Why Do We Think Talent Ought to Be Rewarded?

I’ve been having conversations on Twitter about whether determination is more important than talent. (It was sparked by this recent blog post.)

These seem to be the key concepts at stake:

Talent. I’d define this as what you’re born with, what doesn’t change. When you have talent, it may lead nowhere if you don’t have any way to cultivate or nurture it.

Skills. This (along with many other things) is what comes with hard work and practice. People can put in the same level of hard work and not attain the same skill level as others. People who have a talent or aptitude for something can gain skills faster and at a more expert level.

Determination or grit. This is what helps you overcome challenges, delays, and bad luck. This keeps you in the game when you feel like everything is working against you. This keeps you on a path of growth and improvement before, during, and after failure.

What I’ve noticed is that most writers who haven’t succeeded (and aren’t sure if they can succeed) love to hear that determination is more important than talent. People who’ve already achieved some level of stature tend to argue for the importance of talent. Successful people have already been “selected” in some fashion, so they’re liable to believe they have talent that others don’t. (Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. It doesn’t really matter.)

Here are 3 things I believe about talent.

1. Neither talent nor skill is always recognized.
This is because there are too many variables that can stand in the way: background, upbringing, education, opportunities, network, relationships, resources, timing, luck, culture. That is, life stands in the way.

2. Everyone has some kind of talent—but so what?

Why do we believe that talent ought to receive recognition or attention? No one has to work to get talent; it is out of our control. We are all born with strengths, with special qualities that help us flourish at something in life. I’m not going to think you’re a better person, or more deserving of success, just because you have talent.

What I find most sad is when someone goes through life thinking they are untalented. But I no longer feel sad about people whose talent goes unrecognized. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it describes most of the population.

3. I admire people who work hard to do what they love.
What’s especially inspiring are people who overcome great odds, or who work harder than everyone else, to achieve the same level of skill or accomplishment. There is usually tremendous sacrifice in that. There is something that had to be lost or left behind. It takes guts.

So that’s why I don’t really give a damn about talent. Talent is common. Talent does not set you apart. Talent has little to do with a person’s character or contribution to the world.

For related thoughts on this issue, read my post 3 Boring Elements for Success.

I’m sure this will continue to be a controversial issue, so share your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. Check out this post: “A Big Part of Giftedness Is Task Commitment”

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19 thoughts on “Why Do We Think Talent Ought to Be Rewarded?

  1. Alyne de Winter

    People tend to want to do things they are good at which suggests a level of talent. I for one am only really talented in the arts so I gravitate there. I am distinctly UNtalented at math. I avoid it like the plague.

    I think this issue comes up when there are people getting into a field, not because they have an affinity for it, but because they think it will make them big money (screenwriting for instance) or make them famous (like music) Or some reason that has nothing to do with loving the work. They can beat their heads against a wall and moan about how long it takes because it is not their passion. It is unfortunate when one is UNtalented at business yet has to get into it to survive as we are being forced to do these days.

    I think a talented person who works hard to develop their talent despite the lack of family or other support, deserves a chance. It’s called "a level playing filed". We all have a hard time accepting the distinctly UNtalented who have done next to nothing to be whisked into place because of who mommy and daddy are or because they slept with the publisher.

    Genius on the other hand is a spiritual gift. It has to do with one’s alignment with the subject on a very high level. Then comes real talent.

  2. Christine Venzon

    Jane, you hit the nail on the head when you linked determination to character and contribtuion to society. The person with an abundance of talent, who has never had to work too hard at success, is more challenged to develop the character needed to handle success well and to share it. Think of the college football star who signs a fat contract with the NFL, then promptly crashes and burns.

    Thanks for your post, Jane, and thanks to all who responded for contributing to such a thoughtful, stimulating conversation.

  3. EMoon

    Talent: what you’re born with. Work: what you do with what you’re born with. Luck: that other people will pay for what you do with what you’re born with.

    Public success rests on all three legs of the stool, and sometimes the third leg–the luck–comes early (the musical prodigy wins a competition and access to the best teachers) and sometimes late (a writer like Solzhenitsyn is imprisoned for years and only becomes successful much later in life, or a writer or artist becomes well-known and praised after death.) Luck affects the way talent develops, as well as its final public success: if a young musician as access only to mediocre teachers until age 20, world-class talent will have been stifled. The first leg, talent, may limit the ultimate quality of the work as well, but without opportunity that’s hard to judge, if there’s talent at all.

    Personally, I’d put "commitment" and "grit" into the "work" leg. That’s the one you have to do yourself, and you have to do it before you know it’s going to lead to success. That solitary phase (often more solitary for writers and artists than for musicians, though there’s some of it for all) tests the commitment, the courage, the "want to"…and tests it again every time there’s a difficulty (even after a first success, or a decade of success, there are difficulties. Luck changes. Other life challenges interfere.)

    Talent alone isn’t paid for. It’s static–like an uncut jewel, a lump of gold, a chunk of silver ore. What’s paid for is the work (if you’re lucky) that turns talent into a finished, glittering work of art compelling to the its intended audience.

  4. Jane Friedman

    Thanks again for all the great comments.

