Why I Never Call Someone Talented

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?

This is the photo that was on display: "Rib Caged" by Marisa Ross
My daughter had this work featured in a show about a year ago. I’m sure, like any artist, she feels she’s progressed so much that she’ll be mortified I chose this particular 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
This is a photo of hers from 2011, even older than the one above. Her recent work is edgy, unnerving and unique; it is also hers. These have both been published already; I leave it to her to put her new ones into the universe.
This is a photo of hers from 2011, even older than the one above. Her recent work is edgy, unnerving and unique; it is also hers and hers alone. These two have both been published already; I leave it to her to put her new ones into the universe.

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?

31 thoughts on “Why I Never Call Someone Talented

  1. Talent is obviously a true, tangible thing that some have and others simply don’t. However talent can never manifest or express itself without labor. So I wouldn’t call it a bad thing, or an insult when someone says, “oh, you’re so talented!” Because what THEY mean is that you have great skill, which YOU know is a result of hard work. I think talent is a sort of nameless grace for a skill that some are blessed with and others not. But it doesn’t matter how much talent you were born with if you never work to see it put to good use. Great post!


    1. Thank you for this comment, Karoline. I like the notion that we are actually encompassing both skill and talent when we use the word, and that it will be heard that way, and “nameless grace” is a poetic way to capture what I’m trying to get at.


  2. “The principle of Creative Limitations calls for freedom within a circle of obstacles and restricted boundaries. Talent is like a muscle: without something to push against, it atrophies. So we deliberately put obstacles in our path – barriers that will inspire us. We disciple ourselves as to what to do, while we’re boundless as to how to do it.”

    Robert McKee said this, and I think it’s what you’re getting at. There is no need for a new word. “Talent” and “skill” are separate things and should be acknowledged as such, because they’re two different things working in harmony within an artist. They have to be for success. Someone with passion for creative pursuits yet no talent will never yield great art. And someone with great talent but no desire to hone craft will flounder, their talent “atrophied”; their potential unchallenged. As you said with King James, talent could only take him so far. But the converse is true as well, skill or hard work could only take him so far. Its important to note that McKee believes (as do I) that TALENT is the muscle that is worked out when we hone craft. So talent is the foundation, but alone it is nothing without discipline. Discipline might be a good word for it.

    You daughter sounds disciplined. She took a natural talent and forged it in the fires of dedication, repetition, and hard work. From the sounds of it, your daughter is wonderfully talented, and that should be recognized in tandem with the work. She wouldn’t be great without both.

    Talent is one of those funny, mystical words that we want to run from because not everyone is talented – at least not in the same ways – and things that are “selective” in today’s society are often feared. I think of a huge theme in The Incredibles, the idea that if EVERYONE is “special” (has superpowers) than really NO ONE is special. That’s why the world tries to homogenize talent. Its why there are little leagues where scores aren’t kept and everyone gets a ribbon. Trying to eliminate “talent” from equation is dangerous. Don’t run from it. 😀 Its awesome. Acknowledging talent is just as important as acknowledging the work.


    1. I am convinced that The Artist’s Road has the most insightful, erudite commenters around!

      Thank you for the Robert McKee quote. An atrophying muscle is a great metaphor. I think there were certain talents I might have had that I have allowed to completely atrophy, and creative writing was one I allowed to do so for many years before returning; it was in fact like going to the gym after a long absence, akin to starting from scratch. And this spoke to me: “So talent is the foundation, but alone it is nothing without discipline.”

      I just read your comment to my daughter as well as my fourteen-year-old son. He burned with frustration at the fact that his soccer league never kept score. He always did in his head, and could tell me the exact score at any moment in the game. He also knew who had scored the goals, which often were by his best friend, who is in fact phenomenally talented at soccer and plays on a traveling all-star team. When I read your comment he shouted, “YES!”


