The light clung to the dust in the air, streaming through the ceiling-height windows as though designed to illuminate our little ballet slippers. The barre seemed endless in its stretch across the room, but still not as endless as the grand wooden floor across which we were expected to glide and fly gracefully, as though superhuman. Our budding talent thrilled us as we took our first steps, but flailed as soon as we witnessed the next-level class. Suddenly we felt inadequate, clumsy, far from talented.
Yet there was that one girl who either was talented already, or simply took note of what she could achieve and worked on her skills. Her work was diminished by those who didn’t see the long hours, and instead was chalked up to “she’s talented.” Was there another girl who didn’t feel as brave or encouraged? Or who perhaps needed a few more hours to achieve the same level of “talent”?
In my life working and playing as a creative of many types, I’ve heard many assessments and descriptions of talent. It’s innate — it’s built — it’s cultivated — it can grow — it’s static. It’s a euphemism for workers in a corporate environment. It’s an excuse to get away with bad behavior. It’s a motivator yet also a detractor. Are you talented, or do you just work hard?
Talent, like anything, is socially constructed, as evidenced by the sheer range of definitions. Science says it’s definitely not innate. That’s helpful for us creatives, who often fall into the trap of endless comparisons between ourselves and others who appear more successful or for whom success seems easy. Let’s unpack some of the illusions we endure:
The Fame Illusion
What it is: Based on a belief that talent is an element that, when at a certain level, leads to fame and financial success, the Fame Illusion causes us to assume that famous people are talented, and that talented people will end up famous.
Why it’s harmful: If we define talent as a well-developed skill, then working hard certainly moves you along a progress bar. But a separate skillset is needed to move you into a position of fame, and fame itself is an elusive situation, often found through luck more than anything else.
I once had someone tell me I must not be a very good athlete if I didn’t make it into the Olympics. Nevermind that I had never had it as a goal to get into the Olympics.
How to overcome it: Whether or not you’re personally aiming for fame, stay humble and don’t idealize the state of celebrity.
The Top-Rung Illusion
What it is: Similar to the Fame Illusion, the Top-Rung Illusion causes us to assume that the most talented people rise to the top of an organization.
Why it’s harmful: Even beyond the incredible income disparity between top-rung CEOs and bottom-rung entry-level workers that’s justified by this illusion, it’s hardly motivational to measure your worth by your position on the ladder. Only one person can stand on the top rung, so your odds of reaching it are poor no matter your “talent.”
How to overcome it: Affirm your own achievements, whether in the workplace or outside, and if you really want a top-rung position, build one for yourself rather than comparing yourself to others.
The Ease Illusion
What it is: Based on the belief that talent is innate, the Ease Illusion causes us to view the end result of skills training and development as the natural state of one’s ability.
Why it’s harmful: Nothing keeps people from achieving their goals like the arbitrary checklists we’re socialized to believe. And when you see the end result exhibited in someone who matches your model of talent, you’ll assume that it’s easy for them but impossible for you. If you think you must be of a certain age, height, or weight to dance, you’ll never allow yourself to pursue your goals and find that “talent” within yourself. In her book Generation Me, Jean Twenge gives an example of “entitled millennials” in which students advise her that she could be anything she wanted to be. “What if I wanted to be a ballerina?” she asked. “You could be!” they said, in what Twenge attempts to pass off as a misguided spirit of entitlement. “No, I couldn’t, I’m in my 30s and overweight,” she said, almost proudly. Twenge is wrong, though. Plenty of people do take up new physical activities. While they might not join the New York City Ballet, plenty of “talented” ballerinas don’t, either. (See the Top-Rung Illusion.)
I am a circus performer. As I’ve improved, I hear the word “talented” used to describe me more and more. Yet those people are seeing videos of a performance that I spent months rehearsing, or a professionally staged and shot photo of me in a pose that I held for a few seconds. They’re seeing the end result, not the days where I fumble, not the hours spent bleeding and sweating and struggling. To mitigate the illusion, I have started to post videos of myself fumbling on social media — and those get the best response.
How to overcome it: Understand that talent is not innate and that what you see on social media or presented by professionals is not their natural state. In fact, skills do get rusty, and the world’s top performers and creators will not remain in that place without continued practice. Therefore, practice at your own pace and check your ego as you develop your skills.
So…what’s your passion? Find your talent, but remember, it’s a bit like hunting a mythical beast. You’ll encounter illusions, self-doubt, and seemingly epic heroes. At the end of the day, all that matters is your own drive and ambition in pursuit of your goals.