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?