I could play like that”… seemingly oblivious to those 10,000 hours of discipline, perseverance, dry wells, frustration and self doubt it took me to get there.

  5. Hi Frank ! Thanks for reading my comment at Rogers blog. At seven I found this organization that let members play with knives and fire. I have recruited children into it ever since. We believe in challenging ourselves physically and mentally with every effort requiring only one thing. I would answer your question with what I tell my boys no matter the endeavor “Do your best”

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