Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Myth of Talent, Redux

Interesting comments on my post on Talent, including this post over at The Landscapist. Since I am snowbound, I thought I'd take a bit of time and try to respond to some of this directly.

Since Ed Richards comments seem to summarize the drift of the argument, I'll cite him here:
I disagree - you do not get to be Mozart or Rubens or Stravinsky or Feynman, or fill in the blank other great artists just by working hard. They did work hard - it is necessary but not sufficient. The theme of your last several posts has been to do the best you can do and be happy with what you can do. That is exactly right, because it is all you can do. Denying that talent matters is not necessary for this thesis, and I think it defeats your point - if talent does not matter, it must mean that someone is just not working hard enough when then cannot do great art.

It's not a secret that some people are more capable than others. That's evidently true; we see the evidence around us all the time. Have a bunch of people perform a task, and measure their performance, and their performance will fall roughly along a bell curve, and all that.

But if you want to persuade me that talent is important, it's not enough to list the people who fall in the 99.99999th percentile in their field, and say "These people are talented - without talent they would not be this good". That's working the causal connection backward - you've identified the top performers and then said "See? These people were talented, and they ended up at the top. If you don't have talent, well, you're just screwed." But if the talent myth was correct, you'd be able to take this year's kindergarten class in Seattle, WA, and identify the 'talented' kids, and then fifty years later, you'd observe a near 100% correlation between identifying a kid as 'talented' and their eventual place at the top of the spectrum of performance in their field. And you can't do that. Hell, college admissions staff at universities can't even do that prediction for something as simple as looking at 18 year olds and predicting which ones will graduate from college with good grades four years in the future.

Even worse, it's nearly impossible to evaluate early predictions of the careers of 'talented' artists, because when you go back and ask people about the artist's childhood, people don't want to say "What was Vladimir Ashkenazy like as a child? Well, to tell you the truth, I thought he was a no talent worthless kid who would never achieve anything."

And that's the problem. People make some initial effort at something, and they're not very good, and they conclude "I have no talent", and they quit. That's a failure, because as you've defined it, talent can only be identified it after a person's career is nearly complete. It's not a statistical predictor, it's a statistical observation. As a predictor, it's completely valueless.

And when people use it incorrectly as a predictor, they get discouraged, and they quit, and the world in general is less nice a place than it might have been had they persevered.


Blogger Paul Butzi said...

Ed Richards comments (via email):

I think are you reading the comments about talent from the wrong frame of reference. My concern about the notion of talent is that it does exist, and it does matter, but that individuals can do personally satisfying work even without talent. (Putting aside all of the issues of the continuum of talent.) I think every craft fair is a testament to satisfaction people can get from work that displays little talent.

Denying talent may give everyone hope of doing great work, but 10 years later it can leave them feeling that they have personally failed because, despite their hard work, they are still not producing great art. The aging track folks have the right notion in their idea of the personal best. While art is not a competition when it is for personal satisfaction, it is when you are comparing your work with the work of those you admire. It is a way to grow, but it can also be discouraging if believe that if you just worked harder, had the right equipment, ect., you could do great work.

5:24 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

I think that talent does exist as well, but I think what clouds the issue is that it does seem to be made into some kind of competition. Different people have different talents. Society may regard some talents as being more important that others, and some talents may be more lucrative to possess than others. It still takes different people with different abilities to make things work though.

Maybe my art does not look like the work of someone I admire, but maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it should look like my work. That might not mean fame and fortune, but maybe that doesn't matter.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To add another perspective on "talent", you might want to look at the following article from Wired Magazine: What Kind of a Genius are You?. In it, the author summarizes David Galenson's research, which postulates that there are (at least?) two kinds of geniuses.

The first kind, which I think is relevant to the idea of "talent" as a predictor of success, are the Picasso/Munch/Melville/Orson Welles geniuses who make a large conceptual leap early in their careers. These are the people who are easily identified as having talent.

Galenson's second kind of genius, however, is more easily recognized at the end of a long career. Think of Rodin/Gauguin/Mark Twain/Hitchcock. These people, he says, work long years and achieve profound success only after that period of work and refinement.

If I were to make sweeping generalizations, most of us are wrapped up in the idea of the first kind of genius/talent and don't think about the possibility of the second. Your point, shared by Orland and Bayles, is that for any given individual, the question of talent is largely irrelevant. Do the work and the work becomes its own reward. If we as artists don't make the early conceptual leap, we're often discouraged and conclude that we simply don't have the necessary talent. Galenson, at least, holds out the possibility of future success after years of hard work.

Disappointingly, most of us will not be geniuses of either kind. Are you driven enough to keep working at being an artist anyway?

Mark Hespenheide

10:12 AM  

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