Sunday Thoughts. The Fear of Talent.

Happy Sunday!

Before I get to my post I would love to thank everybody who played the game for the yarn giveaway! That was fun, so many close answers! My hometown is called Cherepovets and my current location is San Miguel de Allende. According to Google the two towns are 10 341 km apart! Quiet a distance!!! The closest guess was by Adrienne, her answer was 10 261 km. Congratulations, 4 skeins of Stroll Tweed by Knit Picks are yours! I will contact you by email tomorrow. Thank you for playing along!

Warning; it’s a long post with way too much thinking 🙂

A couple of years ago I finished a book that was disturbing and inspiring at the same time. It shattered so many prejudices and doubts that I used to have. The book is called “The Little Book of Talent” by Daniel Coyle. The book is basically a short, more structured version of Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, that broke all the stereotypes of such a phenomenon as “innate talent”. Since the very early childhood we are prone to hear this adjective – talented – in so many forms. At school you are studying talented writers, talented composers, talented scientists, talented artists, talented musicians and so on. On TV every celebrity is described as “beautiful, talented and successful”. The fashion magazines are singing odes to talented designers. If you are lucky, the word “talented” may be applied to you as well.

“Talent” used to be a terrifying word for me. As a child and a teenager I couldn’t help but wonder – “What is my talent? Do I have one?”. I didn’t seem to – I was a good and diligent student, but nothing extraordinary. Math, physics and chemistry scared me, literature and language were interesting, but nothing that vibrated with the “talent” energy. So, at some point I decided I wasn’t gifted any special talent.

The I picked up needles and a crochet hook. I loved it from the first touch and immediately had an idea to make myself a crochet dress. After 2-3 years of hideous side sloped pieces of fabric and after reading and watching tons of educational videos, I finally “got” it – white, fitting, not perfect, but MY dress. One very dear friend who has been always supporting me exclaimed with admiration when she first saw it – “Wow! You are so talented!” This was the first time in my life that anybody told me that I am talented in something. When I started working with children my principal told me “You have a natural talent working with children”. Hmm, I was flattered and perplexed. I certainly didn’t feel “talented” in any way. Everything that I did and achieved didn’t feel “natural” to me… And I couldn’t help but wonder if I am doing “my” thing… Everything was hard to achieve.

When you are looking at talented and successful people, when you’re reading newspaper articles about them, it really seems that everything that they do is a breeze. They are talented for goodness sake! It much be so easy for them to wake up in the morning and fly on the wings of their talent, right?!

I am following an inspiring knitter Maria (@maria.levine) who at the age of 26 happens to be one of the most famous, talented (of course 🙂 ) and searched for knitting teachers in Russia. She gives dozens of classes every month from Moscow to Siberia, travelling extensively around the country. Her teaching philosophy is never teach knitters how to knit from the patterns, but to teach them how to think and create on their own. Not everybody is happy with it and I often find comments: “Oh, it’s easy for you to say, you are so talented! I would never be able to do that on my own.” Maria always has an answer for it: “I am not talented. If you have hands and brains, you can do it. You just need to work a little bit harder”. Those who believe her, go to her classes and create wonderful things, those who don’t, well, they just keep writing how talented she is and how they wished they were her.

That got me thinking – how many times did I look at the person admiring her/his work and thinking: “Oh, I would love to do that, but I am just not cut out for it, I don’t have any talent for it.” And guess what – I never even tried these things. I was just too scared to fail. Every time it got way too hard, I thought – “Well, maybe it’s not for me.” And stopped. Only 3 years ago when I started working in the Montessori method, something shifted in me. I suddenly realized that I don’t achieve anything, because I just don’t do anything until the end. I stop, with this thought at the back of my head that I am not talented.

And then “The Little Book of Talent” came along, it’s funny how sometimes things come together… It shook me to the core. It stated that the talent doesn’t exist. There is just no such thing as “innate talent”, as the magical gift that is given to you if you’re lucky. Coyle introduces a fascinating research that reveals how the brain works and how we can turn simple disciplines into our “talent”. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

When working with children, I understand how careful you should be with using the word “talent”. This word has some connotation of “specialness”, “betterness” that others… If it is applied to you, it can lead you to believe that you don’t have to work that hard, you are talented, the world is your oyster. And if it isn’t applied to you, you get lost, you give up and become disappointed if things get hard.