  3. Hey, Patrick.

    Just jumping in to say I think you’re being too careful here. Nobody you say “You’re so talented!” to is going to feel that you’ve snubbed their hard word. Talent, in fact, is not something everyone has, at least in one area of life or another. But we shy too frequently from applauding it where it appears in the same way we shy from saying, “You’re so intelligent!” because many are not so intelligent.

    The person who works hard to hone skills is thoroughly laudable. As you say, in almost every case, talent (like intelligence) is not enough. That hard work has to happen. But when a person is lucky enough to bring talent and/or intelligence to that hard work, we see the extraordinary folks of our age.

    I’m thinking of Rafael Nadal, who just ousted Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros yesterday in one of tennis’ hardest-fought, most electrifying matches ever televised. These are the two titans of the sport right now (I follow world tennis very closely). And at one point, John McEnroe, who was calling the game, pointed out that Rafa had delivered a shot “that simply isn’t taught.” He was doing things on the court in Paris that cannot be trained into tennis players. The massive level of his experience over so many years (this may well be his eighth Paris Open trophy after tomorrow) is making a lot of what he’s doing possible, yes. But this is also talent. His ability to sense where everything on that court is, with his back to the net, madly, desperately flicking a lightning “tweener” over to Djokovic’s side (a “tweener” being a very rare shot between the legs) without even being able to see where the net is, or where Djokovic is — this is the wonder of talent riding atop an unbelievable level of technical skill and remarkable physical fitness.

    NOT to say to Rafa, “you’re so talented,” would almost be the insult, I think. The proverbial 10,000 hours of practice (for him, this must be 50,000 hours by now), while unquestionably praiseworthy, just isn’t all of it. And because the talent he’s lucky enough not only to have had but recognized in himself is, we assume, an ineffable, inborn thing? — makes it no less something I want to salute all by itself, in addition to thanking him for all his hard work on skills.

    I guess I’m just wary of this effort I hear in many quarters to dismiss talent and intelligence. I fear that at times — and you certainly don’t mean it this way, I know — it can sound a bit unkind to suggest that because we all don’t have the same (or as much) talent or intelligence in what we do, we shouldn’t hail it in those who do.

    I’m good with talent. I’m good with intelligence. And I like honoring them where I see them. We don’t see them enough. And it’s to our shame if we somehow try to shield the less-talented or less-intelligent by not talking about the talented and the intelligent among us as what they are.

    I’m so grateful to hard workers and builders of skills that I’m the first to applaud them. But I’m also going to do everything I can to praise and hold up the talented and the intelligent. We need them and we need to say why we need them — precisely because they CAN do things with hard work and skills that the rest of us can’t do.

    Make sense? Thanks for the thoughtful write.
    On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson


    1. Hi Porter, I’m honored to have you jump in. I’m also a bit ticked at you for mentioning Nadal and Djokovic; I love tennis and left work early to watch yesterday’s match on my TiVo, except I screwed up and it only recorded the fifth set. That’s better than just getting the first, but immediately after hitting “play” I’m hearing McEnroe et al go on and on about how it’s the greatest match ever! I’m going to look to see if the Tennis Channel will be re-airing it.

      Thank you for bringing “intelligence” into the conversation. The previous commenter talked about the danger of downplaying talent, and you do the same and add intelligence. As you know, in my day job I am in the swirl of US policy and politics, and I have become dismayed at how some seem to feel being intelligent is a negative; it’s like in school when you don’t want to raise your hand to say the answer for fear of being labeled a “know-it-all.”

      Thank you, Porter, for all you do in honoring and promoting the talented, skilled and intelligent.


      1. Hey, Patrick!
        How distressing about the Rafa-Novak match! I feel sure Tennis Channel will be re-airing it. You likely have this, but it’s their great guide to their daily schedule, a good way to find things: http://www.tennischannel.com/schedule/index.aspx Hope you can see the whole thing, it was like a textbook demonstration of where tennis has now arrived in terms of the game’s power and difficulty — such a more sophisticated game than it was even five years ago.

