Talent Versus Skill: Why Natural-Born Talent is a Fallacy We Need to Rectify

How many times has someone expressed that you are “so talented” when looking at your work? Those individuals that tell you that you were “blessed by God” or some other higher power, or that you must get these abilities from your “lineage”, or that it somehow has to do with some arbitrary classification, be it your ethnicity or sexuality or gender or even sometimes, ridiculously enough, your left or right brain, as if to suggest that we have a collection of them that match up with a compass. I’m sure you typically smile and nod politely, thanking them for their compliments. But how often do you want to grab them by the collar and tell them how long it took you to learn how to use that flipping Pen Tool and that you still haven’t mastered it. Or that you spent a year using Manual mode on your DSLR only after figuring out an adequate exposure with a more automatic setting? Or that the Histogram stressed you the hell out because you didn’t have a clue as to how to shift those wacky squiggles? Yeah. Me too.

Society builds mental constructs — whether intentionally or unconsciously or as a byproduct of different beliefs. But this sometimes comes at the expense of our efforts. What’s more, is that the construct of natural-born talent seemingly disproportionately affects two types of individuals — athletes and creatives. When was the last time you were getting a cleaning and thought “damn, she really was blessed with those dentist genes — they must run in the family” ?

Probably never.

But creative types and athletes struggle with this affliction at all stages of their careers. If the greatest golfer in history possessed natural talent, why can he not make the cut at most majors anymore? And when he does, why does he finish off the leaderboard? Truth is, we’re operating on outdated paradigms here. These ways of thinking cropped up around the same time as the cultures that believed you were born into a caste that determined your job, who you could or could not marry, and your place in society. Fortunately, we seem to have made at least some progress in that department.

After a long sabbatical from both my proverbial 9-to-5 and my photography, and craving a new creative outlet and having long admired the work of Norm Abram and more recently, Ariele Alasko, I began learning how to work with wood. More specifically, I learned how to carve. Taking to the internet, I devoured dozens upon dozens of videos that taught best practices and techniques such as those by master craftsman Paul Sellers. I read blogs and articles that looked like they hadn’t been updated since 1998, but gave unparalleled advice on the intricacies of grain structure of specific woods or which tool produces which desired result. Like why one should consider investing in a spoke shave instead of relying on sanding every surface to provide a less refined, handcrafted element to each piece. Or that, while Zebrawood is gorgeous from afar, its hard, brittle, and not at all suitable for carving and should be used for turning on a lathe.

In 2014, I took it upon myself to begin learning how to program. While I dabbled in Objective-C in 2009, I didn’t know more than a few functions. So, to start this journey to become a more well-rounded creative, more of an assets to colleagues & organizations, and to open myself up to new communities, I dove into learning Front-End Web Development. I started where anyone from my generation would likely start — the internet. I read articles on how to get started and where to find great resources. Then I took to forums and chats that allowed me to see how others were hitting the same obstacles in their endeavor and chat with developers on everything from best practices to styles to debugging. Books helped me develop core concepts such as the theories and methodologies in practice among industry leaders. Videos and live-streams came next, leveraging the blossoming internet-based education industry. Udemy, Codecademy, Skillshare, Treehouse — I used everything I could get my hands on. Some were more comprehensive than others. Others were worth every penny. Two years, innumerable amounts of content, and gallons upon gallons of coffee later, I am now confident in a few languages. I even plan to really bust my ass and learn two more (back-end languages) this year. And if I were being honest, my journey to developing my photography skills was much, much longer.

But that goes largely unseen. Worse, clients want to pay you for the end product and not the proverbial blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights that went into getting to a point that you could even produce such work. I would give anything to be able to show a client two versions of a deliverable — one with my hard-earned skills, and one with my natural-born talent — then see which they’ll be more inclined to pay for.

Jokes aside, we need to start advocating for ourselves or else we’ll burn out. Or go broke. Or both! I’m in no way endorsing everyone to admonish people for assuming it’s talent that we’re leaning on to pay the rent, but it’s critical that we start the conversation. Encourage these individuals to see what you’ve accomplished more in line with what they do for a living. Shift the paradigm.

Advocating for our community and industry inevitably leads to higher paying contracts, a decrease in stress, and better sleep at night.

I challenge you to get out there and tell your story about how you became the highly-skilled creator that you are today and that talent just wasn’t part of the formula.