“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”― Émile Zola
How frustrating it is to have a question answered with another question. But often the most provocative, insightful, and thoroughly engaging explorations come after just that kind of beginning. This one, what is talent, came from a young composer during a Chamber Music ArtSmart pre-concert lecture in Stowe, VT. A grandparent had just asked when the right time to recognize talent in a child might be. Focused only on the issue of childhood precociousness, I was jerked back to the present with the new attention to the definition of talent. What followed his answer/query was a true artistic wake-up call for me.
The young composer followed his own question by suggesting that people with talent are completely loose and relaxed about what they’re doing. They seem to be having fun, almost playing, at what they do. I’m sure we all have our own personal pictures of people we know well, either currently or through historical record (Mozart and Fred Astaire come to mind) who fit that description. The reason I chose a picture of ‘Astaire in the air’ to head this post was specifically to show that sense of joy and abandon without all the work behind it we know he was famous for. I’ve always called the juxtaposition of work to play as ‘the Fred Astaire affect’, and the photo is visual proof of why. In searching for one shot to illustrate this essay I had literally thousands to choose from. And in all of them, there wasn’t one, including during his rehearsal time, where he didn’t have an ear-to-ear grin. The joy of using his talent is evident in everything he did.
Our young composer then went on to say, “talent is being able to get out of one’s own way, isn’t it?” Oh my, did that ever make me sit up. All the times I’ve failed at things because I couldn’t get out of my own way came pouring down on me. Heightened expectations, the bitter disappointment of not being the person you imagined yourself to be, and giving in to self-doubts, all qualify as obstacles that get in the way of achievement at any level.
I began to think about those people he described at first as being loose and free in what they do, and realized that I don’t think one can get there unless a lot of work has gone into the acquired skill. After all, if it’s the discipline that sets you free, as Martha Graham famously instructed and Fred Astaire demonstrated so graphically, then I think most of us would translate discipline to mean work. Yet there’s a piece of the puzzle missing in this definition of talent, and I think it’s about the space between the work and the finished product.
Thinking about my own experience with skills and goals of all kinds, I realize that I gained confidence quite early in my ability to conquer almost any skill I put my mind to. Hard work and dedication could take me a long way toward a feeling of pleasure and accomplishment. But I was also aware that there were others who could do things that far surpassed what I could accomplish. There had to be something taking those people further, and I knew it was talent. Talent is the neurotransmitter that bridges the synapse between hard work and a unique accomplishment.
Here’s the good news: nobody gets all the available talent or absolutely none. We all have a chance at the supreme happiness that comes with using the talent we’re given at birth, as Goethe said so eloquently. Remembering all the things I couldn’t do well, no matter how hard I tried, I also remember just as clearly what it felt like to have complete confidence that I could do some things others couldn’t, and do them better than anyone else without any unusual effort. There was that looseness and the ability to get out of my own way. And there was the joy of doing what you’ve been given the talent to do. So, I’ve ended up sure that the gift of talent is a messenger joining the space between work and the quality of the finished product, but I have no idea where it comes from, and I don’t care, as long as we all get to benefit from our own and everyone else’s. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.
I’ve obviously taken this discussion a lot further than it went at the ArtSmart lecture. If you’d like to expand it even more, let’s hear your thoughts in the comment section following this post, or write me personally. And thanks in advance for joining the talk. Everyone’s views matter.