Talent isn’t given, it’s made

In most cases, when we say someone is talented at something, we mean that they have a natural gift. I don’t agree with that definition. I want to teach my kids that talent is made, not given, by being intensely interested in something and putting a lot of time and effort into doing it.

My wife and I were talking to some parents recently (on a Zoom, of course 🤮), and we were discussing what makes kids resilient by studying a model that included “talents and interests” as a key part of developing resiliency. Side note: this was part of some training we were doing for a personal project of ours (more on that later), so that was the reason for the discussion. We don’t just regularly hop on Zoom calls to discuss the topic of resilience and child-raising (although maybe we should do more frequently 😂).

Anyway, when this topic came up, I was excited to explore it. I can’t think of anything that is more important to me as a parent than helping my kids explore and cultivate a wide range of interests and the perseverance to examine them fully. Some of those interests may eventually become a “talent”, but as we all should recognize by now, being good at something isn’t the result of a magical gift that just happened to be bestowed upon us.

The notion of talent and being talented is overused, overrated, and often unhelpful. In most cases, when we say someone is talented at something, we mean that they have a natural gift. If they aren’t talented, they don’t have the knack for it. They are different than those that do.

I mean, it is literally defined this way in the dictionary:

Talent: (someone who has) a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught

Definition from the Cambridge English Dictionary

I don’t agree with that definition. We should instead say that someone becomes talented (not is), and they do so by being intensely interested in something and putting a lot of time and effort into doing it.

There just isn’t a neat way to put that definition of talented. It sounds boring. It sounds like a lot of work. It sounds time-consuming.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

James Baldwin (from James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78)

Side note: Yes, there are a lot of other factors to consider outside of being interested in something, like personality, physical hereditary traits, environment, etc., which is what is behind someone seeming to be a “natural” at something. I would argue that many/most of these factors can be overcome with passionate interest and endurance.

Of course, we all know that it is a lot of work to become talented at something. Because talent is an outcome that is not predetermined but is created by exploring interests and developing habits, that is where the focus should be as a parent.

James Clear sums it up pretty nicely in How to Uncover Your Creative Talent by Using the “Equal Odds Rule”:

“The Equal Odds Rule says that the average publication of any particular scientist does not have any statistically different chance of having more of an impact than any other scientist’s average publication.”2 In other words, any given scientist is equally likely to create a game-changing piece of work as they are to create something average that is quickly forgotten.

Translated to the world-at-large: You can’t predict your own success. Scientists, artists, inventors, writers, entrepreneurs, and workers of all types are equally likely to produce a useless project as they are to produce an important one.

If you believe the Equal Odds Rule, then the natural conclusion is that you’re playing a numbers game. Because you can’t predict your success, the best strategy is to produce as much work as possible, which will provide more opportunities to hit the bullseye and create something meaningful.

You have to do something A LOT to be good at it which means you need to really enjoy it 80% of the time and have habits and systems set up to ensure you still do it when it sucks the other 20% of the time.

And this is where I am left now, with a strong belief that my kids can be good at most anything by being curious and persevering, and with more questions on how to help them realize that than answers to give.

Going back to the call with the parents, though, I did give some suggestions on how I thought we might cultivate curiosity and perseverance, including:

  • Pushing your kids to try new things they might not be aware of and supporting them in doing the things they naturally gravitate towards in equal measure
  • Enlisting the help of mentors and teachers
  • Paying attention to what your kids “get lost” in doing
  • Not comparing yourself to others (what are you afraid of?)
  • Leading by example (what are you working on becoming talented at?!)

The last two are the most important, impactful, and hardest to do in my opinion. As you quickly find out as a parent, kids will see through what you tell them if they don’t think you are credible. If you don’t believe something, they aren’t going to believe it. Better yet, if you can show them what being curious and working hard at something can lead to, that is worth more than any long-winded sermon on “sticking with it” can offer.

“At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” (Steve Martin, Born Standing Up)

Throughout our call, my wife and I and all the other parents struggled to explain how we thought we could help develop talents and interests, and resiliency in general, because we all struggle with it as parents and as people. We stuck with it, though, and learned a little more through the conversation we hadn’t known prior. We were enthusiastic, and we persevered.

Little by little, we are developing our talents as parents.

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