God-given. Gifted. Blessed. These are adjectives and nouns we use when referring to someone as talented. We are suggesting that talent was a gift the individual received before he or she was even born. So if a creative produces a breathtaking work of art, and she is talented, why would we complement her by suggesting that what led to that work’s creation came from somewhere other than her own hard work?
I found myself reflecting on the word talented earlier this week at my daughter’s Honors and Awards ceremony. She attends a massive high school, with more students than some towns have in population. It so happens that out of more than three hundred eligible students for a fine arts award, my daughter received one of the three.
The award she received is called the “Fine Arts Special Recognition for Development of Personal Artistic Voice.” Here is what the art teacher said on stage before handing my daughter the award. I know I have the words right, because I recorded it and just played it back. (Proud pappa.) He said the award recognized:
… her growth as an artist from her freshman to senior year. She has increased her technical skill as well as establishing a strong personal aesthetic.
My daughter entered high school in a bad way, having suddenly lost her lifelong creative mentor weeks earlier. She had a demanding load of academic courses that failed to capture her interest but were required to graduate. She experienced the highs and lows that is the drama of high school friendships. And yet during those four years, on her own, she:
- WORKED ON HER CRAFT: She was taking art classes at school, but she used much of her “free” time to practice beyond her art homework. She carried a sketch pad around to work on drawing people–a particular challenge for her–during idle moments that many of us fill by playing with our smartphones. She pushed a cheap camera to the absolute limit, such that when I finally bought her a better one, she had learned enough about photography to take that one to new extremes.
- LEARNED FROM THOSE BEFORE HER: She made her way to art shows when she could. She devoured coffee table books of great illustrators and photographers. And she read interviews and essays by artists she admired about themselves and their craft. She was particularly inspired by a Neil Gaiman address in which he told the audience to “make good art.”
Up on the stage at my daughter’s high school, her art teacher said that over her four years there she had “increased her technical skill,” which came from many hours working on her craft. He said she had established “a strong personal aesthetic,” a creative vision that grew from studying other artists.
We all know talent exists. ESPN aired LeBron James’ games when he was in high school because it was already clear his talent was otherworldly. Yet he is playing in his third NBA Finals in the last three years in large part because he has gone beyond pure talent. He’s displayed new post-up moves this season that helped him get past an imposing center in the previous round, and in post-game press conferences he frequently cites players he’s analyzed who didn’t even play his position. You don’t have to like basketball, or LeBron James himself, to understand that he is not just talented.
“You are so talented!” It’s easy to say, and we mean well when we say it. It also helps to set the recipient of the compliment apart in a way that “You are so skilled!” does not. So I don’t have the right phrase yet, which is tragic because I make a living using words. But I’ll come up with the expression that signifies a creative’s unique greatness while also acknowledging their hard work and dedication. My daughter, I suspect, will continue to provide opportunities to try them out.
What are your thoughts on this distinction between talent and skill?