Usually when I say that, people get all upset and offended and say “what about Mozart”?
What about him? Was Mozart a genius? A natural talent? Who knows, but if your Dad was a pretty good composer, and everyone in your family played music, and the house was full of it, and that same Dad made you a scale violin when you were 3 years old … well, hell, you might be a brilliant musician too. You might not, but you might. You don’t know though, do you? Because who of us have had those extraordinary advantages?
And that’s not to say Mozart shouldn’t have had those advantages, but it is to say that the words ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ imply he’d have created that work anyway. And actually, I doubt it. Some careers really benefit from early learning, and music is definitely one of them.
Aside then, from the Mozart genius or not question, what’s wrong with the idea of talent? And why do people mind when I say I don’t believe in it? Well, the thing I think is wrong with it, is that it suggests that only some people can make good, only some people can be extraordinary – and that kind of lets the rest of us off the hook of providing good, all-round education and care for everyone, doesn’t it? If we decide that those few brilliant ‘talented’ people will rise to the top – regardless, because they have ‘talent’ (like the old stereotype of the amazing boy boxer from the ghetto, overcoming all against the odds) – then we don’t have to make any effort taking care of EVERYONE, because ‘talent will out’ anyway.
The problem is, I don’t think it will. I think incredible, astonishing people are regularly failing to give their all to the world because we’re not giving them a chance. I’m pretty sure we’d find the cure for most of our awful diseases, not to mention the problems of global warming, if we truly offered full education to the Third World, creating a couple of hundred thousand more potential research scientists in the process. I’m absolutely certain we could pick up a few Mozarts if we were making more scale-size violins and handing them out in our inner cities – along with brilliant teachers. We’d probably get some good writers too, if we weren’t sending our children away from school, functionally illiterate at the age of fifteen. In Britain.
So why do people mind when I say I don’t believe in talent? Usually it comes up when I’m teaching a writing group, or maybe working with theatre people. Usually I see crestfallen or furious faces staring back at me in horror. And I think it’s because people want to believe they are ‘talented’ – we all really really want to be special. Which is fair enough. I know I do too. But I’d far rather feel I was ‘special’ because I’ve tried very hard to make the most of the single factor that immediately singled me out for good fortune from the day I was born – ie, being born in the West to my (not wealthy, not tertiary educated, not privileged in any way) parents. Which had absolutely nothing to do with me. Just the luck of the draw that I was born in a place and time that gave a fairly adequate standard of free education and parents that encouraged me to use it. (Not least because they hadn’t had that good fortune themselves.)
So I’m not talented and you’re not talented. No one is talented. And if no-ONE is special – then that makes it much more likely, that actually, we all are. And ‘all’ we need to do is share it round a bit more fairly, and see what great gains we give ourselves. The other, splendid thing about this of course, is that if there is no ‘talent’, then we (not everyone, no, not with the world poverty we live beside on a daily basis, but pretty much anyone with the ability to read this blog) are free to make of ourselves what we will. Which takes us neatly back to self-discipline and getting on with it and doing the work …
Bravo! I don’t like Mozart, I’ve never thought him a ‘Genius’ just someone who went overboard on writing pieces for clarinet – because it was a new instrument… Give me some J.S Bach any day!
Also… I’ve considered my ‘Talent’ for writing and other things just ‘Things I’m good at, and was blessed with.’
Britain’s Got Talent? Yes, okay, Simon Cowell – celebrate our crazy natives and give some national pride back in the programme but ‘Talent’?? Is sticking a wig on and calling yourself Stavoros Flately a ‘Talent’?
oh I really like Mozart, I just don’t like the concept of innate ‘talent’ and/or ‘genius’ that is usually ascribed to him.
oh, but you gotta love stavros flatley! such silliness and frivolity should be encouraged 🙂
I agree, Stella, imagine the diverse perspectives people would have from everywhere if given the chance? Like maybe a mongolian woman, given the chance and opportunities, would bring something new and fresh to the table of cancer research or alternative energy or modern dance… I think we fail as society by not inviting everyone in. Talent is way over rated…I would take a person with a passion for something over a talent for something any day.
I think you have to have passion and ability or any work you do falls flat. Seeing people who are technically good at dance or music but have no passion is not as pleasant as watching someone throwing themselves into it (who is also good). I can’t watch the early runs of programs like Britain’s Got Talent because I’m cringeing. With Stavros Flatley at least they were doing some traditional moves.
But. As I’ve recently marked 100+ essays on titles like ‘The Heritability of Intelligence’ and ‘environmental factors in mental illness’ I have to argue somewhere for nature. There’s always an interaction with nature/nurture but twin studies demonstrate there is some innate basis for behaviour, whether it is a personality aspect or an ability which some refer to as ‘talent’. People find it easy to understand that I have a particular shaped nose because I’ve inherited it, but find it difficult that some of my tastes or interests might also be inherited.
Arguing against talent and insisting that the only influence on us is environmental is nicely politically correct and appeals to my socialist principles but as a psychologist I have to go with the research. That’s not to say I’m racist or classist, as biological features are just as likely to arise in people from any background, but as you say, they are not nurtured in some. People can overcome their biology but it will be more difficult for them. I don’t agree that talent will always rise to the top though, as in many ways it must be nurtured or it will fail to thrive. So I agree with some of what you’re saying here.
I loved your poem in the latest issue of Velvet btw. Very funny. I would say talented, but…
‘Talent’ is a myth spun by those in power to keep those without power from realising it.
I’m not sure it’s even that though-through, but we certainly cannot know if it exists without a level playing field of opportunity for all.