        And thanks for being so receptive to my comments. I do see that sort of anti-intelligence thing going on in so many parts of our culture right now. We see this in literature so much, where big sales numbers seem to trump all (50 Shades) — nobody dares to speak up and say, “But what if this kind of work is helping to dumb down our population and tell people that reading intelligent work is wrong?”

        It’s a frustrating time. Thanks for bringing it into focus for all of us!


        1. Thanks for your encouragement, and thank you for the schedule link. Someone on the broadcast yesterday said we are in a golden age of tennis. Even a couple of years ago I would have disputed it. Federer was too dominant. Then Rafa came along and things improved. Then Novak finally reached his potential (and then some) and things got interesting. And finally Murray (well, not on clay) is actually a potential threat. I still love memories of the Borg-Connors-McEnroe era, and the Agassi-Lendl-Sampras-Courier-Chang era, but in terms of the game being at a ridiculously new level, if McEnroe thinks we’re there, and my eyes tell me we are, then yes, we are. I wish there was a bit more depth on the women’s side, though; I can only watch Serena rip people apart so many times (or tolerate her refusal to acknowledge the good play of an opponent on the rare occasions when she loses). And Nadal may not have won the game in which he returned that lob between his legs with his back to the net–my memory tells me it just got him to 30-40 and then Novak served out the game–but that had to get into Novak’s head; that shot was ridiculous.

          OK, enough with the tennis!


  4. Whitney Groves

    As a teacher, I see lots of kids who are talented. They can accomplish certain tasks with ease, while their peers struggle. However, I see very few kids who are passionate about anything. To me, passion is an even more inexplicable quality than talent. We all recognize that an individual’s brain can be “wired” to be good at math, music, friendship, etc. I would love to figure out what makes Lebron and your daughter devote all their energy and attention to their craft, when most talented people lack the passion to combat the voices telling them, “You’re fine the way you are” or “You’ll never be good enough.”


    1. Ah yes, Whitney, the notion of passion at different ages is a subject I’ve thought a lot about. I wonder, are some of those kids lacking passion because they lack the curiosity to find something that interests them, or have they simply not lived long enough to find that true spark? I suspect you have some of both.

      Porter (above) added intelligence to the mix, and you’ve added passion. Another good ingredient in our creativity cocktail. If we could in fact figure out what guides a person to that passion, particularly when it meshes with their talent, we’d all benefit from the result.


  5. I’d have to agree with what some of the people before me have said. Talent isn’t a bad thing and I don’t think it’s an overused word, so much as it may be a misunderstood concept.

    Talent and skill have to balance one another out. Throughout my life, I have heard people say “Oh, writing can be taught. It’s just a skill that has to be learned.” But the truth is, all you can teach people is the technical skills that allows them to put one word correctly in front of another.

    But even then, when you read something written by someone who doesn’t have the talent/knack for writing, you can tell. Because even though you see how polished it is, the words still feel devoid of something. Like they are following a script, rather than using their own intuitive understanding of how words flow into a sentence.

    That’s what I’d say talent is–it’s an intuitive understanding of the field where your talent lies. Learning skills to enhance that intuition is always praiseworthy, but if you don’t have the talent, you won’t be able to go as far.

    In my mind, talent is what gets the ball rolling. Learning the technicalities of the field and practicing them rigorously is what keeps it in motion.


    1. I think what I’m hearing here, beyond the importance of talent, is that writing is both an art and a craft. I agree, and will say that it applies to all writing, not just “creative” writing. I have trained and edited journalists in the course of my career. You can teach a reporter the inverted pyramid of unfolding a story; how to craft a “nut graf” that digests the story for the reader; and how to ensure that details are laid out in a way that avoids confusion. But some journalists can bring the reader into the story and others, even after years of competent work, cannot, and talent is the difference. (See James Nave’s comment immediately above yours.)

      I like this: “In my mind, talent is what gets the ball rolling. Learning the technicalities of the field and practicing them rigorously is what keeps it in motion.”


  6. I agree with some of the comments made here that talent still requires hard work. Your daughter is a good example. She has a knack for visual art, but she still has to work at it for her full potential to shine through.

