“Talent is a snare and a delusion”

“Talent is a snare and a delusion. In the end, the practical questions about talent come down to these: Who cares? Who would know? and What difference would it make? And the practical answers are: Nobody, Nobody, and None.”

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Talent gets you nowhere if you don’t do the work. It doesn’t take long in a new pursuit before the part that requires work shows up.

Often when we say someone has talent, what we mean is that a skill comes easily to them. They don’t have to work at it. It’s innate. 

Making it look easy and it being easy are drastically different things. As the required skill increases, it’s guaranteed they didn’t just bust it out of nowhere. 

The other piece is: the talented person has to be better than the people around them. That’s what makes them talented!

No matter the skill level of the group—whether beginners, professionals, or anywhere in between—“talent” is ascribed to people who are better than the others.

Maybe someone is better because it came easily to them and they put in the work, but to dismiss them as “so talented” erases hours and hours of work, frustration, hills and valleys. No matter where you start, it’s really hard sometimes.

What I saw in 20 years of teaching, what I’ve seen in myself and other people, is that the people who have an easier time at the beginning are less likely to flourish later. When they get to the part that requires the work, they give up or stop progressing. They don’t know how to do the work. They don’t know how to engage with this activity when it’s difficult.

We, the teachers or mentors or parents, attribute the shift to them being lazy or maybe disinterested, when in reality, they don’t know how to handle the situation. If we can teach them how to engage with it, how to feel the feelings that come with working on something we’re not good at, they’ll do much better, and we’ll have more people “working up to their potential.”

When people who pick up the skill more easily also apply work to that foundation, they make something fantastic. It just doesn’t happen as often as we seem to think it does. Most people who are spectacular at something simply (but not easily) did the work.

I had a sign in my classroom: “Average but works hard beats brilliant but lazy.”

Without intending it to be a competition, the point was: if you’re feeling [something negative] because someone else learned it faster than you did, let it go. Just keep working. They will hit a wall. Maybe they’ll scale it, maybe they won’t. You’re less likely to even notice the wall, because you’re already doing the work.

When you see something amazing and are tempted to give talent all the credit, give it to the person for their persistence and hard work instead.

1 thought on ““Talent is a snare and a delusion””

Leave a Comment