What I understand now, for myself, after this experience, after reading this book, that the main goal in anything that you do should be the process, not the destination. Just look at truly happy “talented” people – they all love the process of what they do. The results become just the pleasant side effect, nothing more. And I guess this is the secret of “talent” – your talent is just the ability to find something that you enjoy doing, no matter if nobody pays you for that, no matter if it isn’t prestigious, no matter if your family doesn’t support you, no matter if you don’t see the results for years. You keep going, you keep learning, you keep perfecting your skills and all of a sudden you raise you head and hear how somebody says to you – “Oh, you are so talented.” The main thing is to get your head back down to work after that 🙂

Maybe someday I will change my opinion, but for now I believe there is only one talent that is given to every born human being – the talent of life, that is full of endless opportunities, no matter how long or short it turns out. From now on, I will never stop myself from trying things just because I think I don’t have the talent for it. I will learn, I will grow, I will keep trying.

What about you? Have you ever considered yourself talented in something? What does the word “talented” mean to you? Do you think that it’s a natural gift that is given to “special” people or the “talent” can be achieved by simple work discipline?

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Talent – the gift of nature or the result of hard work?

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43 Comments

  1. Lots to think about in this post! Although I think that innate talent does exist and is gifted to a rare few, that does not exclude the rest of us from developing and nurturing our interests into talents as well. Hard work, practice, perseverance and the pursuit of improvement are important in either cases. When I was younger, I was frequently complimented for my athletic abilities, especially in track & field and tennis. My friends used to say that they could never run as fast as me, etc. but I never saw it as a natural ability. I just had two older brothers who challenged, teased and motivated me to be as fast as them from an early age 🙂 I hope that you keep on challenging yourself as well.

    • Thank you for your comment, Tien! What I notice right now in a lot of biographies of talented people is that during the childhood they were unconsciously practicing what they became the best at later in life. But, yes, for me it is still hard to let go of the notion of the innate talent.

  2. I agree with the idea that labeling some people as talented is limiting, both fr the person who might not enjoy the process of whatever they have been deemed talented in, and for those that aren’t told they are talented in something they are interested in. I try to remember that when talking to my daughter, how limiting any label, even a positive one, can be! I didn’t know you were a Montessori teacher, that’s really interesting- and I bet you have a knack with kids! I’ve been told I’m talented, but I think it made me lazy as a teenager- I didn’t try. I always got good grades easily, then when I went to university, I took a philosophy class and got a C- on my first paper, and was so horrified I dropped the class. If I had been taught to push harder and try when things were challenging, I probably would have stayed. But I didn’t pick that up until much later!

    • Thank you for your opinion, Julie! I also never had difficulties with getting good grades, but looking back I realize how superficial that knowledge was. So often we believe that if we get the highest score, it means we can stop and relax. I guess that what distinguishes talented people – they go further and deeper.

  3. I see innate talent in others, but don’t always recognize it in myself. I do believe that every single one of us is talented … might not be at the same things, everyone has something that he/she is more than good at. However, the difference between those still looking for what their talent is and those who we recognize as talented is that some don’t practice, persevere, or have the drive to keep working at developing his/her gifts or even using failure as a lesson rather than a reason to quit.

    There are so many things we can say about talent and like you, I don’t use the word so loosely anymore because in my mind, everyone is talented, not a select few.

    • Thank you, Nicky! I really love it – “using failure as a lesson rather than a reason to quit”. I honestly think this is the key to talent – look at the failure as the part of the way and not the end of it!

  4. I think both things exist. There are things you understand how to do from the start or very quickly, because you are talented at it, but there is also training and repetition that will get you very far in most domains. I am not sure what is stronger, the best is probably a combination of both, a natural ability and lots of hours spent what you love doing. Which means it’s always worth trying new things. And it for me it also means that you have to be the world bestest at anything to enjoy it 😉

    • Thank you, Corinne! I am also prone to believe that two things exist, I believe that they exist in all people, not just the few special ones. Looking at children and looking back at my childhood I realize that people don’t look for their talent, because they think that if it is there, they should recognize it immediately, without any effort and if they don’t see any “special” abilities in themselves, it means they just don’t have it and they stop looking for it. Hence, loosing their faith and giving up learning and growing.

