In the living room of where I grew up, we had a piano. Every night, my mom would play pop songs or stuff she heard on the radio. Never any concertos or silly music like that. Just things she liked to listen to, like the Moody Blues, or Elton John. Long story short, I thought this was the coolest thing ever.
So, as all good children do, I imitated my parents. I started banging away randomly at keys, trying my damnedest to imitate a sound that could resemble my mom’s. Most of this was a fail.
I didn’t really take lessons. I mean, I was in school band starting in middle school (played saxophone, I know awesome). And I took a few lessons from my mom here and there (she was a terrible teacher), but I never sat down for any formal training where an old lady tells you to sit up straight and hold your hands and face in just such a way.
But none of that really mattered to me. I didn’t want to go to Julliard or play Beethoven. I wanted to do what my mom did. And to that end, I kept banging away. Regardless of what I knew, or what I didn’t, I just started playing. I played every day. Much to the chagrin of everyone around me, this manifested itself in a seemingly endless repetition of Billy Joel’s 1973 hit song, Piano Man.
Why Piano Man? Well,
- A, it’s a sweet song.
- And B, it was one of the few pieces of sheet music we had in the house that I could kind of read.
Fast forward a pile of years.
I’m a grown up now (spoiler). The other day, as a grown-up, I’m sitting with my sister (also a grown up). We were talking about her youngest, and how she wanted to play guitar, but was struggling. And how she didn’t know how to start.
All this ramped up to a rather inconsiderate statement by her: “I hope she got some of your musical talents.”
So first off, fuck you sis.
Second, point missed!
Talent is a lie
You probably don’t want to hear this, but it’s true.
Here’s the deal: talent is a word people use to describe others to prove their unwillingness to commit to self-discipline.
Think about it. How many people can you remember that self-describe as talented (exclude douche bags)?
Sure, some people might have a slight predisposition to catching a ball, singing a song, or coming up with clever and funny things to say. But the size of what most people believe or attribute to “talent” is fundamentally and foundationally inaccurate. People seem to think of talent as akin to the same form of evolutionary mutation. Like playing the piano has netted us the same benefit of opposable thumbs or walking on two legs.
It’s just not logical, thoughtful or true. Talent isn’t a predisposed feature, it’s an excuse.
Talent is an Excuse
We attribute “talent” to any form of success, and I think it’s awful. In fact, I think it’s flat-out derogatory.
People talk about this shit all.the.time. How many times a day do you hear, “oh, he’s so smart, or “oh, he’s/she’s so talented.”
Let’s dig into that phrase. I’d argue that when you relegate success to talent what you’re suggesting is that the person in question had absolutely nothing to do with their success. Forget practice, concentration, hard work or girt. No. It’s deterministic. It says that in any scenario Jimi Hendrix is a famous guitarist, Pablo Picasso is a renowned painter, and Steve Jobs is rich.
Do you believe that?
I think people have way more impact in their own lives then this “talent” idea would have you believe. In all likelihood, Hendrix practiced scales for hours a day. Picasso went to art school meticulously copying and studying the works of other masters. Jobs honed and exercised creative marketing practices to create repeatable success.
But still, these people are rare. So maybe it’s easier to just say “they’re talented.” Maybe it lets the rest of us off the hook. It seems to say that the reason I didn’t reach the goal that this other person reached is due to some intangible barrier that exists for me and not for them.
And maybe in some cases, that’s true. Maybe some people get a break?
But here’s the insidious part of the talent myth. If you truly believe that people are talented or not, you inadvertently stifle yourself. You stop yourself from moving forward with those things that need “talent.” You make excuses when a new skill comes slowly. You forgive a lack of self-discipline and commitment with an innate ability.
And maybe if you didn’t cling to this idea, similar breaks would happen for you? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that clinging to this bullshit myth of talent undermines those people working hard, and offers nothing more than an excuse for those that don’t.