The Talent Myth


Do you believe in talent or hard work? Do you believe hours or even years of honing one’s craft are required to achieve a certain level of mastery in a skill, or is there something else involved? Some natural affinity or flair? What’s the benchmark for someone to be even considered talented? There are some that dispute whether or not “talent” even exists.

Merriam-Webster defines talent as “a special, often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude”, and the word takes its origins from the Latin “talentum: balance, weight; sum of money.” The modern definition and usage of the word can be traced back to the Middle Ages when it was used figuratively to compliment an artist’s or craftsman’s aptitude

In honesty I much prefer the medieval connotation. To say someone had talent was to say they had wealth, (in Ancient Greece a talanton was worth 6000 Drachmae) figuratively acknowledging the hard work and dedication of the individual. It’s a much more romantic sentiment than our current usage of the word, which so often merely admires the fact that a person is talented, and not the fact that they may have worked hard to get there.

Let’s theorise a moment about the different variables at play here. Let’s consider:

1: Someone with seemingly miraculous aptitude, who excels in their field exceedingly quickly and without much need of intensive training/learning/practising.

2: An individual who has been trained from a very young age and dedicated hundreds if not thousands of hours to intensive training/learning/practising.

3: An individual taking up a skill in adulthood, having no prior experience, discovering a natural affinity to learn and progress quickly.

4: An individual taking up a skill in adulthood, having no prior experiences, discovering a lack of natural affinity, but remaining dedicated, training hard and progressing and learning slowly.

Many savants could be classified into group one. English pianist Derek Paravacini is blind and severely autistic and has been playing the piano since the age of two. He has perfect pitch, he can identify each note in chords and polychords of up to, and possibly over, eighteen notes, and he can play every song he’s ever heard from memory. Talented?

Group two could easily include someone like Beethoven, whose father and grandfather were musicians. Trained practically from birth to be the classical great he would become. Even after going deaf he composed some of his greatest works.

Group three tend to be actors. People like Harrison Ford, who was originally an on-set carpenter; or Morgan Freeman, who didn’t star in his first movie until he was in his fifties, can often walk onto the silver screen and wow us with their sheer, un-corrupted honesty.

And group four would include people like fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. She got her start at thirty dressing the Sex Pistols, but her unique and colourful style didn’t bring her to international fashion fame until she was in her fifties.

I’m sure all our readers would consider the above individuals to have talent, but how do we judge? Is it more about the flair or the hard work, or is it about a combination of both? Old school talent requires experience and wealth of knowledge, and new school talent seems to just randomly occur. Perhaps it’s the word itself that’s such an issue. It’s broad and vague and provides no sense of superlative. You can’t quantify talent (ironic given its etymology) so perhaps a new standard should be set, a new benchmark, a new way for us to achieve a nonsense hierarchy. Or perhaps we can take back its old meaning, admire worth, and wealth, and knowledge, and not just admire each other.



This month’s blog was written by the uber-talented/Very Hard Working Jared Nadin!

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The Talent Myth

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