  5. Interesting thoughts. I do think that people are talented in different ways. Most likely you are also interested in what you are good at and practice that more so you become even better at it. This has lead me to think about my kids’ hobbies. Should I encourage them to take on a hobby they are good at (music for the other, sports or art for the other), or instead encourage them to practice what they are not so good at? You can learn to sing even if you don’t have the talent – but do we all need to sing (talking about myself here, not my kids)? I guess the most important thing is to find what you like and practice that, talented or not. And not talk about talent, at least to the kids 🙂

    • Thank you, Katrine, for your comment. I am a huge believer that we should follow the child in his interests. As I mentioned, I really believe that the main criteria for your talent is your love for what you do. If you are ready to spend hours learning and working without looking at it as tedious, than this is your talent! There is almost nothing that can stop you from doing this!

  6. I definitely agree with you, and have often struggled with the same ideas. I don’t think it happened until I started knitting that people started to refer to me as being talented. The thing is though, I knew about all the hours that had to go into learning the method, and I also knew about other people out there that could do truly amazing things with knitting. So for me, it had nothing to do with talent and the only reason other people perceived it as such was lack of a reference frame (in my opinion). And yes, the word talent can be limiting and we should never let this hold us back to start out and try new adventures!

    • Thank you, Tahnee! You mentioned such an important thing – “the only reason other people perceived it as such was lack of a reference frame”. This is what I am mostly concerned about – that talent is perceived as something effortless, something that is so natural to you that you don’t really need to push that hard to be good at it. This misconception led me to believe, as a teenager, that if it feels too hard, than it is not your talent and you shouldn’t keep going in that direction. The word “talent” for me now is the combination of the love for the process and a very hard work.

  7. A very thought provoking post. I can’t say that I was ever told I was talented at anything but not sure it was a word I heard used by others to others either. I agree with other commenters that innate talent is rare but it does exist occasionally, but if rather rest of us working hard at something can give us immense satisfaction and with it good results. Perhaps we should be using the word skill rather than talent?

    • Oh, I agree! The word “talent” lost the connotation of “work”. So, I am also voting for substituting it for “skillful” or “hard-working”.

  8. Fascinating post – in lots of ways! I was so interested to see where your hometown was, and had to check it out on the internet immediately (oh, the wonderful internet….) and then I had to check out St Miguel de Allende – what a move you have made! They sound such different, tho’ interesting places. But the main thrust of your post was about talent, and again a lot of very interesting ideas. I do think there is something in those people we label “talented” – a kernel of inclination perhaps. If you think of a great pianist, there is that, but there is practice, practice, practice. And the hard work isn’t just over the years when they are learning and building their skill – it goes on and on throughout their life. As one of your other correspondents said, I do believe it is very dangerous to label children as talented (I taught for a while so I have experience of secluding the “talented and gifted” children off for a special path) – it is all too easy for the individual to think that they do not need to work – they just have the “gift”. Doesn’t it all come down to self-knowledge and self-realisation?

    • Thank you, Katherine! Self-realization is the key! For teenagers it is really hard to come to that and so many wrong beliefs about themselves are formed at that age that it is so hard to let them go when you step into an adult life. Practice is definitely the main instrument of talent, I would say it’s 5% of natural abilities and 95% of practice.

  9. I don’t believe there are talented people. I believe in lucky people who have found their way, who have worked hard to get somewhere, who didn’t stop in a difficulty but chose to see it as a challenge. But it wasn’t easy. I don’t think that Leonardo da Vinci (one of the most talented people ever)
    the moment he first touched a paintbrush could paint the Mona Lisa! It took commitment, stubbornness, patience, faith in succeeding, time. There are people that their brain works around an obstacle and get it faster but I don’t call this talent. Now that I think of it, calling someone talented may not sound as positive as we want it to mean….

    • Thank you, Zeta, for your thoughts! “The Talent Code” gives a lot of examples of famous people who are considered geniuses and naturally talented and tells their biographies, especially in the childhood, where you realize that actually these people, unconsciously were “training” themselves and constantly practicing. For example, Michelangelo, who at the age of 18 created his famous work – Pietà. I read about his childhood and one thing drew my attention – Michelangelo’s family wasn’t rich and he didn’t have any toys, so since the very early childhood he spent hours and hours every day playing with… stones. So, basically, he was practicing since 2-3 years old.

