Is there such a thing as talent? And if so what is it? What does it mean to be talented at something? What does it mean if you are not that talented?

This topic came up the other night in conversation. One person asserted that there was no such thing as talent. There is only social conditioning, Mozart was conditioned to be a musical prodigy. If they had conditioned him to be something else, he would have been something else. Anyone can be taught to do anything. Therefore, there is no talent.

I agree with part of that, but vehemently disagree with the rest. I agree that just about anyone can be taught to do just about anything, given enough effort, time, resources and the correct teaching method. But I don’t agree that there is no such thing as talent.

Where I think the disagreement comes in is that we are using talent to mean different things. If you think of talent as the ready made ability to create a perfect, flawless finished product without any training or practice, then maybe there is no such thing as talent. But if you see talent the way I do, as the natural predisposition to do something over and over again until you become very proficient at it without any assistance, then there is definitely talent. Talent is not knowing something in advance. It is the ability to acquire knowledge and skills in a particular area with a minimal investment.

Take music, for instance. Some people have a talent for it, so they are able to match pitch or harmonize or reproduce musical sequences without effort. They obsessively play with music without cease, and since practice makes perfect, their abilities increase exponentially with very little apparent effort. Other people are less talented. This means that when they do try to do something musical, their return on investment for effort is not good. Since they are not rewarded by nature for the effort, they also do not feel any desire to redouble their effort, so they get less practice and arrive at some kind of impasse. It does not mean they cannot learn to do some of the things that talented people can do. It just means it takes them longer to learn, and they may not actually acquire these skills unless they are taught by someone who has good pedagogical methods.

There is nothing wrong with taking some time to learn how to do something you are not particularly talented at. There can be many benefits to acquiring some skills in an area that we are not very good at. But it is unlikely that someone without that innate, natural drive to pursue music will become a musical professional, much less a prodigy. If that does happen, for some reason, it may not be a good thing, either for the person involved or their employers.

I know of one woman who was very industrious and studied music and became very proficient at singing opera. She was aware that she was less talented than others in the field, but she was such a hard worker, she was very determined, and she got good training with good methodology. She stayed up nights learning what other people learned in moments. She compensated for lack of natural ability by working twice as hard as anyone else. She was accepted as a singer in a very prestigious opera company. But eventually she decided that being an opera singer just did not pay well enough for all the work that had to be done. She was expected to learn new songs in no time at all, and it was very stressful because she had to hire a tutor to drill her on each new song, and nobody paid her for all that extra work and what she had to pay the tutor every time a new song had to be learned!

Yes, sometimes it is possible by hard work to propel yourself into a position for which you are not competent. If you are Peter Keating, you can persevere and complete your studies and get a degree as an architect. But what good does it do you in the end, when you have to get Howard Roark to design all your buildings?

Bottom line: anyone can be taught how to do anything, to the point of seeming to do an excellent job if they have time to do sufficient preparation so that they appear to be at their very best. But only a very talented person can do the job in real time under less than perfect conditions.

It makes sense to listen to your heart before you embark on a long and arduous training program. Just because anyone can be taught to do anything does not mean you want to be stuck in a job for the rest of your life for which you have formal qualifications but no internal drive.

Ultimately, that is what talent is: the obsessive desire to do something over and over again because it is fun. If you do not feel that way about something, save yourself the trouble and do not make it your life’s work. Can you do it? Yes, you can. But there is not a good enough return on investment to bother. Stick to what you really love, because that is what will pay off for you!

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Image



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About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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2 Responses to Talent

  1. My eldest son is very talented at photography. His high school teacher told him that he should do it professionally yet he chose not too. Instead he became a professional painter which he enjoys doing. I wish that he’d have gone into photography but that was his choice. Enjoyed your article very much Aya!

    • Aya Katz says:

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. I am glad that your son enjoys the work he did choose to do, regardless. It is not too late for him to also add photography to the mix, so it sounds like a pretty happy situation.

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