If you don’t know who Howard Talyer is, go look him up, then come back here.
I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Tayler speak at Lunacon this past weekend, where he was the artist guest of honor. His speech covered a broad range of topics, but it had the same kind of resonance that the Dalai Lama’s speeches always seem to have; the man’s not saying anything that you didn’t already know, but somehow hearing him say it suddenly has you slapping your forehead.
The point of Tayler’s speech was really simple and incredibly applicable to artists of all stripes, including writers like me. Mr. Tayler had done some poking around and found that a great deal of study had gone into trying to see what resulted in expertise and achievement in various disciplines (visual arts, music composition, sports, writing, etc . . .) and the one thing he didn’t find? Scientific evidence of this thing we call “talent.”
What he did find was a ton of statistically significant data that supported the idea that focused practice/training could result in expertise. “I won’t say that there’s no such thing as talent,” he said, “but I will say that it’s irrelevant.”
This resonates with me. Folks talk a lot about talent and “being a natural” (and I don’t mean physical advantages here. Taller people are just going to be better at basketball and I’m pretty sure they tested Lance Armstrong and discovered the man had three lungs. My point is that in those disciplines not dependent on concrete physical differences in our bodies (like writing), we desperately want to believe that there’s a magic . . . gene or something that we’re born with. We’re talented. We’ve got it in our bones.
I don’t like this idea for two reasons. Both involve avoiding work. The person convinced they are a talent at something has less incentive to engage in the meticulous, tedious and downright painful focused training necessary over LONG periods of time (it took me roughly 15 years) to get to the point where their work can compete in the professional marketplace (I don’t need to practice hard or step outside my comfort zone! I’m a natural). They are far more likely to dismiss criticism (those people just don’t understand my talent).
On the other hand, those who are convinced that they are not talented are just as disincentivized from hard work. If you’re not talented, why bother to practice or struggle to improve? You’ll never be as good as those who were just born with the ability.
Both points of view are tempting, because they appeal to our most natural tendency as humans, laziness. People are naturally inclined to take the easy path, to avoid hard work, and a belief in talent absolutely plays to this tendency.
And that’s the rub: because I firmly believe (and the research Tayler cited supports) that the only way you can achieve professional level skill in every discipline is to PRACTICE, work hard, particularly in those areas that you are weak at, that lie outside your comfort zone. Further, I believe that this period of practice and improvement takes a REALLY long time (we’re talking a decade or more) and that it never stops, even once you achieve a level of expertise the public generally perceives as “professional grade.”
I’m going to get in touch with Tayler to see if I can’t get some of his citations to share with you. There’s a fair amount of research supporting this. A great example is here (a quote from the abstract “Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.”)
Whether or not you believe in talent, don’t ever let that belief distract you from the hard work necessary to achieve what you want in life. Tayler’s talk ended on an optimistic note. Not considering talent is encouraging, because the research also reinforces the point that, if you work hard, if you engage in focused practice, you WILL improve. You just have to trust that there is no ephemeral/unknowable factor, some magic key that you just don’t have, and that you if you’re willing to do the time, you can achieve things you never thought yourself capable of.
That’s tough. Because it means a lot of hard work. It also means uncertainty, because improving and even achieving expertise is no guarantee of marketplace success or public accolades.
But it’s also hopeful. Because it means that if you’re really willing to bleed for it, you’ve got a shot.
And that’s not me talking, or Tayler. That’s SCIENCE.