You’re So Talented!

(Originally published 2013 October 11. Updated 2013 November 21.)

You’re so talented!

Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, photo by Patrick Landy

… please stop saying this to people.

We have some peculiar ways of recognizing excellent performance in this country. We claim to be driven by a desire to excel, and we’re proud of people who do, but there’s this whole set of cultural expectations built up around how we talk about excellence, what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to. We say things are wonderful when they aren’t, and we leave unacknowledged the marvels that surround us.

Sometimes we do it by exaggerating the quality of things. How many times have you heard someone say “you’re so special!” or “that’s amazing!”? Older folks often talk about how millennials are the “you get a trophy just for showing up” generation, but what they’ve taught us is that all performance is noteworthy and that none is really more noteworthy than others. So words like “special” and “amazing” lose their meaning because, on some level, all they denote is that you did something–no assessment of quality.

Yet we still notice quality, and we still talk about it.

Failure and the Need to Do

We’re uncomfortable saying that something failed to meet our standards; most of us won’t return products that break, we put up with legislators who disappoint, we tell kids who’ve failed a test that if they try harder next time they’re sure to succeed…

Hold onto that last statement and unpack it a little with me. When people fail at something–even though we’re pretending not to use the language of failure–we usually tell them that if they worked harder, they would succeed. More work = more success. We see this in all kinds of venues, from school (“Just study harder, honey!”) to weight loss (“Yeah, she didn’t have enough willpower so she’s still fat”) to job searches (“You just gotta be disciplined and keep looking”), ad nauseam.

When someone isn’t meeting our standards, we often translate their scenario into what they do. In this case, our perception is usually that they need to do more.

Success and the State of Being

Excellence means different things in different contexts: a high school cellist may be a star performer even though she’d never even get noticed in a professional audition. On some level, excellence is a slippery concept, but I think we can nail it down by saying that excellence involves exceeding expectations for performance, whatever those expectations were. The excellent high school cellist can play several major works; the excellent professional cellist has a large current repertoire of major works and also teaches well; the excellent world-class cellist can groove like Rushad Eggleston while laying down archetypal performances of the Bach cello suites like Pablo Casals. The standards are different, but ‘excellent’ often means that we’ve exceeded them.

We seem to be similarly uncomfortable talking about excellent performance. Most of the time, people say something like “Chris Thile is so talented” or “Man, Steve Jobs was so smart” or “Tim Thomas is so good!”. When people are successful, we talk about what they are, not what they do. We use these labels as compliments, acknowledging excellence in a subtle, tacit way but almost misdirecting attention away from it. If Chris Thile is “so talented”, of course he’s going to play Fisher’s Hornpipe literally 100 beats per minute faster than I can, and better to boot. It’s expected. He’s Chris Thile. He’s so talented!

(Did you notice that I wrote “when people are successful” instead of “when people succeed“? And that in the previous section, I framed it as “when someone isn’t meeting our standards“? That’s what I’m talking about.)

The thing is, being told you’re so talented doesn’t always feel that good.

Michelangelo allegedly said that if people knew how hard he to had to work to achieve mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a lot of people who are genuinely world-class performers in their fields, and very few of them got there on talent. They work, hard, to achieve what they do.

Talent has a role, certainly… but talent doesn’t get you anywhere without work. Talent speeds up your learning process, improves your chances of success, helps you make better choices, and perhaps gives you a head start sometimes. But again, talent without effort is worthless.

“Work is love made visible.” — Kahlil Gibran

When we compliment excellent performance by focusing on the performer’s talent, intelligence, strength, aptitude, whatever, we’re implicitly devaluing the effort the person put in. In Scotland, I had students who achieved more in three years of lessons than I had in six years, and I spent a lot of time wishing I could have been talented like they were. Then I started talking to their parents and learned that these kids were practicing 6-8 hours a day, every day. They had talent, for sure, but they were also working their fingers to the bone with practice. Carefully-guided practice, aided by talent, but practice nonetheless. If we spent 60 hours a week practicing, we’d get better in a hurry, too.

We mostly don’t see that stuff from the outside. We see the talent. When you see a major league pitcher throwing strike after strike, we see the strikes–the talent–not the 20 years of practicing every day to prepare for that event.

The Taoist calligrapher

There’s a story I learned in studying Taoism that relates to a man who commissions a work of art from a noted calligrapher. The artist names a large price, explains that it will take a year to produce the work, and bids him return in a year to collect his painting.

In a year, the man returns, they have tea, they talk about worldly affairs, they agree on the price, and the man asks to see the promised work of art. The calligrapher goes to his desk, selects a blank sheet of paper, returns, grinds some ink, mixes it, chooses a brush, and then proceeds to do the painting. The customer gets angry, although the art is gorgeous, and says “why should I pay you for a whole year of work when all it took was 15 minutes?”

Talent is like that. The customer sees that the artist only needed 15 minutes to produce an outstanding work, because he was so talented, and in this case he thinks he shouldn’t pay as much because, well, it only took 15 minutes!

The artist leads the man to a closet, which he opens. Inside are hundreds of nearly-identical pieces of work, all clearly working from the same model, but with more imperfections. The paintings on top have only minor flaws, but the farther down they go in the stack, the more problems we see. Early on, the work lacks cohesion and, though the strokes are beautiful, they don’t seem to go anywhere.

The artist says “You’re paying me for a year because a year is what it took. I had to make all those paintings before I could learn to produce the one you wanted.”

Edison’s lightbulb

Thomas Edison wrote, in the January 1921 edition of American Magazine, “After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way.” This is often re-quoted as something like “When I was designing a lightbulb, people said I failed 1000 times before succeeding. I did not fail. I found 1000 ways not to build a lightbulb.” Edison was brilliant, but it took years of effort before his brilliance could shed any light for the rest of us.

Brilliance, excellence, and great performance do rely on some innate characteristics like intelligence, drive, passion, and talent. But they never go anywhere without work.

So what should I say?

If you’re talking about excellent performance, say so. Thank them. It’s fine to say that people are talented, but also honor the work they’ve put in. That talented dance caller may just be naturally good–or she may have spent 400 hours working on that dance, seeing how it’s put together, trying out words to help the dancers know what to do, thinking about problem areas, ruminating on what kind of music is needed, thinking about how to support the dancers, considering where in a program that dance should go, and preparing to handle it if things go wrong. Talent, to start with… but then work. Work, making visible the love the caller feels for the dance.

If your daughter aces her chemistry test, don’t just say “you’re so smart!”. Find out what she did to prepare, and compliment her preparation, or say that you’re proud of her and of what she achieved. Honor the work.

And honor what people do, not just what they are.

(It probably goes without saying that I don’t always succeed at this, either. Most of us aren’t naturally talented at what I’m asking for here, but I hope that with some work, we can improve.)

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8 thoughts on “You’re So Talented!

  1. This is fantastic and really gives the exact same thesis as Carol Dweck’s Mindset. I’m looking forward to discussing it with you once you read it! I want to share your blog post with my faculty!

    1. I like to say to my kids-“I love to hear you play-or watch you play” It keeps it in the moment and puts no pressure on them to try harder next time -and it’s true-I do love to hear them play their instruments, or watch them perform.

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