Talent and the genius myth

talent-genius-mythWhenever there’s talk about art, concepts like “talent” and “genius” inevitably come up. Frankly, I think they’re overrated. Our culture has created a hype around talent which is destructive to joy, creativity and the single most important ingredient to any great piece of art: practise. Practise, time and dedication make wonderful artists – while talent is, at best, a starting point.

Talent is a minimum requirement, not the be-all-and-end-all

Sure, you need some basic talent for most creative pursuits. You cannot dance if you really couldn’t hear the beat to save your life and, consequently, cannot fathom where (or rather, when) the steps are supposed to go. So yes, you need talent – but not as much and as badly as some people try to make you believe.

If you can clap in time to a song on the radio without breaking a sweat, you pretty much have all the talent you really need to dance. If you have a basic grasp of perspective and can hold a pen, you can learn to draw. The rest is practise.

Your limitations can become assets

Let’s say you actually lack something that many people consider crucial. Say you want to paint, but you’re colourblind, or you’ve lost your hands. These things will make painting more difficult for you, but they are also part of who you are, part of how you experience the world – and art is largely about expressing exactly these issues, identity and subjective experience.

Your paintings in which the colours look weird to many people but right to yourself and other colourblind persons could be a powerful statement about diversity, perseverance and about how, in the end, all truths are a matter of perspective. The paintings you make holding a brush with your mouth or foot may be inspiring and impressive to all people, and a glimmer of hope for anyone struggling with their own body. Look,  for example, at the gorgeous work of Sang Yeol Lee, who is a mouth painting artist.

There are ways to work around what others say you lack. Always. The challenge is to find them, and know if it’s really worth the trouble to you. If it is, keep working, even when it’s hard, even when it sucks, even when your belief in yourself falters.

Application beats luck

A determined, hard-working, passionate individual can and will get so much better at their chosen pursuit than a talented but lazy rival. And deservedly so, you might say. If you have talent, you’re lucky. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; we all have talents, and all envy some other people’s talents. But essentially, talent is dumb luck. You’ve done nothing to deserve it.

Some lucky people may progress faster than you do with the same amount of practise, simply because they have a gift. But look at it this way: Isn’t it much more satisfying to be accomplished at something because you decided that’s what you want, and you worked your ass off and didn’t stop even when it was hard, so now you’ve earned a degree of competence you’re proud of?

A great talent can weigh on you as much as a lack of it

Finally, talent can be a burden as well as a gift. If you’re really, insanely gifted at, say, tap dance, but you don’t really like to dance – you would prefer to play handball, but you’re kind of smallish -, you may get the uncomfortable feeling that somehow, you’re missing your calling, or not doing what you’re supposed to do, or not fulfilling your potential.

There will always be people who support these fears. Whether it’s teachers or parents or fellow dancers/artists/athletes/…, there will always be people who uphold the view that a talent is a gift you should not presume to waste. But what if your talent just doesn’t make you happy?

Part of that is due to how we consume. In general, we are reluctant to let go of gifts from other people, even if we don’t like them, never use them, and the giver will never know or wouldn’t feel hurt. But still, giving gifts away is often said to be bad manners, bad taste, decadent, and so on. Luckily, that view is changing these days, in the time of decluttering and minimalist decorating, but the notion doesn’t seem to have extended to non-material gifts yet.

Even geniuses practice

Another part of our perception of talents as a responsibility is the way Western society reveres genius. There is this foggy notion that people like Shakespeare and Salvador Dali and Martha Graham just sat down and reinvented their art, just took up a pen or brush, just put on some dance shoes, and brought forth something revolutionary and painfully beautiful from the mysterious recesses of their genius minds.

What this view completely ignores is the stupendous amount of writing Shakespeare did – and we can be certain that not even all of it is preserved -, how many years Dali painted before getting to the level he is famous for, and that Martha Graham received professional dance training from her teenage years onwards and danced all her life.

Genius alone would have done nothing for these people. They worked hard, and they were endlessly passionate about what they did. If you do something out of a sense of obligation, you will never reach the degree of excellence that someone who pours all their love, all their heartsblood into that pursuit will.

So how about your talents?

If you’re just really, honestly, consistently not passionate about something for which you may be talented, it’s not your calling. Even if you dutifully dedicate your life to it, it will most likely come to nothing – and you will be unhappy in the process. So just don’t do it. If you need to, tell your teachers or parents to sod off and let you be happy.

If you’re passionate about something for which you have zero talent, you need to make a tough choice, and be honest: Is it worth it? You’ll have a hard time and you may need to take a good hard look at your expectations. You may never get the kind of recognition you want. But if, after all that, your passion outweighs all other arguments, then go for it, and don’t let the misers stop you.

If you do have an amazing talent you love, then you’re one lucky bastard! Go on and make the most of it. And practise like you mean it. Because we average but hard-working types are coming for you. (In a totally “friendly competition” kind of way, not in a “creepy stalker” kind of way.)

Finally, if you’re like most of us, you probably do have some talent you love – but you’re unsure whether it’s enough. You wish for more. Your goals seem very far away – and they probably are. Don’t give up, though! Practise makes perfect – that’s how they say, right? No one ever claimed that waiting for a stroke of genius, for the stars to align and for the muses to come to you makes perfect.

So go on, practice. You’ll get so much better with every month, every year. It is wonderful to look back and see how far you’ve come – and dream of where you may go, one day. If you actually do go there doesn’t matter. You’ll find joy on the road.

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