Talent doesn’t mean what you think it means

My uncle Joe was a metal-smoothing wizard. Most of the men on Mom’s side of the family were car mechanics of one sort or another, and Joe was good at troubleshooting engines and fast at replacing various engine components, but where he really shined was body work. He took it as a personal affront if someone suggested filling in mangled, crumpled fender with Bond-o. Joe didn’t just believe in pounding a metal fender out, he wanted to take the time to smooth the metal back into the shape it had been. He rolled and tapped it until you couldn’t tell there had ever been anything amiss, before saying it was ready for primer and painting. Watching him work on a car’s quarter panel was like watching true magic.

Joe is my mom’s baby brother and only four years older than me. As a teen-ager working in a body shop, he did a better job coaxing the crumpled car body parts back into shape than men who had been doing the job for decades. But people outside the body shop didn’t seem to value it as a talent. It was something he had a knack for, they might say. Or it was a skill you could make a decent living at. But it wasn’t really talent.

A lot of those same people insisted that I had Talent, with a capital-t. Because I was clever with words. I could think quickly on my feet, recalls enormous amount of data, construct compelling arguments, and paint vivid pictures with words. They were certain that god had given me these gifts and intended me for great things.

I wasn’t so sure…

I recognize that part of it was a form of imposter syndrome: that nagging fear that your successes are more because of luck than because of any skill or ability. But another part was that the things I was good at were activities people liked to experience. People like hearing an entertaining story, for instance. They don’t like being in a situation where their car needs repairing. Having your car repaired is a necessity, being entertained is a treat!

Not to mention, that in the fundamentalist family and the evangelical communities I grew up in, an extremely high value is placed on any activity which is perceived as being capable of “spreading the gospel.”

When my “talents” were first recognized in those circles, I received a lot of praise and encouragement. But it wasn’t long before the praise started being diluted with questions such as, “why can’t you write something that will bring people to the lord?” As my teens rolled along, soon those questions became demands and dire warnings of the consequences that would befall me if I squandered these great gifts from god.

If I had been as clever as they all claimed I was, I would have immediately pointed out that if it is a gift, then it’s mine to use as I please. On the other hand, if there was going to be divine retribution if I didn’t use this talent has he wanted, well then it wasn’t a gift at all. At best it was a bribe, if not outright extortion.

Evangelical fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who have notions about talent that don’t quite add up. I’ve met very few people who are routinely called “talented” who hadn’t spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours over the course of years practicing their craft to get there. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about five years old, for goodness sake! I started reading and studying books and magazine articles on how to write while I was in grade school. And yes, I tried to write my own stories and make my own books and comic books from that time forward.

We’ve all heard stories of very young people who picked up a musical instrument or a paint brush or some other “artistic tool” and seemed to be able to produce incredible work without hardly trying. But it’s hard to find them. The few cases I have been able to track down to an actual name of a specific person, their life story didn’t quite match the myth. They would tell stories of how hard they worked from a very young age trying to be as good as someone they looked up to (often an older family member in the same field). Often they will say that they thought most of their early success was due more to the fact that people were amazed that such a cute, small child could work the instrument at all.

And then there are people who are claiming that you either have talent or you don’t, and those that “fail” are obviously the ones that don’t, while those that “succeed” are just as obviously the ones that do. And that made me think about another dichotomy I noticed back in my childhood and teen years. There were girls my age who were at least as clever as I was with words. I can name a few that I thought were much better at me in the logic, discussion, and debate categories. But as more often than not, what they could do wasn’t regarded as a great talent. They were often described as pushy, or too smart for their own good, when they were behaving exactly the same as guys such as myself who were being encouraged to take leadership roles and/or see how far we could go.

Chuck Wendig wrote a blog post last week on this very topic, and he pointed to a Wall Street Journal article, The Dangers of Believing That Talent Is Innate, about a study of the beliefs about innate talents within academia, and one very interesting tidbit stood out to me: the more people in a given field of study believed that success was due to something called “innate talent” or “intrinsic ability,” the fewer women and African-Americans were involved in the field.

It couldn’t possibly be that much of this talk about talent and innate abilities is really nothing more than a rationalization, could it? It couldn’t be that by “talented” what people actually mean is “does things the way I expect them to be done” or “thinks things in agreement with my opinions” could it?

You bet your sweet patoot it could!

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