Now I know what you’re thinking. Don’t we all strive to be talented? Isn’t it the best compliment you could give a musician, or an artist, or athlete? I wish someone thought I was talented. I wouldn’t be insulted!
But here’s the thing. Unless you’ve mastered a skill and been called talented for it, you won’t truly understand its discrediting connotations.
I certainly didn’t, until I used this plea of praise to woo the man who would soon become my partner. Luckily, calling someone talented isn’t offensive enough to ruin your chances with them.
It wasn’t until months later that he brought it up. We had just finished watching the Pixar movie Coco when he picked up our guitar and naturally started playing Un Poco Loco. He had only heard the song once, yet there he was perfectly plucking, what I would consider, a complicated introduction.
“Ugh,” I sighed. “You’re so talented.”
This time, the infatuation was gone and I just sounded annoyed. To make matters worse in hindsight, I went further to say, “I wish I could do that.”
“You could,” Larry smiled, “if you actually try.”
What does the word “talented” mean?
Let’s start with the definition provided by Google’s Oxford Dictionary.
/ˈtalən(t)əd/ Learn to pronounce
having a natural aptitude or skill for something.
“a talented young musician”
Some synonyms include “gifted,” “skilled,” and “expert.” The definition in Dictionary.com explains that the noun talent is:
- a special natural ability or aptitude
- a capacity for achievement or success
In all of the dictionaries that I cross-referenced, talent is described as something that a person has, which leads me to conclude that talent must be given to a person, both randomly and naturally, at birth. According to these official documents, talent is not something that a person can or should have to work hard to obtain. In other words, you either have it or you don’t.
What do we mean when we use the word talented?
Think about the last time you called someone talented. Let’s say it was someone playing a complicated lick on the guitar. What were you trying to express to this person? Maybe their music had touched you, or maybe it just impressed the hell out of you. Did you assume that they were naturally gifted, that the strumming rhythm and the notes and the chords and the proper finger positions were programmed inside this person since the day they were born? Probably not.
But that’s what you meant when you called them talented.
Calling someone talented disregards the endless hours and effort they’ve dedicated to their craft.
Ok, I agree. Offensive is a strong word. Of course, calling someone talented is a wonderful way to acknowledge their art and express your enjoyment or appreciation of it. I am in no way trying to compliment-shame anyone for something said with good intention.
In my first publication of this article, I received multiple responses from readers who were offended by my use of the word “offensive.” I’ll admit, the subtitle of this article was a small attempt at click-bait. Simply put, it’s offensive… but there’s more to the story.
Larry has never been bitter about being called talented. He’s not an asshole. But with that said, when someone — like myself — calls him talented with a tinge of spite and then goes on to say, “I wish I could be that talented,” it feels less like a compliment and more like a projection of that person’s self-doubt. So let me stress that the point of this article isn’t to scold anyone for using the word talented. The point of this article is to build up your confidence by noting that you could be just as capable of honing that particular skill and experiencing the pleasure of being praised for it.
Larry loves challenging social norms and I love having my eyes opened to new perspectives. The word “talented” sparked a really interesting conversation, which shed new light on an old, tired expression that doesn’t mean much of anything when you really think about it.
Ever since the birth of technology, our vocabulary seems to shrink every day. We rely on abbreviations and butchered slang, falling back on words with empty sentiments. As a consequence, our ability to express our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs has been stunted.
During my four years of working at a music venue, I had the pleasure of watching live performances twice a week, sometimes even more. That’s over 100 concerts each year. After each show ended and the audience cleared out, it was my responsibility to pay the band before closing up. While I offered my compliments — as genuine as they came — I felt more like a broken record than a loving patron of the arts. I found myself constantly falling back on the same word. Talented.
A performance that truly touched me, or made me dance around like an idiot after a twelve-hour shift, received the same verbal praise as a show that I had decided to sit in the office for. Not only did I feel I was doing a disservice to the artists that deserved more, I felt I was doing a disservice to my own emotional response, not to mention my English degree.
The word talented no longer meant anything to me, but I didn’t have any other vocabulary words that felt easily accessible. I was forced to dive deeper into what I specifically liked about the performance and what set them apart from the hundreds of others I had seen. My malaise with the word “talented” led to a profound curiosity that pushed me to ask questions whenever I felt enamored or impressed, rather than simply telling them how I felt.
The conversations and connections that followed are the only ones I’ll remember from that chapter of my professional life.
As a society and especially what I’ve seen of younger generations, I can’t help but feel like our vocabulary shrinks every day. Not only do we have abbreviations and bad slang to rely on, but we also tend to fall back on words with empty sentiments, which stunts our ability to express ourselves.
“I didn’t just wake up one day knowing how to play the guitar,” Larry said. “It took a long time to get to the point where I can play something by ear.”
How long exactly? Canadian author, Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.
But when someone picks up a guitar and starts playing without a hitch, all you know is what you see before you. Your mind paints a disillusioned picture of a world in which this person could always play this well.
And that’s how jealousy transpires, through the assumption that they never had to struggle the way you would struggle now.
A good piece of work requires countless days of frustration, the harassing desire to quit, and the endurance not to. That’s why it’s called work.