  10. WOW Alina, what a fantastic post. I read your earlier this morning and have been thinking about it before I replied.
    I have two trains of thought and they contradict each other, on the one hand I believe that talent can be something you are born with, artists for example that see the world one way and can put that vision on canvas, or writers with such an imagination that they write epic novels. But then on the other hand what is to stop someone from taking a class to learn to paint or write and create too? Are they no less talented? I don’t believe so. I do know that skills can be taught, but after that I am now on completely puzzled! You have given me thought for the whole day 🙂

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Tracey! I do believe in innate talent, I believe that everyone has it. So, I guess if a person feels like he/she hasn’t found it yet, his/her main goal should be trying different things and who knows, maybe it will “click”. I also read somewhere that according to some research you need xxx number of hours to invest to become the world class specialist in anything. The main trick, of course, is this – will you be able to devote xxx number of hours consistently? And here is your love for what you do becomes the most important factor. I read once somewhere a piece of advice from a successful entrepreneur – “Never take a job that is prestigious or well-paid if you don’t like it. You will never become good or successful at it, because you are competing with those who love it with all their heart and spend all free time getting better at it. If you don’t have the passion, you will never be able to do that”.

  11. I’m not sure there is no such thing as natural, innate, even raw (whatever that’s supposed to mean) talent, but you’ve certainly interested me in couple of new-to-me books, Alina. Here are some thoughts I have at the moment (I may have completely different thoughts tomorrow)…

    I tend to think that we are all born with innate proclivities; and how, where, and to what degree we honor and give ourselves to those things we are most drawn to is when and where our talents emerge. Then again…I’ve never been profoundly drawn to any one thing, but rather have spent my life attracted by and to many things, and here at the tipping point between middle age and senior status, I find it mildly disturbing that I’ve mastered nothing. Nothing that the world will take any notice of, anyway. I suspect, regardless of talent or achievements that most, if not all, of us arrive at this place sooner or later (if we live long enough). I’m thankful to believe I’ve still got some years on me to mull this over and maybe arrive at a different conclusion before I’m too old to care. ;^)

    I relate to warming at words that seem to affirm my “talents”, and yet I’m troubled because I don’t see anything other than the fact that I did this thing that someone took notice of. It could have been anyone who did it. It just happened to be me in that moment. And somehow I’m talented or gifted at it because it was noticed? And then there are times when a friend or acquaintance is noticed for his/her “talent’ and I have to quell the frustrated thought that “I am too – you’ve just never seen me do that.” lol It all doesn’t seem fair somehow.

    Lines you wrote that I especially loved: “You keep going, you keep learning, you keep perfecting your skills and all of a sudden you raise you head and hear how somebody says to you – “Oh, you are so talented.” The main thing is to get your head back down to work after that.”

    and

    “What I understand now, for myself, after this experience, after reading this book, that the main goal in anything that you do should be the process, not the destination.”

    I do think being about the process of things creates a more contented life. But even here I wonder if some of us are more wired to be about the process, and some more wired to be about the destination. I’m the first, married to the later. I think happiness comes from observing oneself in the process, taking note of what’s happening along the way. DH thinks happiness comes when a task is completed. You can, perhaps, imagine the discord at times. lol The thing is…in our own minds we are both correct. And we are both most happy following the bent that is ours. Never mind that neither of us could convince the other of that if our lives depended on it…

    • Oh, Becki, I love your thinking! Especially this part – “And somehow I’m talented or gifted at it because it was noticed?” That is a great thing to mention. Some people choose to keep their talent “in the closet” and not show it to the world, does it mean that they are wasting it? Does it mean they don’t have it? I think a lot of us won’t feel “complete” if our talent is not acknowledged, but at the end of the day – what difference does it make? If what we do makes us happy, but stays unnoticed, that shouldn’t discourage us, but it is hard to achieve this way of thinking.

  12. Oh my goodness! I can’t believe how long my comment above is! lol That’ll teach you to go all philosophical, Alina. I can’t help but join in!

