I posted a photo on social media showing the actor Peter Falk drawing. Someone commented “some people having all the talent.” I balked at this statement. I know it wasn’t mean to, but it upset me. I told myself it wasn’t important, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The word “talent” is often used inaccurately and it can be damaging.
When I was young, I was part of a John Hopkins study for “gifted and talented” math students. In seventh grade, I was well ahead of my peers. I was told I had a talent for math, so I believed it was an innate gift.
Why was this a problem? Because I didn’t realize I could get even better at math if I wanted to. I enjoyed math, but I didn’t work very hard at it. By the time I graduated high school, I was no longer ahead of everyone else. They’d all caught up to me.
In college, I coasted through my math classes and decided not to pursue a math minor even though it would only take a few more classes to achieve. If I had a gift for math, then shouldn’t it always be easy for me? When it wasn’t, I assumed I wasn’t as talented as I’d been told.
But it never was talent. I was taught higher mathematics by my mother while I was in kindergarten. We had a set of colored Cuisenaire rods, wooden blocks for learning math visually, and I excelled at it. We stopped somewhere around calculus because we’d reached the limit of Mom’s knowledge. Later in life, I found a lot of higher mathematics came to me quite easily, but I think it was because it was familiar. I’d seen it before, even though I didn’t remember it.
Of course, not all kindergarteners want to do math equations, even with blocks. When my sister was old enough, Mom tried to teach her the same way she had me. But Cleo was much more interested in making pictures than equations. There has to be interest to develop the skill. That’s the innate part: interest.
Thanks to the internet, we have lots of access to artists “performing.” I watch people draw, paint, or sculpt every day. Many of them make what they do look really easy, and so we call it talent. But it’s skill. It’s easy for them, because they’ve done this many, many times before.
No one is born able to paint a realistic drawing or sculpture. It takes study, practice, making messes, and learning from mistakes. A good artist keeps pushing, trying to learn new things, to increase their skills. That’s where the true talent lies — in being interested enough to keep working hard, even when you haven’t reached the skill level you desire.
I hate to add to the list of words we need to be careful with. Everywhere we turn, we are being warned not to say things the way we used to, to be sensitive in our word choice so that we don’t do harm or perpetuate bigotry. But we need to be careful with the words “gifted” and “talented” because they disrespect the hard work people have done to develop their skills. Worse, they imply that we cannot learn to do difficult things. They trap us in a world where only the gifted can succeed.
Have you ever been called talented? Was it a help or a hindrance?