It’s Not About Talent: The Hidden Damage of a Casual Compliment

Talent-blog

Social media is a fascinating lab for creative people.

At any time of the day or night, we can put work out, see how it’s received, make adjustments, and resubmit the next iteration. There’s never a deadline to enter, and the pool of judges is (nearly) unlimited. Feedback is helpful. But sometimes what surprises me more than the critiques is the way compliments are framed.

Take this classic one: “You’re so talented!” Or its well-meant derivative, “I really admire your talent.”

When I hear compliments like this, something withers inside my soul. The words are kindly meant, of course, but they sting more than the harshest criticism or the most stunning denunciation. Mostly because they entirely miss the point.

Talent has nothing at all to do with creative outcome. At best, it’s a tiny fraction of the factors. With all we now know about how creative achievement happens, I’m actually shocked people still use this term, as if it’s some sort of birthright or secret mark of favor for the privileged few.

I don’t deny that people are born with aptitudes for drawing or classical piano or any one of a million other skills. But the point here is that those things are skills—and while the genetic lottery might give you a predisposition for that particular activity that inclines you to spend the untold hours needed to master it, you’ve still got to put in those hours.

Genes are amazing little things. But they don’t write symphonies, win marathons, or finish the novel in the back closet.

The creative products and performances we admire are far more the result of skill, discipline and perseverance than they are the talent (or insanity?) that might have prompted someone to undertake them. Which makes the compliment “You’re so talented!” really more of an insult, no matter how kindly it is uttered.

Talent means absolutely nothing. It’s what you do with talent that matters.

Talent-2

By complimenting someone’s talent alone, we deny the sacrifices they make good on talent’s fledgling gifts. We leave unwrapped the true gift they have given us—their most precious possessions of time and attention—in favor of gawking at a tinsel-y bow on the outside.

Now, I realize the comments in question are kindly and sincerely meant. No one thinks wittingly that they’re trampling on someone else’s soul when they use the word, “talent.” But that doesn’t mean the words don’t do a bit of damage.

In fact, I’d argue that complimenting someone on a random gift from the universe is even more damaging for the one giving the compliment than the one receiving it. It reinforces the belief that without the bestowment of talent, one cannot hope to succeed at a profession, a hobby or anything in between.

I often wonder if that’s exactly what happened to the compliment-giver.

One day, long ago, they picked up a pencil and couldn’t draw like Da Vinci. That meant that forever afterward they sighed over Instagram photos from fabulous artists—people who get up every morning and draw for hours before their fan base has even had coffee—believing that these artists somehow “got lucky” with a magical sprinkle of talent they received from their ancestors.

The reality is, the person mired in a fixed-talent mindset could have been an amazing artist in his or her own right. But s/he has not put in the work to become as good as the person s/he stands in awe of. And it may be true that predisposition does not incline him/her that direction. But that is entirely beside the point.

As the saying goes, “The master has failed more times than the student has even tried.”

Put this way, we come face to face with the fact that the world really is not divided into the haves and have-nots of talent. It’s divided into the dos and do-nots of commitment.

Of course, this does not mean everyone who compliments another’s work has to go out and commit years  to developing the same skill. It simply means that if you’re going to compliment someone, please compliment them on what really matters: their devotion to craft. Their hours of effort. The years of toil that went into the final performance or product you now get to enjoy.

Thank them for working past their thousand personal insecurities and through a thousand more nights of failure. Because these are the real gift they offer us.

Talent is nothing. It’s what we do with talent that matters.

Thanks for noticing.

8 thoughts on “It’s Not About Talent: The Hidden Damage of a Casual Compliment

  1. This reminded me of a similar thing I heard recently to do with raising children and self-esteem. If you praise them for what they do then they will learn to focus on trying and doing things. If you praise them for who they are – whether saying they’re smart, pretty, or whatever – then they will focus on whether they are a particular thing, which is much harder to measure and control, and not half as good for self-esteem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew, that’s a great point. I can say from personal experience that being often told I was “smart” and “talented” as a child led me to believe as a young adult that that would carry me through — when in reality LOTS of people are smart and talented, and it’s what we do with the smarts/talent that matters. It was a hard wake-up call, and one that a language shift on the part of the adults in my life might have helped to shape. Not that anyone meant harm by their comments, of course. Thanks for sharing this great insight!

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    • Jon, great point! The longer I live and work, the more convinced I’m becoming that perceiving accomplishment (and the drive to get it, as you wisely added) as a passive possession (or random bestowment) is one of the single most destructive forces in personal growth. The more of this “passivist” thinking we weed out of ourselves, the better!

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