I was initially going to make a title something to the effect of ‘The misconception of Talent’ but upon further thinking, I feel people aren’t confused about the word rather they use it as a general expression to explain things they can’t do thus the true meaning has been obscured. (Much like the fact that 90% of the time that the word ironic is spoken out loud it is misused.) Outside of the archaic definition, a monetary unit of measure, talent is defined as “a special natural ability or aptitude.”
I’ll use the arts to illustrate my point. The audience of a classical music recital, (you can insert the artsy fartsy event of your choosing: art gallery opening, ballet) is generally comprised of elderly affluent patrons who smell like menthol and peppermint, friends and family of the artist who usually feel forced to attend out of a sense of propriety, and other members of the profession that the artist is exhibiting out of curiosity, respect or seeking affirmation of the belief that they are better than the current performer.
At intermission and the “Meet the Artist Reception” the elderly, in their dotage, will prattle about nothing in particular for hours on end while occasionally mentioning a somewhat relevant reminiscence of how they once took piano lessons and could even play five-finger passages. Whenever their ramblings accidentally form a coherent thought the word they land on to describe the artist is always—without fail—talent or some conjugation of the verb. In a situation such as this, I can think of few things more offensive than being called talented. Of the three groups outlined above, only the first one will use the word talent. All things considered, the second group doesn’t care, and more key than that, is that the last group the other practicing musicians in my example, never use the word talent.
The great artistic Masters of the past and present usually didn’t coast on talent. Ludwig van Beethoven. Michael Jeffery Jordan. Both are icons of their craft and arguably the greatest to practice their professions. Is it fair (and I initially hesitated to use that word, but it really is the right one) to attribute all of their accomplishments to talent or somewhere on their career paths can we definitively state that regardless of their great proficiency nothing was ever given to them and they worked hard for all the achievements.
It sounds clichéd to say no one remembers their beginnings but… Does anyone remember when Jordan broke his foot and missed a season or the aural atrocity that comprise most of Beethoven’s works without opus numbers? How about the fact that Jordan was never more than a good shooter, but after putting on substantial weight and working God-only-knows how hard over the course of six seasons he became an unstoppable shooter. Beethoven didn’t wake up one morning and rediscover polyphony (Mendelssohn did) and instantaneously go on to be on the great renaissance standard bearer of a niche compositional technique that had fallen out of mainstream practice some 200 years ago. (Possibly even longer, fugue was a dated practice when Bach was doing it.) Talent is only part of the equation it.
None of Beethoven’s or Jordan’s contemporaries would ever chalk up all they had done to talent because the contemporaries of Beethoven and Jordan were overwhelmingly talented themselves.
As opposed to the beginning, it is exactly the end of Jordan’s career that cast the light on “talent” that bothers me so much. How talented was he as a Washington Wizard? I wouldn’t say he was a failure during those years, but at one point in time he was coming off the bench. How could the most talented person to play the game be the sixth man? ( To those who would ‘call me out’ on this one, I’m aware of the flaw in this argument but I don’t care to address it; start your own blog…) I can’t really talk about the fall or end of Beethoven’s talent as the well-documented decline in his mental facilities and physical well-being ran him into a very bleak and abrupt end. Ironically, the manner of his death probably solidified his status as the--then unnamed--Romantic Era’s Icon.
I guess my real bone to pick with attributing talent to people left and right is the ignorance that people who say it shroud themselves in when lauding out this insult to someone who has demonstrated a work ethic that should be applauded. Ignorance to the law is not a defense, but in polite society somehow I’m the bad guy if I choke the little old lady out for insulting me to my face. I’m expected to take it and smile because her ignorance is socially accepted by the masses. To anyone out there feeling cavalier I hope you’re not naïve enough to think you can be the one to correct the situation; I assure you, you will only be call, ‘disrespectful.’
I have only ever known one freakishly talented pianist my whole life (and I know that even he put an amazing amount of work and effort into practicing); as is true in all things, there are always exceptions. However, everyone else from Claude Frank, to William Knight, to Jessica Mavros to Ben Neill had natural ability but a much larger dose of determination and an exceptional work ethic.
Here’s a fun question that sums things up nicely: Is Stephen King a talent writer? I’m sure someone said that on his first work and of his most recent. If he had a natural ability at what point in time--in King’s case after 35 years of writing--does ones success cease to be due to talent and have something to due with the fact that the man in question dedicated his life to a craft and, talented or not, got really good at it.
I have long since believed that, ‘impossible’ was word used by people to feel good about themselves when they quit. By the same reasoning, I feel, ‘talent’ is used in reference to others as self consolation for the users own inability.
It’s not the nice thing to do, but next time someone writes off your ability under the catch all of, ‘talent’ don’t gasp for breath out of shock and offense. Descend to their level of shallow ignorance: tell them where you came from, how you got there, and make sure they are the one drowning in a pool of embarrassment instead of you drowning in your private pool of loathing.