What Is Talent?

What Is Talent?

“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.

4 Responses to What Is Talent?

  1. I agree, Sidney, the source of talent is a mystery. In my forties, I needed to discover a talent to protect my talent — because we’re living in a world that conspires against the slow time of poetic sensibilities. Is the art of discipline, that is the pleasure of discipline, a talent?

    What is the difference between a talent and a gift? Is the gift the unique ingredient we can bring to the world and talent our special way of communicating that gift?

    • OH, what great questions! As I agonized over this with the young musician who started it all, I felt as if he was right that the talent was the relaxation of everything else–protection, discipline, hard work, all of which had come before. It was the mystery that did something special, just as you say, with communicating the gift. But in all honesty, I could unravel this a lot further with more time and people like you to toss it around with. What a GREAT subject it would make for an artist’s retreat! But we’d need the better part of a week for it, I know. Thanks Kathleen. My head won’t let this one go for a long while.

  2. Sidney,
    What a lovely essay, thank you so much for creating this inspiring essay! it touched me so much that I”m stepping up to write this message.
    I am often hampered by the effort to put thoughts into words and to string them together so please stay with me while I try to describe my visual response. It’s formed this way because I see as a painter and move through Tai Chi,

    Immediately I saw a circle with words all spaced evenly about the circumference. They are separate and connected,
    Movement and mind, breath, looseness and relaxation, a feeling of deep awareness, joy, spirit to create surges, and an unending list of qualities. Then came the framework for these words, another circle: inspiration, ability and skill, motivation, discipline, focus, work, honesty tapping into originality, clarity and risk. Then came the circle of feelings: intensity to create, purposeful action, joy, inspiration, compelling urge to do, to pursue, to go forward.
    Then I stalled with the thought of emotions…where do they fit in this visual, this revolving spiraling ever connected stream of circles? Emotions are surely a defining part of the circles because they can begin or end the entire process, they are as real, as potent and as fleeting as the clouds. And why do the negatives often rise to the top? Doubt, hesitation, sadness, longing, confidence, fear and so many more impediments…or the opposite, joy, ownership of gifts, and hard work, satisfaction of completion, color, and joy.
    I’ve come full circle, the words are endless and each can move over on the circle to give space for more to join! And return to movement aligned with mind, and spirit, a durable creative combination. Thank you Sidney, for your inspiring and motivating essay, this one and so many others!

    • Wow, Lynn! Now you see the dilemma. This question about talent makes me feel the way I do when trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. I get so caught and tangled I’m not sure I haven’t made it worse instead of better. We DEFINITELY need to deal with this around a group of artists together in a salon dinner or at a retreat. However, I’ll try something here. This is only a beginning and by no means a complete solution. For that we’d need time and more artists together :

      I agree that the creative process is a kind of continuum. Whether you see it as a circle or a line has more to do with training, background and spacial awareness. I think the emotions are the fuel. They drive the dynamic tension from where you start to where the creativity leads. The negativity is what puts us squarely in our own way, and is what the musician suggested is missing when talent is present. How do we get to that level of looseness in order to avoid the obstacles we’ve put in our own path? That’s a great place to start talking about what the gift means.

      You describe the dynamism of the whole process very well, whether it’s between a beginning and ending point or a full circle, it’s what keeps the movement going. But obviously there’s so much more happening when you think of those who seem to have a special ‘talent’ for something that sets them apart. The characteristic I see in all of them is the joy of using the mysterious gift they were given, which is what keeps them always moving towards a goal. I don’t think that same level of joy is there for people who only go through the preliminary steps. The freedom is missing for most. But OH MY! This needs a lot more hashing out. Thanks so much for taking a huge crack at it, Lynn. Stay tuned. When I ask you to join us for the retreat you’d better come!!!

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