How the Talent Myth Hurts Everyone

“Some people are just naturally good at some things, and other people aren’t. If you’re no good at something, don’t give up. You just haven’t found what you’re good at yet!”

If you’ve heard that, or any variation thereof, feel free to roast whoever said it over an open fire because that person is feeding you a comfortable lie. It’s bullshit – especially that “don’t give up” bit, because that’s exactly what they’re telling you to do. Here’s a similar quote to put the first one in perspective:

“Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

—Homer J. Simpson

How are those quotes even close to the same thing? Here’s what the first quote really says: “If you’re not good at something first try, then give up and keep giving up until you find something you’re instantly good at, because that’ll totally happen. In the meantime (meaning until the day you die) you can pretend your genius is all pent up inside instead of taking a big scary risk to do something you actually enjoy with your life.”

The above sentiment is often trotted out when someone complains that something is “not fun” or “too hard” and desperately looking for reasons to give up instead of useful advice about how to tackle the problem. However, the most pernicious lie is in the first sentence: “Some people are just naturally good at some things and other people aren’t.” Because this plays on the myth of “talent” and the idea that skill is innate instead of learned.

The talent myth hurts the “untalented” by telling them they’ll never be as good as talented people, so they might as well give up now. For example, a friend in high-school once asked me to teach her how to draw, so I showed her the book that taught me. I set up the first exercise for her, a blind contour drawing of a pop bottle. She was so horrified at her result, that I did my own crappy contour drawing to show her how sucking was part of the process. Blind contour drawing is hard. But nope, she pointed out how my scribble of a pop bottle was better than hers, declared, “I’m just no good at this,” and never tried again.

So how does the talent myth hurt the so-called talented as well? By teaching them exactly the same thing. You’re dubbed “talented” when people are either trying to be encouraging, or totally mystified by what you do. The problem is, when people constantly tell you your skill (or lack of) is an innate quality, you internalize it. Internalizing this myth makes you believe everything worth doing must be effortless, so once you hit the wall, where only effort will get you further – and everyone hits it eventually – you either plateau or give up entirely, because hard work is for chumps, right?

What people don’t see is all the work that went into becoming “talented” in the first place. The “talented” may not even see it themselves. When they started out, it was fun because there were no stakes involved.

Take a kid who sees a piano, sits down, and starts plunking away. That kid is just having fun making noise. If someone sits down beside the kid and plays an easy song, the kid will mimic it, and practice it, until they can play the song too.

Say another kid sits at the piano sometime later, and the kid who learned the song wants to show off a bit. Now you have one kid who can play the piano and one who can’t. You’ve upped the stakes, because now there’s a competition going on. If an adult chimes in at this moment with praise, the phrasing is crucial. Praising the one kid for practicing tells the other kid how they can learn too, whereas calling the one kid talented has just put the other kid out of the game.

In the latter scenario, what happens to the “talented” kid is just as damaging. That kid started playing with enjoyment, but the minute it becomes frustrating, that talent is in question. It’s now a matter of ego preservation. The “talented” must be constantly good at that thing, because anything less would prove they’re not talented. Fear of failure sets in, because the only way to maintain the illusion that you’re talented is to never fail. This leads the “talented” person to stop stretching their boundaries – to never try.

Imagine a bicycle race: everyone trained to get there but these were all once regular kids, who repeatedly fell off their bikes and got back on again, because the scraped knees were worth it. Then, one joker rolls up with the training wheels still on. He grins smugly, assured of his victory, because all his life he’s been told he’s hot shit. When the starting gun goes off, the people on adult bikes blast past him. Meanwhile, he careens down the hill, the training wheels collapse under the strain of his now-adult body, and he breaks his leg. Because that’s what happens when you’ve been cushioned from failure all your life and finally step out into to the real world.

The training wheels are the cushion of praise and encouragement the “talented” get the whole time they’re in school, where their only responsibility is learning. If they haven’t also learned how to fail and how to grind, everyone else will blow past them in life.

To get back to the quote at the top of this article, the problem isn’t with the latter part of the message. Maybe you haven’t found what you’re good at yet, and you shouldn’t give up. But the real question isn’t about what you’re good at, it’s about how badly you want to get good at it. When you try something new, your first effort probably going to suck, but don’t give up on something because you suck at it. You’ll never find out what you’re good at until you let your self suck at it long enough to get good.

This goes for “talented” people as well. Even if something started out easy, there will come a point where further progress becomes a slog. From there you can choose to grind out your next level, remain a dabbler, or give up and do something else with your life. But if you pick option three, every time, you’ll never get good at anything. The problem is you, believing you’re talented, rather than someone who progressed to that level by sinking time into it, just like everyone else.

I have much more to say about competency vs. mastery, but I’ll save that for a future post.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

2 thoughts to “How the Talent Myth Hurts Everyone”

  1. You have a lot of interesting posts, Sarah – glad I found your blog.

    There’s talent here :).

    (And hard work.)

    I honestly don’t mind the work it has been to learn to write; I’m just lucky I still can (I can’t do most things), and that I’ve had some time and energy to do it. There may have been some talent there, but the part that was the most useful were those millions of books I consumed before I started writing (to set up expectations and educate me as to what I liked), and the tens of them after, where I’ve learned the craft.

    It’s work. It’s worth it.

    1. That might really be where writing talent comes from – reading. Those kids who enjoyed reading more than others (like me) were almost always the ones who developed a desire to write, and did it relatively well. You get a feel for stories the more you absorb them. In the past couple years, I’ve spent more time reading than writing, but with the aim to consume more of the kind of books I want to write. That experience is just as important as the actual time you spend writing. 🙂

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