    Just discovered this gem through a link from Debbie Stier:

    "Research on experts — whether in chess, cello or computer programming — indicates that natural ability is less a predictor of success than effort and deliberate practice. A big part of what we call ‘giftedness’ is ‘task commitment’ — and that can be encouraged."

    Link to NYT article:

  5. Rod Griffiths

    I saw a TV interview with Howard Hodgkin, the artist, who said "Of course ambition is so much more important than talent."
    The phrase has stuck with me and one so often sees examples of the way that it works.

  6. Satima Flavell

    I’m with Katherine and Laura and others who think talent is essential. I’ve learnt from my own experience that all the hard work in the world will not replace talent. Mastering the skills will not, of itself, take you beyond journeyman level. (Like you, Katherine, I was once an aspiring dancer, but I had the wrong build and insufficient talent!) Aspiration and hard work without the enough talent make up a sure recipe for heartbreak.

    And I’m with Perry, too, in believing that there is a fourth ingredient – luck. Talent, skill and determination will not get your ms onto the desk of the editor who just happens to be looking for a good medieval fantasy because one of her best writers has just died or switched publishers, and that’s often the kind of luck that’s needed. I’d go so far as to say the equation is something like this: talent – 10%; mastery of skills – 20%; determination and luck – 35% each. If it were an exam, the minimum marks would be 7/10 for talent, 18/20 for skills, and a total of at least 60/70 for determination and luck combined!

  7. Laura W.

    Having been in music, I have to say that you can’t just brush off talent like that. At the professional level, there comes a point where you no matter how much you practice–and most professional musicians practice at least 4 hrs a day–if you haven’t got enough talent, you’re just going to plateau out. Talented people just have this instinct for their instrument and for bringing out the soul of the music that’s impossible to learn if you don’t already have it. But in the same vein, if you have all the talent in the world but aren’t disciplined enough to practice, you won’t get anywhere either. It’s a balance.

  8. Bob Mayer

    There’s another version of the musician story: a young man wanted to be a great violinist. When the master came to town for a concert, the young man auditioned. When he finished, the master said: "Not enough fire."
    The young man was crushed and put aside his violin and pursued another career. Many years later the old master came back for another concert. After it, the man met the master and reminded him of the audition and the result.
    All the master could say was: "If my words made you quit, then you truly didn’t have enough fire."

  9. Bob Mayer

    From my book Warrior Writer:

    Science has too long focused on intelligence & talent as determiners of success. And it’s not. The key to success is to set a specific long-term goal and to do whatever it takes until the goal has been achieved. That’s called Grit (defined as courage and resolve; strength of character).
    Duckworth did a study in 2008 at West Point: Grit was the determining factor of Beast Barracks success. My plebe squad had five members. Three of them didn’t make it to Christmas the first year. They weren’t bad people, they just didn’t really WANT it. Same in Special Forces training. There are those who go into because they want to wear a green beret. They don’t make it. The ones who make it want to BE a green beret. There are those who want the lifestyle of ‘author’. They never get published. The ones who want to BE an author make it.
    Way back in 1869, Stephen Jay Galton wrote a book titled: Hereditary Genius: he found that ‘ability combined with zeal & capacity for hard work’ trumps talent.
    Woody Allen says “80% of success is showing up.” Again and again.

  10. Jane Friedman

    @Judy – Beautiful story! Reminds me of something I’d hear in an Alan Watts lecture. Lovely.

    My thanks to everyone for excellent and thoughtful comments and extrapolations. I always take away so much more to think about during these discussions.

  11. Steven M Moore

    Perry points out the important element of luck.
    To take the discussion out of the writing business, the mathematician Hardy made it quite clear that he thought talent was everything. His take was that most people aren’t really good at anything. A corollary was that if you’re really good at something, don’t squander it.
    Hardy was apparently a very egotistical man. His comments just capture part of this discussion. I’d say if you’re modestly good at something you can achieve access through hard work and some luck. If you really have talent, you may not need to work as hard, but you do have to work at it, nowadays more than ever, since there’s much more competition.
    I’ve had e-mail correspondence with a few writers that have an amazing readership. I realize the sample is biased–the Hardys don’t bother to respond to an e-mail. But those who respond have all said to be patient and work hard. It keeps me going.
    @Jake, is it possible that passion for your writing is an expression of your talent? Other than that, I echo what you said above.
    So, patience, good luck, talent, and a great work ethic, and maybe passion…we all combine them in different ways and in different strengths. It’s what makes writing an art form, just like mathematics.

  12. Jake Henegan

    I’m with you on this. Talent is mostly overrated. Talent can set you apart and maybe set you onto the course. But you’ll ultimately have to learn skill and be determined to reach the end.
    Like Charles Peguy said, some writers tear words from their gut while others pull them from their overcoat pockets. I think that describes the difference between a talented writer and a determined writer. It is more work if you don’t have the talent, but if you work hard at it, you can still make it just the same.
    I think passion is needed, rather than talent.