    I’ve got to say I love her discipline! I appreciated your comment about how she sketches when everyone else is toodling on their smart phones. This is an important habit for artists, taking spare moments in our days to notice and express what’s going on around us. You must be really proud of her!


    1. I just read this comment to her, and she said she still looks at her electronic screens more than she likely should. I am certainly guilty of that myself. And yes, my pride is overflowing!


  7. Yvette Carol

    You know, I never really thought about this before you brought it up, Patrick. So, I’m thinking about it freshly, if you will.To say someone is talented, well yes, talents are god-given I guess, but it’s also said in a very admiring way so I think it’s a nice compliment. However, if that was the full extent of the compliment, I might feel that all my years of hard slog and effort were going un-appreciated. If PJ was here, I’m sure he’d say something about ‘grit’. I think that’s a pretty good word for describing (and praising) what we do! 🙂


    1. Hello, Yvette! I agree we use “talent” as a way to convey a compliment. I’ll note that after my daughter read this post, she told me that her art teacher hates it when people tell her “Oh, your students are so talented,” because she feels it takes away from what she’s done as an instructor to help her students, so there’s that angle as well. Teachers and students both apply “grit.” Yes, that’s a good word!


  8. The word talent is double-edged in that it implies having a particular skill without having laboured for it. Being very much of this world, I like a slogger, and I do believe there is great virtue in effort. In everything. In our competitive world it doesn’t seem like Nature vs Nurture cuts it – to be at the very top of your game you probably need both. As far as your daughter goes – you heart must be about to burst with joy, pride and gratitude for her self-discovery! Awesome.


    1. I am very proud, Joanna! And I love that you and Yvette have introduced the words “slog” and “slogger” into the mix; it’s a perfect word. When you listen to the Neil Gaiman address I linked to that my daughter likes so much, what comes across is how much slogging he did to get to where he is; in other words, to ensure that his talent could approach its potential.


  9. Gosh, I feel so out of place it seems like when I read all your posts Patrick. I’m not profound in writing and I’m just an artist who likes to put my ideas on canvas and write small blogs. None of which I have had any training. I am self taught and have been drawing and painting all my life. I’ve wanted to make it my passion for so long. Living life as a wife, mother, and working left not whole a lot of time for me to even get started on an art career. I had scholarships lined up for me and could have went to college. I feel for the first time in twenty six years that my life has opened up in so many ways now that I’m getting divorced. I’ve come along way in seven months. I have been called talented throughout the years and never really believed those words. I wish I would have had more confidence at that young tender age. But a whole new world has opened up and I see things differently now. And the writing whether I’m good or bad at it doesn’t matter. It’s my expression and if people see it and get a joy and understanding from it then that’s all I want. As I read thru your daughters ambitions I see a lot me at that age. I really hope she can persue her dreams thru the world she creates and not conformities of social limitations. That is what an artist is all about. Its nice that she has a support thru her father and I see your a proud papa. Congratulations.


    1. Hi Marla,

      I applaud you! There are few things I admire more than someone who makes their way to the path of an art-committed life. The push to pursue it often comes from life changes, as it appears yours has. And it matters not what level of formal “training” you received. Many of the artists I’ve interviewed were self-taught, while others received remarkable formal education. What I would say is that “self-taught” in and of itself only gets you so far; one “self-taught” artist I interviewed talked about going to museums and staring up close at paintings to learn brush strokes. Is that really self taught, or is he learning from the artist whose work he’s examining?

      I love hearing that you see a bit of my daughter in yourself from that age. I’m pretty confident she will continue to avoid the restrictions of society in developing her creative vision, and you should do the same!


  10. This is a fascinating discussion. I’d like to make note of the artist’s instinct.

    There is right work and there is wrong work. By doing the right work consistently, the artist can grow and further hone her instinct for what constitutes the right work.

