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Art Blog: Talent is Highly Overrated

July 18, 2011

My 2-year-old granddaughter could do that (Oh yes -- she did!)

How do you define talent? What part does it play in the development of a successful artist?

If we wanted to distill talent down to its essence, we might get a clue or two by thinking about the child prodigy. After all, if talent is the essential element of a successful artist, then we must be born with it. And if we’re born with it, we are going to show early signs of aptitude.

But what if your inborn talent is never nurtured? You might be lucky enough to grow up in a nurturing family environment that encourages and cheers your every tiny effort. On the other hand, you might even be unlucky enough to have parents who exploit your special abilities for their own gain. (Don’t get me started!) Or you might simply be an incredibly talented child whose parents are oblivious to your talent or perhaps have no appreciation for the arts. Even worse, you might get negative feedback and discouragement at a young age from a thoughtless parent or teacher, ending further exploration. With talent being the common denominator in these examples, each scenario is going to have a different outcome for each individual.

So we can take it as a given that there are plenty of talented people in the world. Not just in the arts, but in the ways that we learn and see the world. We need more than talent to succeed. And I’m of the opinion that even without a lot of “talent” — whatever that is — we can learn and be very good at any number of impressive skills.

In combination with talent or aptitude, here are a few other attributes that I feel are just as important for success:

  • A sense of play
  • A sense of wonder
  • Curiosity
  • Imagination
  • Willingness to fail and to try again
  • Ability to learn from mistakes
  • Study (self-education will get you a long way if formal education is impossible)
  • Practice and more practice (this one can be the deal breaker for many otherwise talented people)
  • Patience (see above)
  • Bravery (you will need this if you’re thinking about exhibiting or performing)
  • A support system of like-minded people

There could be more. These are just some that came off the top of my head. Can you think of additions to the list? Which one of these attributes do you think is the most important?

The next time someones says to you “You’re so talented!” just smile and say “Thank you.” You will know in your heart of hearts that you’re so much more than that.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 10:18 am

    Thank you for the intelligent article Martha,

    I love this part: “You’re so talented!” just smile and say “Thank you.” You will know in your heart of hearts that you’re so much more than that. ”
    It really is *so* much more than that.

    And I hear you about the parents selling out their own children in various ways…

    I would like to add to your list:
    *A sense of Trust (in what has been given – be in just “Talent” or in a desire to succeed; Trusting the process of creating and of putting one’s self out there; that things are and will be as they should be – especially when things aren’t going “as planned”

    Thanks for stirring up my proverbial “pot”!
    Have a great day!
    xo Latifah

    • July 18, 2011 12:08 pm

      Thank you for the contributions, Latifah. I agree that determination has to be a factor. And the sense of trust comes from doing and experiencing. The more you experience, the more you can trust both expected and unexpected outcomes, don’t you think?

  2. July 18, 2011 10:26 am

    Great post, Martha. If I had to pick from your attributes I’d have difficulty choosing between curiosity and imagination – especially in very early years. Sometimes seems to me that kids are deprived of exercising both of these with so many things, pre-baked, all thrust upon them so early in life. All these things seem essential for a very well-lived life too. Reading this made me think of Malcom Gladwell’s book ‘The Outliers’. Have you ever read it? Extremely interesting in terms of why certain people become very successful when, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much similarity in their backgrounds, life style, etc. But there are some rather obscure elements common to those people which contribute to their amazing success. Btw, Piper’s picture rocks. 🙂

    • July 18, 2011 12:11 pm

      Excellent points, Karen! So true and so sad about our education system. Yes, I know about The Outliers, but haven’t actually read it. Maybe I will!

      Regarding curiousity and imagination, I’m not sure I’d want to choose. I tend to think that curiosity is an absolute prerequisite for intelligence in general. And imagination is the thing I marvel at most when I am surprised by wonderful art.

      Glad you like my genius granddaughter’s art. 😉

  3. July 18, 2011 11:12 am

    What is talent? A very good topic for debate these days. To me, talent is in all of us. It takes a variety of mature forms and covers all fields; not only art. To me talent can also be taught, more or less. Today our education system doesn’t educate, it trains robots to spit out the propaganda the gov wants its citizens to lock-step to. Aka teach-to-the-test. Who designs the test? Enuff on this at this time. Back to the talent thing. I taught art at the college/university level for 18 years. It was my focus to not “train” artists, but to expose young minds to an endless set of possible experiences that learning the structures of art practice can bring to a growing mind. It would be up to the individual student where this focus would go after graduation. In the end, for me, talent had no real definition. The more I tried to pin down what talent was/is, the less I found a good definition. Maybe we should redefine. I like to think that talent = focus = desire = self motivation (learned and self generated) = experience = doing = life; and = . When discussing talent, can you say Pandora?

    • July 18, 2011 12:16 pm

      David, I totally agree that everyone has different kinds of talents. I’m always intrigued by how they manifest in later life. How some people don’t discover their talent for music or art until they’re well into adulthood. So I think you’re onto something when you say that exposure to all the possibilities sometimes awakens the spark that was there all along.

      I know, we could go on and on about what passes for education now. It has to change, or China is going to gobble us whole.

      LOL! I love your definition at the end. Bravo!

  4. July 18, 2011 1:04 pm

    Good reminder, with the comment “A sense of Play.” Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. I also think that we do have talent, if we are drawn to some endeavor.

    • July 20, 2011 4:23 pm

      Agreed, Caroline! I think a big component of talent is being drawn to some area of endeavor we’ve discovered and want to know more and more about it (maybe a little like falling in love!)

  5. permalink
    July 18, 2011 6:37 pm

    It also helps to have a good audience. Having your gramma rhapsodize about your lovely watercolor brushstrokes and color choices can inspire the young artist to continue their exploration! Seriously, people talk about talent ‘running’ in a family, but I contend it’s really a natural inclination nurtured by an atmosphere with materials available and permission to experience and experiment. Thank you for not giving your precious grand daughter a coloring book and telling her to stay within the lines!

    • July 20, 2011 4:32 pm

      Yes, yes Ginny! We’ve done that with all the kids in our family. I think because I’m an artist I’ve always leaned toward visual art, but we’ve also encouraged their explorations wherever their interests were. Things like a sport, or rock collecting, or music, or growing things. There’s just nothing like encouragement from significant adults.

  6. July 18, 2011 8:39 pm

    Thank you for this post. My particular nemesis was a teacher in grade school. I wasn’t good at drawing and she commented on it often. I dreaded “art” days when we were supposed to draw. Quit trying. But now I’m doing things like your granddaughter because I love paints. Can’t draw but I can slap paint on paper and love it.

    • July 20, 2011 4:37 pm

      Joan, it’s a sad thing when a teacher or parent stifles a child’s creativity. I’m so glad you’ve given yourself permission to play and explore now. If it makes you happy that is the absolute most important thing.

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