I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent


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I can hear your objections already.

But…child prodigies!

I don’t know why some people are child prodigies and I don’t care. Child prodigies exist on one extreme end of a spectrum of what children are capable of doing. I wasn’t a child prodigy and neither were you, so let’s stop involving them in this conversation.


I know. I get it. You have a vague idea that Science Says that some people’s brains are just wired for music or painting or writing or dancing. You have definitely read this somewhere. Surely Georgia O’Keeffe’s brain was wired for color and abstraction. Surely Miles Davis’ brain was wired for jazz. Surely e.e. cumming’s brain was wired for groundbreaking free verse.

You know this because you have a nephew who can play anything. Just give him a musical instrument and a couple hours, and he’ll have it figured out. You have a neighbor who speaks five languages and can get by in a dozen more. You have a cousin who’s some kind of math genius, you don’t even understand it, but what she can do is really special.

And that’s because of their brains. It’s because of neuroscience. It has to be.

Because if it wasn’t their very special brains, where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the possibility that if someone carries out their craft with a basic amount of skill, it’s because they took classes and practiced. If they do it exceptionally well, it might be that they studied with some very good teachers and practiced with particular focus over a long period of time.

It leaves us with the possibility that any one of us could do the same.

That’s terrifying, so let’s retreat back to this idea of talent for a minute. I got curious about when we invented the word talent, and what it originally meant. When did we first develop this idea that talent was an inborn trait?

It turns out that the word ‘talent’ goes back to the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. It was a unit of measurement—specifically, a measurement of weight. For example, a talent of gold might have been the equivalent of the value of one cow. There’s a parable of talent in the Bible, in which ‘talent’ refers to material possessions—to wealth, to things of value that you own.

OK, I can see a connection to our modern use of the word. But how did we go from seeing talent as a material good to seeing it as a skill?

That change seems to have happened in the fifteenth century, but maybe there’s a clue from ancient Greece, where another definition was applied to the word talent. Instead of a talent of gold being equal to the value of a cow, it was equal to the value of one person’s lifelong labor—which at that time was twenty years.

Wait. A talent equals twenty years of a person’s working life? A working life that was no doubt spent apprenticing and practicing?

In that case, ‘talent’ wasn’t meant to be something you were born with at all. It was something that took you twenty years of effort to acquire. Quite literally, it meant the wages you earned over twenty years—but you might think of it as the accumulation of skill, too.

So let’s get back to you… (stay tuned for the next post)

This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:

“Did You Always Know…” Here’s What’s Weird About that Childhood Question

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You.

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent

It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get