    Your daughter seems to have that instinct, Patrick, as I imagine many of The Artist’s Road readers, with their thoughtful and erudite comments, do too. I don’t have much focused guidance for how to foster that instinct, but I think it can be done. Unfortunately, I also think it’s much easier to foster it at a young age, which I think is what leads to so many of our wunderkinds. Young minds are easier to mold (or corrupt).

    Porter’s right, 10,000 hours is overemphasized, and I discuss my own overemphasis of it on my blog. But I think there’s still something to be said for it. In their research on the “rule” (which they don’t call it, but many others do; I’m guilty of it), K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues emphasize that 10,000 hours in a field won’t make you world-class, or even an expert. Rather, it’s 10,000 hours of focused work, specifically designed to help you improve. You can’t just “put in your time.” If you aren’t improving, it doesn’t count. In the popular literature, that’s not often explained.

    The amount of time you spend at your work is less important than the work you do when you are working and that you do that work consistently. The researchers present 10,000 hours as a finding, but not their most important finding.

    If your daughter spent her time with her cheap camera taking goofy pictures of her friends, rather than learning about angles and frames, she wouldn’t have been ready to graduate to the more expensive camera. Sure she was taking pictures, but she wasn’t focused on how to make them great.

    Similarly, if I write for 8 hours a day without figuring out how to get the feedback and guidance I need to improve, I’m worse off than the person who writes for only 2 hours but is doing the right work. I don’t necessarily mean feedback directly from another person. We can mediate our learning via personal feedback mechanisms, too.

    Through feedback, guidance, and pursuit of the right work (assuming an average level of intelligence), I believe most people can grow an instinct that will assist them, if they work consistently, with becoming experts at their craft.

    One more thing: we’re not all talented, and we’re not all special. Perhaps we can get there, but many people haven’t put in the work yet. I think we can grow talent and that we don’t need to connote “talent” with “in-born.” Though, that’s how the dictionary defines it, so perhaps I should come up with a better explanation.


    1. Hi Corey,

      Thank you for this insightful comment. I particularly like the distinction you make between putting in the time and growing. The time is important–as we develop muscle memory in a creative activity, we can shift away from the fundamentals to the areas of growth–but the focus does have to be on growth.


  11. completelyinthedark

    Guess I’m less concerned about the “sender” of the “talented! gifted!” comment than the receiver. It’s easy to fall into complacency if all you hear is “you are so talented!” The best advice I ever received was from a screenwriters group I attended for many years. To veer away from overweening praise, the group had as one of its rules a cardinal one: “ALWAYS give feedback first with something positive and then with a thoughtful suggestion for improvement.” Worked like a charm. The recipient avoided shame and self-doubt and was able to improve their skill level.


    1. This is a great insight. Your screenwriter group approach is the one I use when teaching writing workshops, and the one my MFA program uses as well. On the larger picture, it is true that it can be easy to become complacent if you truly are gifted. I mentioned how much I admire LeBron James’ dedication to improvement despite his gifts. Shaquille O’Neal was a great center, one of the best. Many say he could have been even greater if he had worked to improve more. I agree that he could have been even better if he had wanted to be, but I also can’t say with any certainty that if I had been blessed with his talent that I might have coasted at times as well. He also had many interests off of the basketball court, and took time to pursue those as well, where he wasn’t the most talented individual. Bottom line, it’s good to not constantly hear only praise.


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  15. sammykristenlau

    James Nave (previous commenter to this post) couldn’t have said it better.

    I believe that talent is inborn competence while skill has to be worked on. Skills are more universal than talent, because everybody can hone their skills. Having talent is not the most universal, because some have it and some don’t (in different perspectives). To me, skills have more of a positive connotation because it represents more than just capability. It symbolizes dedication, discipline, and diligence. Don’t get me wrong: talent can be honed as well. I just feel that it doesn’t give as much hope to those who are considered “untalented” to do better.

    Your daughter is very admirable. I absolutely agree when she says: “… it takes away from what she’s done as an instructor to help her students” — referring to when people tell her teacher that her students are so talented. Your daughter is truly a great example.


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