The Tyranny of Talented

We often use the word “talented” to extol the abilities of someone else.  They do something cool, and we exclaim “Wow, you’re so talented!”  Sounds great, sounds positive, sounds like admiration… yet… there’s something else there I’ve begun to notice, another current that isn’t so hot.  And that is this:  talent has the prime definition of “a special natural ability or aptitude.”   As an ingrained, born-with thing, this has two implications:  one, to call someone talented can actually be a bit of an insult, as it discounts, dismisses, and ignores the amount of hard work that they put into developing that skill or ability.  Talking to an Olympian and saying “oh, you’re just so talented!” belittles (if unintentionally) all the mornings they woke up before dawn to practice two hours before going to school/work/etc, all the aches and pains and heartache and defeats and struggles and work and intensity and dedication.

Secondly, and perhaps more subversive in our everyday lives, is that it effectively says “I can never get what you have, because you were born with it.”  It limits what we can achieve and cuts off any thought of our own working hard to attain something.  The more we think about talent, the more we create the idea that people are just born with the majority of their skills, abilities, attitudes, aptitudes, ways of being, and etc – and so if we are lacking any of those, we are unlikely to be able to gain it, as, clearly, we weren’t born with it.

I say we ought to depreciate the use of “talent” in our language.  “You have great skill” or “I am impressed by what you can do” or any number of other sayings acknowledges the human being within both of us, giving us the freedom to be known and to grow.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Talented

  1. Dave January 26, 2014 / 08:24

    Beware the rackets we develop about our language as they will not change the language.

    People may say someone is talented, but it is our *interpretation* of that which belies “I’ll never be like you” or dismisses the potential work that went into them achieving what they have.

    On the other hand, what would you then call someone who does seem to have an in-grained, born-with “talent”, for lack of a better word. I’ll give you a personal example.

    I am pretty decent at writing poetry that rhymes. Not all styles of poetry, but I’m particular fond of the Robert Service style. (see for one of his most famous poems).

    Now, I don’t write poetry all that often. Much of it though has come just ‘off the cuff’ in a few minutes before it is delivered. Things like sports cheers and wedding well-wishes come to mind. Was I born with this ability? Not really. But it did appear without intentional development on my part. I never set out to be a good poet or lyricist. Yet I have had a few people exclaim in wonderment how I can do what I do. To me, it just seems so straightforward and I never really considered that others would find what I do difficult to do themselves, but apparently they do.

    Your discontent may circumvent a seeming misuse of terms,
    But words have no meaning, without a human being to apply to it the things he’s learned.

    • Kannik January 30, 2014 / 23:34

      Well sure, words have no inherent meaning – they’re just sounds caused by wind blowing out of our flesh holes. But language is shared word meanings, they have to be for communication. It is fixed ways to define certain sounds (hence, dictionaries) for communication and even more…. for language’s power to codify the brain is astounding and one of the things that make humans uniquely so. There’s great neuroscience research on bilingual people that’s come out of Stanford that showed (blowing everyone’s mind) that depending what language they were operating in, their perception of coloured squares on a card changed. Something that seems so fundamentally basic and inviolable as photons at a certain wavelength entering an optic nerve gets perceived differently based on language. That’s astounding.

      Going back to the notion of shared meaning, whether we think we’ve chosen to change our meaning of a word (say, going around and calling all office workers “murderers” to see what happens) there’s the mostly hidden shared context that will influence how we perceive and codify a word, and how it will influence our view. And if we choose to forgo all shared meaning, well, then it is unlikely our intent or result is or will be to accurately communicate.

      To your second question, I would say it quite simply as thus: “I really like your poetry,” or, “Wow, your poetry is really good!” or, “Dude, love it.” The path taken becomes irrelephant, it gets to the heart of what the creator probably most wants to know – acknowledgement and appreciation for their art/craft/creativity/contribution, and avoids any labeling of the individual as good/bad/right/wrong.

  2. Dave January 31, 2014 / 07:30

    Speaking of dictionaries:

    1. a special natural ability or aptitude: a talent for drawing.
    2. a capacity for achievement or success; ability: young men of talent.
    3. a talented person: The cast includes many of the theater’s major talents.
    4. a group of persons with special ability: an exhibition of watercolors by the local talent.

    1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well: Carpentry was one of his many skills.
    2. competent excellence in performance; expertness; dexterity: The dancers performed with skill.
    3. a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which a person has competence and experience: the skill of cabinetmaking.

    Have you ever noticed that dictionaries rarely, if ever, only give one meaning for a word? Words may have shared meaning, but it is the context of the human (or humans) using them that adds the extra baggage. I do not perceive anything about the word ‘talent’ that implies lack of determination or work. Also, going from the dictionary definition, there is nothing there to say that other cannot have similar talents, nor that having a skill means that you are talented. However, there is some crossover.

    If you take someone like a star NBA basketball player and ask, ‘do they have skill or talent?” Well, I would say both. They certainly have skill as a basketball player, but to get where they are they most likely do have some inherent talent. But that talent may not have anything specifically to do with basketball. Maybe their real talent is being focused, determined and hardworking, which could have been applied to many different skills, but basketball happened to be the one they chose. Talents often lead to skill development, but those skills are not necessarily the same as the talent. I would say that talents are a subset of skills, or perhaps the seeds from which skills may grow.

    The other thing that comes to mind, if we want to explore the shared context avenue, is, does this perception of ‘the tyranny of talent’ occur in your local area, is it state-wide, it is national… international? I would highly doubt that people speaking other languages would think about it the same way, as there is always the possibility that talent and skill are expressed quite differently in other languages. Also, other cultures, even though they may speak the same language, can often think quite differently compared to our own.

    So, it would seem, that you want to do away with the distinction between talents and skills, and simply say people are skilled, or hard working. But what would you say about a young child who has not had enough life yet to have put in much work to develop a skill, yet they show talents for skills. I think there *is* a distinction to be made for discussing the inherent aptitudes, “special gifts” or “extreme grokingness” that someone may have vs the work to develop a particular skill.

    • Kannik February 7, 2014 / 19:50

      Indeed dictionaries do list multiple meanings for many words; and the prime one for talent includes the important words of “special” and “natural” in it. Even the second, “capacity,” is a value that many believe to be hard-wired into them. (I heard a great and amazing bit of an interview once with Jack Kornfield that was about capacity) Thusly, I assert that the word “talent” has more inherent restriction in its meaning than skill. And it is given that context that occurs around it that I made my invitation.

      Are there those who are aware of the great (and shared) capacity of humans and thusly would not find calling someone talented limiting? Are there those who are fine with being called naturally special, not be insulted? Absolutely. And to me, no matter. Firstly, as I cannot discern completely someone’s context, why take the chance using those words that could be limiting, and secondly, moreso, I see no advantage, bonus, benefit, or reason it’d be better to use “Talent” over speaking to their skill, effort, their result, the impact on me, how impressed I am, or any of those. To riff of what you wrote, even if there is a pre-disposition, what that pre-disposition might actually be in, I may not know, so which should I point to if I were to point to a talent?

      Clearly, insofar as this is about specific words, this applies to the English language, and the context could well be different with different words in different languages (again pointing to the Stanford study). If a language had only one word for aptitude that didn’t differentiate where it originates, then cool, that makes it great, easy and expansive, and it’d be _very_ interesting to me to see how the members of that society relate to their capacity to grow and learn and do.

      My perception on what’s inherent and what’s developed is a long discussion to create… maybe that’ll be another blog post. }:)

      You are indeed correct that I am advocating for leaving by the wayside speaking about the narrow window of talent. Even for the very young…. or kitties sitting on laps.

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