There is no doubt that people differ in levels of expertise and performance in various fields that most consider to be very difficult: music, art, sports, chess, math, physics… to name but a few. But there is a pervasive belief is that there are a rare few individuals who “have it” and a vast majority of ordinary people who “don’t”.
Those who are deemed to “have it” are considered special, fundamentally different from the rest. They are called “geniuses”, “gifted”, “talented”, “naturals”. What are the rest of us mere mortals… those without perfect pitch, photographic memory, off the chart IQs, or exceptional hand-eye coordination… supposed to do?
The goal here is not to deny that exceptional talents exist or to settle the nature-nurture debate. The goal is to reframe the notions of talent, opportunity, and success… in the context music and life in general.
The Nature-Nurture Conundrum
The fact that some people can do certain things that most others cannot (at least not yet) does not prove the existence of some innate gift. Such differences may be explained by any number of contributing factors: motivation, personality, prior knowledge, problem solving experience, family support, access to excellent teachers, social pressures, work ethic, competitiveness, and self-confidence to name but a few. It is typically not possible to know from someone’s performance alone how they attained their level of competence. Are they a truly gifted rarity, a highly-motivated rarity, or some of both?
To illustrate the point, consider this. Mozart is held up as an exemplar of the truly gifted prodigy, the “proof” that you either have it or you don’t. But the lesser-known fact is that Mozart was born into a richly musical and privileged household. Wolfgang Amadeus was born special, but there is absolutely no doubt that was he was also raised special.
His genius blossomed in an exceptionally nurturing environment that provided both a highly-focused education and unconstrained freedom to pursue his music. Imagine what kind of music Mozart may (or may not) have made if his DNA was born dirt-poor in ancient Greece or on 52nd Street as Thelonius Monk’s younger brother. Of course, if his musical brain was born into a girl’s body in Salzburg in 1756, we would have never heard of her.
The “Talent” Label
Based on the thought experiment above, we can draw some very powerful conclusions:
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of performance rather than potential. Performance is easy to see, but seeing potential takes love and commitment. Perhaps that is why “talent” seems so rare.
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of inherited predispositions rather than the capacity to learn. Most talents are latent, waiting to be discovered and unleashed given the right support.
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of narrowly-defined capabilities rather than a view of the whole person. What is the fruit of categorizing people based on an IQ test?
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of observable skills rather than character traits. Why are curiosity, enthusiasm, industry, sensitivity, passion, empathy, discipline, courage, perseverance, love, honesty, kindness, compassion, and optimism not considered talents? Are these not what the world needs most?
- It is a mistake to use the word “talent” to discount or diminish the hard-won accomplishments of successful people.
- It is a mistake to use one’s supposed lack of “talent” as a crutch, as justification for one’s lack of accomplishment.
Let’s consider another examplar of exceptional talent… Michael Jordan. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at Michael and say, “I bet he can dunk a basketball.” No doubt, we are each born into this world with certain biological predispositions, but there is so much more to the story.
Unfortunately, our materialistic, celebrity culture promotes a narrow definition of success by rewarding results, not efforts. MJ was lavished with wealth and fame for winning championships and for the superhuman grace with which he flew through the air, but he should really be honored for his discipline and work ethic… for the countless hours he spent off the court… logging the miles, lifting weights, studying his opponents, restructuring his mind to deal with adversity, practicing his free throws, working on his dribbling, his bank shot, his passing, and so many other skills… so much so that he could do them all while dead-tired and under pressure.
I suggest that the monument to Michael Jordan is all wrong. It should not be a larger-than-life god timelessly suspended above the rim. It should be a down-to-earth likeness showing his grimacing face, burning muscles, and pouring sweat in the gym when nobody was looking.
“If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
— Henry Ford
True or false, let’s define “talent” as some rare and special gift bestowed by the gods upon a select and fortunate few. Then, let’s consider the dangers that flow from this erroneous belief…
- Students who believe that they are “untalented” may believe that
- effort is pointless and give up trying.
- they are not special and therefore not worthy of doing important things.
- they are not special and therefore not responsible for doing important things.
- While students who are labelled “talented” are often accorded special opportunities that are denied to those who are not, they too are in danger…
- Those who are rewarded for their “talents” may adapt their behavior to maintain such rewards. Such dependency on extrinsic motivators is not necessarily in their interest.
- Being labelled as “talented” may make one a slave to one’s gifts, instilling expectations that lead to unhealthy perfectionism and competition with others.
As you can see, labeling people has profound implications for everyone… “talented” or not.
No matter how rich or poor my genetic and environmental endowment, I can be genuinely happy and successful only if I embrace the following beliefs and ethics:
- Everyone has talents.
- Every talent is valuable.
- A “big” talent does not make me more than others…
A “small” talent does not make me less than others.
- Having a talent does not make me important…
My value as a human being is what I choose to do with my talent.
- Happiness ensues from using my talents in service to others.
- Service to others is an essential ingredient of authentic dreams.
- Large or small, what matters is that they are my dreams.
- Authentic dreams flow naturally from my core values, not material ambitions.
- If I embark on this uncommon journey, I will discover many latent talents in the process.
- Success has far more to do with opportunity and hard work than any inborn “talent”.
- Opportunity is something to be grateful for.
- Talent can be developed by hard work.
- The obstacle to success is not lack of talent…
The obstacle to success is lack of an authentic dream.
- My authentic dream is my power. My dream is the “big” thing that motivates me to define and do the “small” things everyday.
- If my dream is authentic, it will pull me towards it… teaching me, giving me courage, enabling me to persevere through every obstacle (and there will be many).
- My dream is my power.
- My unlived dreams will be a source of frustration until I act to make them a reality…
What am I waiting for?
- The real gift is not talent. The real gift is LOVE.