The Three Ingredients for Talent

William Hung from American Idol

Some people lack self-awareness about their abilities, and that’s a real impediment to fostering talent.

I would like to propose a new way of thinking about talent.

It’s commonly held that there are basically two ways of imagining talent: being innate (“you’re a born genius!”) or being merely the result of hard work (the 10,000 hours theory).

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think there’s a third dimension.

First, consider innate genius. If you’re born with the potential to be an incredible ballet dancer but are not ever given the opportunity to learn or perform ballet, would you still be a genius? Also, if you have a talent but choose not to nourish it with the fruit of hard labor, would you still be talented? Does it matter if you have the talent to write the Great American Novel if you never actually sit down at the keyboard? No. So talent is not enough.

But I also believe that hard work alone does not guarantee genius. I think we all know someone who is a very hard worker but whose work is just not quality. This kind of person may work hard every day, without necessarily ever achieving anything. After all, if all talent truly required was hard work, I think more people (in a fair world anyway) would be rewarded for their talents. But I’ve never heard of a Janitor of the Year award, and there is no doubt that some are incredibly hard workers. (Forgive me if there is such an award and I’ve somehow missed it.)

I think this occurs more often than we’d like to admit with self-published authors: hard-working and perhaps determined, but not necessarily producing good work. And that leads me to the new dimension that I think needs to be added to the discussion of talent: self-awareness.

The hard worker who is self-aware may realize their faults and work to improve them. The naturally talented person who is self-aware may understand the critical importance of perseverance. But the person from either arena who lacks self-awareness doesn’t achieve anything, the first because of laziness, the second because of obliviousness.

This probably won’t be a popular opinion: it’s considered culturally gauche to admit that not everyone can do every job, even if it is the absolute truth. (I will never be a ballerina because I was born with the wrong body type entirely; I will never be a surgeon because I am unwilling to spend that many years in school. I will never be an astronaut for a combination of both these reasons.) You can teach a ethos of hard work; you can expose people to many different activities so they may discover their natural talents—but how do you teach self-awareness?

This cuts both ways, by the way: people who are talented but who think they aren’t, people who suffer from imposter syndrome because they can’t handle the idea of their own successes.

I think self-awareness is a particularly tricky pill to swallow for an author or aspiring writer. On the one hand, every negative review cuts to the bone. On the other, you tell yourself you just have to put yourself out there, that those people just can’t stand your brilliance. Or you lack confidence, and don’t believe it when the positive reviews do start coming in.

What do you think about adding “self-awareness” to the requirements for talent? And is there anything we should do about it?


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2 responses to “The Three Ingredients for Talent

  1. KC

    I think this is tricky on a number of levels. There isn’t really a recipe for accurate self-awareness; as you pointed out, some people suffer from Imposter Syndrome, while others labor under the Dunning-Kruger effect, so you can’t just take how you feel about yourself and add/subtract a set quantity to reach the correct level.

    Compounding this is the fact that writing is difficult to objectively judge even from fairly low levels – unlike basic algebra, there isn’t a single right answer; unlike some instrumental music, there isn’t a “either you hit the right note or you made a horrible screeching noise” test. You can take typing tests to find out your speed, and even if you favor the results from the tests that marked you “lower” or “higher” depending on your self-confidence, you’ll still get a fairly accurate range.

    Also, basically everyone can write a little (as basically everyone can do a little “abstract art” or can sing a little), unlike, say, playing the saxophone or swimming, where being unable to hit the notes or make it all the way across the pool is likely to provide tangible feedback.

    Then, there’s generally a dearth of skilled criticism. “Great work!” or “I didn’t like it.” doesn’t actually help much; more precise criticism that’s just wrong or misdirected (“I felt your horror novel had too many scary things in it and did not have enough cuddly bunnies; and the ending certainly needs to be happier”) isn’t much more useful. And this is complicated by many, many (most?) people not doing well with criticism; anything less than glowing is either cause for a doom spiral or is met with vitriolic indignation. Sometimes friends and family are aware of this and thus temper their opinions; sometimes they’re jealous and hence are unnecessarily harsh; sometimes they’re just more or less incompetent or blind. (most friends and family are not skilled at assessing writing; sometimes [although more rarely] they’re not even good at knowing whether they personally enjoyed it or not!)

    So… yes, talent requires both the innate capability required to accomplish something and the directed labor needed to carry out the process of improvement (and, for creative works, additionally, the directed labor that goes into actually Creating The Thing). I think self-awareness comes into the “directed labor” – the 10,000 hours (or whatever) is not going to do you much good if the activity undergone is not actually growing you in the direction necessary for progress. As an extreme example, someone who practices pressing middle C on the piano for 10,000 hours is not going to get much of anywhere in terms of playing a sonata (I could be wrong, having not read the book, but reviews seemed to indicate that the book which posited 10,000 hours of practice for success required *effective* practice).

    Whether this awareness gap and the world of self-publishing means there’s a “job opening” for consultants to give self-pub authors writing criticism (in a similar way to how papers are graded in creative writing courses), or whether it means it’s more or less hopeless from an individual perspective and the industry will just muddle along somehow with occasional really good books rising to the top of the heap, I don’t know. And consultants of that sort would have a heavy road to hoe, as telling someone they’re not there yet is perhaps not going to generate custom as much as telling them they’re brilliant but just *barely* need some adjustment before they become world famous. Fortune-tellers don’t get tipped extra if they tell someone that a former life was as a weed-puller in ancient Egypt; it’s Cleopatra or nothing; and I suspect “self-awareness” writing coaches would fall into some similar hazards.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting question to ponder. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Great thought and analysis! I think it’s definitely an issue with self-publishing. As an editor, I’ve had authors “rage quit” when I (gently!) suggested a reorganization. But that was a person, I think, lacking in the self-awareness part.

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