  13. I resonated so much with this post! I have always been passionate about things I didn’t feel particularly “talented” in (as in, it so didn’t come easy to me!) As a child, I loved ice skating. I skated every day and that was my heaven. The fact that my skills progressed slowly was irrelevant to the joy I felt. I think from that experience, I realized how unimportant talent is to true happiness, and I don’t worry about it. It’s hard though to always remember this -in high school, so many people praised how “talented” I was at math and science and made me think I should go into a job in science… but this never made me happy.

    I love thinking about other admirable, successful people in the world, not being talented, but having found something they love so much that they do it day after day, year after year, and that’s what makes them good at it.

    • Thank you, Alexis! It’s an interesting thing to think about – do all people enjoy their talent/skills/abilities? I know some just don’t feel challenged pursuing something they are already good at. I agree that the main criteria should be how YOU feel and not trying to make everybody around proud or happy.

  14. I believe that everyone has a gift, be it teaching, being merciful, giving of themselves etc that is part of their inner self. Talent on the other hand is hard work. Most people don’t notice all the hard work that goes into something. I don’t think Mozart emerged from the womb writing music. I can sew like nobody’s business and I love it. But it took years of making lots of mistakes, taking classes and tenacity to reach the level of confidence that I have doing it. I also have a passion for sewing. Once I learned that making mistakes isn’t the end of the world or a criticism of myself, I relaxed and enjoyed the process. This was a very thought provoking post.

    • Thank you, Pat! I also look at “genius” people from a completely different perspective – with a huge respect for all the hard work they put in!

  15. Wow. From Russia to Mexico. What a life’s journey!
    I think, for the most part, talent is earned. An art that comes from hours of practice and applied skill development. Persistence.
    And, for the lucky ones, to whom talent seems to come so easily, well…I can’t say I know many people like that.

    • Thank you, Andrea! I also haven’t met a single person in my real life that earned everything that he has without the effort. I guess this is the myth that we are prone to believe since childhood when people around us pay attention to just achievement and the results of those who are “talented”, but not their actual work, their daily routine. Daily work is just not that exciting to discuss as the “overnight success”, which is the result of hard work, every day.

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  16. Good post-something I haven’t thought about all that much. I think maybe some people have innate talents that are in full bloom with little instruction from others (Mozart for example), but overall I think most people need to have something going on in their heads that allows them to be good at the thing they feel passionate about (ie: there are a lot of people who would love to be great painters, but even with training just can’t learn to shade, hold the brush steady, etc. There seems to be something that is needed besides the passion). Once you find whatever your talent is, you do need to keep a steady nurture of it to allow it to reach full bloom. Like you discussed with the knitting instructor — starting out I definitely could not knit a project without a pattern, but after knitting a bunch of projects, I can make my own patterns, because I have steadily nurtured my talents.

    • Thank you, Sarah! I really love this sentence – “Once you find whatever your talent is, you do need to keep a steady nurture of it to allow it to reach full bloom.” “Steady” is the key word here!! The main thing is not to take your abilities for granted and keep working on them constantly!

  17. How has changing countries and climate affected the types of knit/crochet projects you do?

    • I didn’t really knit in Russia, I got really interested in it and spent too much time trying to create complicated garments without learning the basics first. I didn’t know anything about fiber. My “conscious” knitting started only in Mexico. I must say that my choice of colors would definitely be different back in my home town, Mexico is all about color!

  18. I read Mindset maybe 8 months ago…Same sort of thought processes…all about how people have one of two mindsets, one of growth or one of natural ability. How to shape these mindsets in yourself and children. I’m going to have to pick up The Little Book of Talent 🙂 Perfect timing!

  19. I know that I am “good” at my art, “Skilled” even, but I rarely think of the word “Talented”. It’s an interesting thought though.
    I agree that talent is a bit loaded, and appreciate your viewpoint on it. Thinking about it I have been a victim of the “Never tried it but I’m no good” mindset. Maybe going forward I will try and be better.

    • Thank you, Lisa! Just thinking how many opportunities are being lost because of this thought “Never tried it but I’m no good” scares me 🙂

  20. absolutely fascinating topic…..and one we could hash over for days!!!! I do feel that there is such a thing as having a propensity for something…..art? music? literature? sports? But unless the dedication and hours of devotion are given to developing it into a proficiency….and ultimately, what we may call a ‘talent’, I don’t think it will ever happen. I do believe that TALENT is equated with a whole lot of hard work!!!!!

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