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…
- Those labeled “talented” may be accorded special attention, opportunities, and rewards that are denied to those who are “untalented”.
- 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.
- The “talent” label invites undue adulation for those who “have it” and unjustified resignation by we mere mortals who “don’t have it”.
- Being labeled “talented” may make one a slave to one’s gifts–by instilling expectations that lead to unhealthy perfectionism and competition.
- Believing that things should come easily to them may lead “the talented” to depression and despair as even “the biggest talents” discover their limitations.
- 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.
- 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:
- Natural endowment alone typically cannot explain the acquisition of expertise.
- Most talents, however large or small, are latent–waiting to be discovered and nurtured given the opportunity and right kind of support.
- Performance is easy to see, but seeing potential takes love and commitment. Perhaps that is why “talent” seems so rare.
- “Giftedness” often masks “disability” and “disability” often masks “giftedness”.
- A “big” talent does not make you more valuable than others… and a “small” talent does not make you less.
- 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.
- 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?