Perseverance separates the mediocre from the masters.
Unlike my partner, who began learning guitar almost twenty-five years ago, I didn’t start until I was twenty-five. Neither of our parents forced us to play music. Interestingly enough, his parents are not musicians.
My father, on the other hand, has dedicated most of his life, and all of mine, playing the guitar. I remember so many late nights, lying awake in bed as the floorboards shuttered beneath me, his percussive foot keeping tempo as he rehearsed another Big Bill Broonzy tune. Whenever I asked my dad to teach me a few chords, he engaged in our lessons with the enthusiasm and pride I chose to forgo. I just wasn’t committed. My fingers are too fragile. The strings hurt. The body is too big. My arm isn’t long enough.
I had endless excuses for my utter laziness and lack of patience. In short, my short attention span was even shorter as a child, which is what fascinates me about kids who start conquering a hobby at such a young age.
“You’re on your own, honing the skill when you could be playing with friends or watching TV,” Larry said. “And being hard on yourself is crucial, instead of being satisfied learning half a song, or letting discouragement get the best of you.”
I didn’t even like my parents being hard on me, let alone being hard on myself. But self-discipline is required to get yourself to the point where someone is calling you gifted or talented.
“But what is it?” Larry asked. “Is it being called gifted or talented? Because ‘talent’ is just that thing inside that says ‘you’re crap at the moment but keep going.’ So when someone calls you talented, it’s like, no. I spent a considerable amount of time honing a skill that anyone could manage.”
The “gift” is your availability, your physical ability, and an environment that allows you to implement your willingness and enthusiasm to learn.
And even still, there are loads of people with disabilities, since birth or later in life, who never let that stop them. Think Stevie Wonder, Stephen Hawkins, Alison Lapper, and Trischa Zorn.
Of course, the older you are, the harder it gets. “When you’re a kid, it’s not talent,” says Alison Lapper MBE, the English artist born without arms who paints with her feet and mouth. “It’s just something [you] enjoy doing.”
But, as an adult, your brain is less plastic and thus less able to change or learn. Plus, with a 9–5 job and all of the other responsibilities of adulthood, you no longer have an endless abundance of time on your side.
Learning how to play guitar in my mid-twenties was a challenge. I had to abandon all of the excuses telling me I shouldn’t or couldn’t try. I had to forget the badgering assumption that I may never be as good as someone who started as a child. Soon enough, a few chords turned into a handful of songs that evolved into a deep, symbiotic relationship between my father and me, in which music is our shared ground.
Moral of the story, nothing’s impossible.
Saying, “I wish I could be as talented as you” isn’t a compliment. It undermines both them and you.
Not only does it make you sound spiteful, it totally demotes your own creative potential. Remember, the answer to this is always, “you could.” Most likely, the only person stopping you or having stopped you in the past is yourself. Granted, some children don’t get the same freedom of expression as a result of their parents’ desires, plenty of artists don’t start until later in life.
Think about the last time you said, “I wish I could [fill in the blank].” Was it seven years ago? Three months? A few days? Whenever it was, that’s how long it’s been since you made a decision not to try. If you held yourself accountable, it could have been that long since you started learning.
If not “talented,” what should you say instead?
The key here is to be specific. What exactly is it that you liked about the piece you’re complimenting? Why are you so inclined to tell them? How and why did it touch or speak to you? Maybe it sparked a memory. Maybe it evoked an emotion you hadn’t felt in a long time.
Creative people share their art to connect and give an audience something to relate to. By sharing the product of their own personal catharsis, most artists hope to spark cathartic experiences in their listeners. These are the conversations musicians want to have while they sign CDs and posters at the end of the night. Don’t get me wrong; your praise is very nice, but you’re probably not saying anything special.
I get it. Maybe you’re not interested in learning more about that person’s creative journey. Maybe you don’t really give a shit how long it took them to master fine art, but you still want to tell them how much you appreciate their work. Finding specific words to express yourself is a much better compliment than simply calling someone talented. And trust me. You won’t say it perfectly, but at least you’ve tried.
Unless you’re on your last breath, it’s never too late to learn something new.
Even then, I bet we experience an entire catalog of epiphanic lessons if our life really does flash before our eyes.
After having this discussion, Larry and I felt inspired to practice what we preach. And so… Estamos aprendiendo Español! Now that we’re hunkering down in Mexico, there’s no excuse not to learn the native language beyond “hola” and “tacos en la mañana ayudan con la cruda.”
It’s strange learning a new language as an adult. We don’t have parents to please, or an Argentinian teacher to impress, or a final exam to pass. The real test is life, in the grocery store, asking, “¿Vendes leche sin lactosa?”
In the modern world that we live in, we have unlimited access to a vault of infinite information. For most of us, it’s right there at our fingertips every second of every day. You can learn absolutely anything online and most of it is completely free. Last week, I watched a Youtube tutorial on how to effectively close a cereal box. Unlike me, you should try to use your time wisely.
On the language-learning app Duolingo, the green Owl told me, “Fifteen minutes a day can teach you a language.” Then he asked rather smugly, “What can fifteen minutes of social media do?”
To which, I replied, “Ay! Buen punto, pequeño listillo.”