There has always been a lot of excessive attention placed on raw talent.

It’s easy to understand why. The youthful prodigy that practically emerges from the womb playing concertos makes a much more compelling story than the quasi-talented hard worker.

But the unfortunate result of our pursuit of the next rare natural genius is skewed perception … and there is no greater victim of this perception than the average everyday artist who thinks that they have no shot at greatness. (Or even just a shot making a living doing their art.)

The fallout of this myth is heard whenever the average artist says things like,

  • “I started too late.”
  • “I’ll never rise above my natural abilities.”
  • “I just can’t compete against people who are so much better than me.”

But if there was truly a Darwinistic principle of artists at work here, if the “cream always rises to the top”, so to speak – we wouldn’t have artists like Bob Dylan, whose voice never was particularly pleasant. Or Grandma Moses, who never had any natural ability to render realistic buildings. Or Van Gogh… the list is endless. But we do have them, and we are better for it.

Because the creative world doesn’t just belong to artists who can paint a realistic still life blindfolded and with one arm tied behind their back… it belongs to artists who have a story to share, a passion for life, a message to send. 

It belongs to people who dare to pick up a pen, a brush, or a battered guitar when they don’t know what in the world they’re doing… something inside them just compels them to do it. And to keep doing it.

In a culture conditioned to devour the latest mind-blowing piece of viral content, sensationalism wins. And in doing so, it overshadows the most important traits of what it takes to be a successful artist.

Talent without action is useless

Talent Without Action is Useless

If I had a choice between being a superbly talented person who never ships their art, and a quasi-talented one who always creates and ships, I would choose the latter without question.

That’s because raw talent is not enough. For it to be useful to anybody, it has to be coupled with action. 

The great news for aesthetically challenged wannabe artists is that they can and will get better with practice. Because the secret nobody tells you is that talent isn’t just something in our DNA… it can be acquired. No matter what natural talent you have starting out, it can be improved upon over time.

Breaking Down What We Call Talent

What we think is talent is really a combination of promise, practice, and perseverance.

Talent Ingredient 1: Promise

Promise is some indication that a person kind of “gets it”… they’re no prodigy, but they can understand and perform a creative task on an elementary level. This is the just the first step of a very long journey that an artist may not comprehend until they start on it.

Another element of promise is that they actually like to do it… it provides a tactile reward in some way. It’s like a child who picks up a crayon and is entranced at the way it leaves marks as they drag it across the page. No matter what age, anyone can enjoy the pleasures of creation when the mental blocks to doing so are removed.

Beyond this early stage in the process, another element of promise on the road to talent is a desire to continue. There has to be an innate drive to practice and improve skills through practice.

Talent Ingredient 2: Practice

Practice is what increases skill level. There is no substitute for the time spent actually doing a creative task. Unfortunately, the concept of practice is vastly misunderstood.

Most of us vastly underestimate the time it takes to attain mastery of a skill. This is especially true in the post-Information Age we are in, where we can quickly learn about whatever we want to know, but that knowledge does not translate directly into achieving the mastery that only comes with lots of time practicing.

There is misconception in the cliched phrase “practice makes perfect” that simply doing something automatically makes you better at it. This isn’t entirely true, because practice must be focused in order to be effective. For some aspiring artists, this isn’t possible to a necessary degree without a teacher or mentor. However, many self-motivated artists can do this with the guidance that comes from learning resources such as classes and online courses.

As a reaction to the “practice makes perfect” myth, another misconception began to appear. This phrase is “perfect practice makes perfect”, which is even more wrong than the first one. That’s because nobody in their right mind can expect such as thing as “perfect practice”… it is, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The primary characteristic of practice is imperfection (…that’s why they call it practice….duh!) To expect it to be perfect is to increase expectations and cause frustration and disappointment.

The truth lies between the two… when we practice we must practice in a way as to not develop bad habits that are easily ingrained and difficult to break. But we also cannot expect to be good while practicing… We must know where we fail in order to get better. The saying “perfect practice makes perfect” is actually a contradiction… because practice itself is anything but perfect. It’s failing forward.

It’s essential to stop here and say that a teacher or mentor is extremely helpful, even critical for some, to ensure the practice is the right kind of practice. A teacher can use their experience to observe how you are practicing and correct bad habits before they develop. Among other things, they can also offer inspiration, incentive to improve, and an accurate view of your skills. They can not only give you some critical feedback, but also encouragement when you need it.

Talent equals promise, practice, perseverance

Talent Ingredient 3: Perseverance

Perseverance is what keeps practicing in motion to the extent that we see real results. The road to mastery is littered with potholes, roadblocks, diversions, and detours. Unless we are able to traverse these and stay on the course, we will not be able to get the results we desire.

While perseverance isn’t a sexy term, it is the difference between long term success and failure. It means doing your craft when all the fanfare and everything else has subsided. It means continuing to practice your art when nobody else is looking.

It requires deeper roots that “this sounds like it will be kind of fun to do for awhile”. It calls upon the artist to formulate a long term plan for success. It means asking questions like, 

  • What do I ultimately want out of my creative career?
  • What do I see myself doing in five years?
  • What is it going to take to get me to my desired goals?

Just as it’s essential to sit down and map a journey when we want to get to a specific place, we also need to take the time to form our long term plan if we want our career to go anywhere. This means we actually get the long term result we desire instead of spending years “discovering ourselves”, which is a nice excuse for meandering around aimlessly.

By the way, that plan will probably change over time… and that’s okay. It serves as a starting point, and it becomes a living, breathing entity that grows and develops as your career does. Goals and plans done the right ways aren’t shackles, they actually free you to be what you want to be.

Another critical ingredient to perseverance, quite simply, is having fun being creative.  I strongly disagree (and you should too) with the Suffering Artist Myth, that only tortured souls through pain and suffering produce the best art. That’s ridiculous. 

Doing the creative work that you want to do should be self-sustaining and joyful deep down inside. As you level up your skills, you should enjoy using them and enjoy the results you get afterward, which creates a cycle of effort and reward.

If this is not the case, then you should critically examine your “why” as well as your reasons for wanting to be an artist. These are questions you can only answer with deep reflection and honest self-examination. If this is overly difficult, you may need to consider the services of a qualified professional such as a counselor or creative coach to help you.

Talent Is Not A Birthright; It’s A Result.

Hopefully this has shed some new light on the subject of what “talent” is and what it isn’t. 

Many of us have the wrong idea about it, which has been handed down to us from others and we accepted without much hesitation. But for those of us who desire to make a living being creative, it’s essential to re-examine our thoughts about it so that we don’t let those misconceptions keep us from moving forward.

This new view of talent helps keep out feelings of intimidation, envy, and desperation – and ushers in positive feelings that come from the joy of creating and sharing our creative discoveries. 

Talent is not a birthright it's a result

What are YOUR thoughts on talent?

I’m eager to hear what your views are on this article and any other experiences you may have had with the Talent Myth. 

Are you someone who:

  • Has always been told they have talent, but you were afraid to dig further?
  • Feels like it would be useless to start a creative journey, because you’re so far off from mastery?
  • Gets intimidated by all the other talent out there, and this makes you feel useless?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below… I would love to hear from you.

May you always set your feet on the path to being continually better at what you do… while at the same time enjoying the journey.


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