The myth of ‘talent’: Great artists depend more on passion and hard work


It’s that time of year again to sit down with my words and do a bit of purging, because we all know that your vocabulary is a like a fruit tree – you want it to grow, but it’ll always grows better after some judicious pruning.

Note to self: Next weekend, let’s do a little spring cleaning on those trite analogies.

Anyway, the word this year that I’m considering tossing out like Valentine’s Day Chinese takeout is “talent.” Not that I want to make official what others may already believe – that I have none – but because I’m beginning to have my doubts such a thing really even exists.

My friend Dale Ockerman has his doubts too. Dale is a rock musician and teacher who serves as a mentor to lots of young would-be musicians as the head instructor at Musicscool in Santa Cruz. His most famous pupil is James Durbin, who is currently rising to dizzying levels of fame on Fox’s “American Idol.”

I called Dale to talk about James who most “Idol” fans would believe has talent oozing from his pores. But Dale’s not really down with the T-word, at least as it’s commonly used, and there’s a growing sense among people who think about such things that “talent” is not only misleading, but psychologically and even economically damaging.

Talent may be the sum total of an equation that involves passion, drive, hard work and innate ability, but generally the word is not used like that. Instead, it has come to connote a kind of divinely inspired gift that comes more or less wholly formed in a small number of people who wield it for the entertainment and/or enlightenment of the rest of us.

That’s a sexy, even cinematic idea – that an elite few are vessels through which the magical skills of the gods can brought to a human level – but it can do a number on your psyche. If you believe that talent is a kind of immutable trait, like height, you would think that if it doesn’t make itself apparent immediately, you don’t have much of it. And that if you do have it and aren’t using it to its full potential, you’re wasting your life.

Let’s take, as an example, my obviously commanding and impressive karaoke version of “Werewolves of London.” Is it a gift I was born with? Or is it a result of my consuming passion for all things Zevon and my long, lonely hours of mastering the critical howl – “Aaawwoooo” – in the chorus?

A couple of years ago, writer Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that talent can come to just about anyone provided they are willing to put in the hours to master a particular skill – 10,000 hours to be precise. That really puts a damper on the much more fun notion of talent as a divine spark, and takes a good bit of the awe out of the process as well. Nobody really wants to hear about repetition, experimentation and practice, practice, practice.

After all, we live in a short-cut culture. We give lip service to hard work, but generally we believe the same myths about talent that we believe about wealth – that it’s possible to get to the top without climbing the mountain. That’s where much of this vaunted American optimism comes from, magical thinking.

If you want to think of it in purely Darwinian terms, a culture that puts its faith in drive and hard work – as American culture used to do and as many Asian cultures now do – is going to have an advantage in a struggle for dominance against a culture that believes in inherent superiority, luck and “talent.”

And yet, I can’t help thinking of so many examples that mock the 10,000-hour rule. Mozart, Bobby Fischer, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Martin Luther King Jr., maybe even James Durbin – how do you account for such unique otherworldly mastery?

There has to be an innate something that pushes you toward one potential talent and away from another. I mean, not even 10,000 years of practice isn’t going to make me into Shaquille O’Neal.

Nobody really knows the algorithm that makes up talent. Most of it is surely a result of nothing but hard work, and hard work only comes from a complicated interplay between passion, focus, confidence, energy, flexibility, discipline, innovation and pure dogged will to continue. None of that stuff comes without exertion and time – lots and lots of both.

There are lessons here as well for us as parents. Tell your kid she’s a special snowflake? Well, snowflakes fall to the ground and disappear amidst all the other special snowflakes. Tell her she’s a flower just waiting to bloom. There’s a prescription for passivity for you.

Tell her instead she can be anything she wants to be, if she works hard enough at it.
That’s Dale Ockerman’s point about Durbin. Dale was not talking about the young man’s “talent.” He was more interested in James’s “laser-like concentration,” and the fact that “he loves (music) so much, he devours it.”

And now we’re getting to the kernel of the mystery of talent – desire. A former college teacher of mine who had to put up with a lot of self-satisfied but mediocre young writers said, “You gotta want it.”

How do you measure that kind of desire? I’d say 10,000 hours is pretty solid evidence for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some werewolf howling to do, several thousands hours to be exact.


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