Talent Means Paying Attention….

I think I can honestly say that I don’t put a lot of stock in the abstract notion of Talent. Sure, you might catch me saying, “they’re really talented!” every so often. But I suppose I generally mean something like, “They are really good at what they do!” But as regards an idea of unique capability, instilled or preordained… And especially as regards some concept of unlearned and yet preexisting skill, I particularly do not agree. I actually do think it is learned.

Imagine that two young people are sitting in a French class, French 101, neither having ever studied the language. And yet one proves to be better at it right from the get-go. Why should this be? Clearly the better one is “talented.” But what does that mean? How can someone be better with languages without ever having studied them? Answer: This actually isn’t new to them.

This novice has probably been conscious of sounds, sensitive to them and attentive to their nuances, for a very long time. By the time this kid arrives in his first French class, he/she has actually been casually paying attention to these sorts of things for many years, watching people talk, listening to human sounds, accents, etc., but it has never been given focused parameters as specific as a particular language, and adding this only highlights the already developing skills. Meanwhile, the other youngster has perhaps been highly attentive to mechanical things, with minimal tutelage but years of fascination, and will prove to be “talented” at geometry or engineering, etc.

And yet we don’t use talent and skill as synonyms very often. We reserve “talent” for an idea more mysterious, as though the most agnostic of us were perfectly willing to acknowledge the hand of God in this case. But I do believe it to be skill- untrained, undirected, undisciplined, and vague beginnings of skill that arise from a child becoming piqued, intrigued or enthralled by a particular observation.

And that is perhaps what I might agree is inherent, by DNA or the Divine: The predisposition. No one knows what a child might find captivating, and that is its own kind of fascinating development. But we tend to look at the fruits of that focus and deem the resulting skill “talent”. Even dictionaries define talent as “Natural aptitude or skill.” Personally, I don’t know many skills that are “natural” without acquisition or cultivation; even basic things. I’ve never met a child that was potty trained without being taught, for example.

Now, I am not sure that this is a terribly important distinction. Or at least, I really would love if it were not. But in our era of [Insert country name here]’s Got Talent, American Idol and the like, with young people desperately looking for validation as a “real talent,” it seems that skill is going more and more by the wayside as a worthwhile endeavor and the “talented” young person needs only to be discovered as the final step to being a real artist…… This leads to people who level off at the point where casual efforts must give way to focused efforts, and it results in coaching and instruction being received as insult or implied negation of talent. And talent and hard work become antithetical to one another.

But if talent and skill are synonyms………..?

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