  13. Judy Croome

    Neither talent nor skills, determination or luck, make any difference to where a person (or racehorse) finds their place in the world. To me, what is important is having the courage to follow our life’s path with grace, humility and commitment. Ultimately, where that path leads is dependent on what is meant to be: call it God’s Will, In sh’allah, or Karma. In the same way that no-one can predict what book will become a best-seller, or why one girl will marry a prince and another will marry a beggar, what we do (or don’t do) with our born talent or learned skill is secondary to where that path takes us.

    I explore this issue more deeply in an archived series of posts called "What is Creativity?"on my blog (part of my Master’s thesis). Although I included it in my thesis, there wasn’t space in the blogpost to include the most delightful Japanese folktale that Stephen Nachmanovitch relates in his book “Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art.”

    If you’d like the full folktale email me at judy@judycroome.com and I’ll send it to you – it’s worth the read! Here’s the summarised version:

    A Japanese master musician came to play in a village. As he finished playing, the voice of the oldest man in the village was heard from the back of the room: “Like a god!”

    The villager musicians asked the Master how long it would take a skilled player to learn to play as he did. “Years,” the Master replied. So the villagers sent their most brilliantly talented young musician to be a student of the Master.

    On his arrival, the Master gave the student a single, simple tune to play on his flute. The student quickly mastered all the technical problems of the piece, but all the Master could say was, “Something lacking!”

    The student exerted himself in every possible way. He practised endlessly, but all the Master would say was, “Something lacking!” The student begged the Master to give him a new tune. The Master said “No.” The daily play, the daily “Something lacking!” continued. The student’s hope of success and fear of failure became ever magnified, and he swung from agitation to despondency.

    Finally, the frustration became to much for him: he returned to his village, ashamed and impoverished. For years he avoided the village musicians, eking out an existence teaching beginner’s lessons on his flute.

    One day, the village musicians came to him. They were holding a concert and wanted him to play. With effort, they overcame his fear and his shame until, almost in a trance, he picked up his flute and followed them. As he waited, no-one intruded on his inner silence. His name was finally called and, as he stepped out onto the stage, he realised he had nothing left to gain, and nothing left to lose.

    So he sat down and played the same simple tune he had played for his Master all those years ago. When he finished, there was silence for a long moment. Then the voice of the oldest man was heard. “Like a god,” he said, speaking softly from the back of the room. “Like a god!”

  14. michael grant

    I’m mostly in the talent camp.

    I don’t think I deserve special credit for having talent. That’s nothing but good luck in the DNA lottery. Like you, what I value is hard work. I’ve worked full time since age 16. I didn’t start writing until I was in my early 30’s. Then I authored or co-authored 150 books.

    I started writing when my wife (KA Applegate) decided we should get careers. We started writing and were successful pretty quickly. It wasn’t because I had worked at learning to write. I’m a high school drop-out. I’ve never taken a writing course. I’d never read a book on writing until Stephen King’s, and I was well published by that time.

    Are hard work and flexibility and dedication and all that necessary? Yes. Will they get you there if you don’t have talent? No. Talent is the necessary but not sufficient condition. A person who doesn’t have a facility for language and imagination isn’t going to make it no matter how hard they work.

  15. Perry

    Hi, I’ve always believed that you can make up for lack of talent by learning and determination. But if all you have is talent without skill and determination you need a lot of luck.

    Either way, respectful honest feedback from a knowledgeable source is worth it’s weight in – whatever you value the most.


  16. Katherine Hyde

    Jane, I would certainly agree that we must choose carefully whom we listen to. There will always be those who would discourage us for reasons of their own, just as there will always be those who mistakenly think they’re doing us a favor by praising us beyond our deserts. And you’re probably right about all endeavors being more or less equal in this respect. It’s just that the difference between a talented and untalented grocery clerk, for example, may be less obvious than the difference between a talented and untalented artist. Although a really great grocery clerk can make my day!

  17. Jane Friedman

    @Katherine – Thanks for the thoughtful comment! One important thing I would add is: Be careful who you listen to. Choose your mentors carefully. (How many success stories do you hear of people battling those who told them they’d never make it?)

    I also would not separate artistic endeavors from any other. (Think of the story of Seabiscuit, for instance.)

  18. Katherine Hyde

    I think people should exercise discernment and listen to the wisdom of others in order to determine where their true talents lie. Then they should use determination to acquire the skills that will help their talent shine as brightly as possible. The people who do all this are the ones who should be most rewarded.

    What I find sad is that so many people waste their lives beating their heads against a wall trying to succeed in an area where they have no or little natural talent. Skill may be acquirable, but the end result—at least where any kind of art is concerned—simply won’t measure up to what a talented person can produce with the same level of dedication. We all need to adjust our dreams to the abilities we are born with, then make the most of them.

    I, for instance, always wanted to be a ballerina. But not only did I lack the opportunity for early training, I also have certain physical limitations that would have made it impossible for me to get to the professional level no matter how hard I worked. I settled for dancing recreationally and have gotten a lot of pleasure out of that over the years.

    On the other hand, although I am still unknown as a writer, I believe I do have talent in that area—enough talent to make all the effort I’m putting into learning the skills and navigating the labyrinth of publishing worthwhile. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing it.


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