The Myth of Natural Born Talent

#SFWAPRO

I saw a conversation on Twitter recently about a writer “starting from nothing” and it got me thinking. There’s a fairly prevalent myth regarding not just writers, but nearly everyone in the creative arts. Hell, if we’re being honest about it, it extends into most aspects of life. This myth (and it is a myth) is that some people are just born artists, or singers, or mechanics, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

“She’s always had a gift for math.”

“He was drawing the most amazing things by five.”

“She was always helping with car repairs.”

“They were always making people laugh.”

It’s true some people have a natural aptitude: i.e. their brains are wired in such a way that they grasp some concepts quickly. However, this doesn’t mean someone is born with a best-selling novel in their tiny hands (thankfully for mothers everywhere), or a paint brush, or singing Ave Maria. Well maybe the last one, but it just comes across as crying. I don’t know any writer, musician, artist, or the like who never had to work at their art. Make no mistake, while some people might have a natural advantage, damn near anything you can imagine is a skill developed over time. Let’s take a common go to when the topic of geniuses come up.

A common misconception about Mozart is that he was born a gifted musician for whom music came as natural as breathing. The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Amadeus’s father was a music teacher and composer; more successful at the former than the latter. Amadeus sat in on his older sister’s lessons at age three and developed an interest in music. His father began teaching Amadeus, and by four, the child was playing the piano. The story goes that he was composing original music by five, but there is some debate about how true this is. His father stopped composing at the same time his son started, and most of the handwriting of the music was his father’s. Additionally, his father made money from his children, touting them as prodigies and having them play in front of the well to do of Europe.

This is not to say Amadeus wasn’t brilliant, but he also spent literal years learning his craft. It’s been shown that young children learn much quicker than adults, by necessity. Consider for a moment just how much kids learn in just the first few years of life: motor skills, language (sometimes more than one), social interaction, spatial awareness, and a whole long list of other things. We’ve all heard how young Olympians are when they start training. A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost. If your friend in high school who was an amazing sketch artist started drawing when they were six, is it any wonder that ten years later they’re pretty freaking good? Could it be that if you start something early enough (while the brain is still developing) that a natural aptitude is created? Regardless of how, some people are just better at somethings, but how is that different than all the other advantages people have over each other (better schools, food security, support and encouragement, a stable home life)?

When I was very young, five or six I think, my brother (nine years older) had an open house at his high school. This would’ve been the early eighties and Apple computers were just beginning to show up. While my mother talked with my brother’s teachers, I found a computer, booted it up, loaded a game, and set to playing. For anyone unfamiliar with the Apple II, let me assure you this wasn’t a herculean feat. Maybe I had some natural aptitude with computers, but more likely I got lucky. However, this event got the attention of my mother and the teacher. As such, I got branded a computer genius at an early age. When most kids were getting Atari 2600s, Colecovisions, or the like, I got a commodore Vic-20 (yes, I’m old, I’ve come to terms with it). When I complained that I couldn’t play many games on it (it had a cartridge slot and cassette tape input, but few options) I was told I could make my own games. So I did. I’ve used the Vic-20, the Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, Wang (the computer, I was a kid you perve!), several Tandy models, and eventually windows and Apple computers (including the early Macintosh). I remember hearing about Cray supercomputers and losing my mind.

After working with computers for almost forty years (we’ve established that I’m old) I can be functional in a program or system in a few days, and be showing others better ways to use them in a couple weeks. This isn’t to brag. I’m not a genius, I’ve just spent a lot of years developing this skill.

I’ve also been writing, at varying levels of seriousness, for just about as long. That skill however wasn’t born from the encouragement and support of my above example. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s wasn’t the brutal hellscape some grow up in, but it left its mark. I lived in near constant fear and amid near constant conflict. Like many families in that situation, we projected the appearance of normalcy. Most of my friends knew things weren’t great for me, but only a few knew the whole truth. I grew up believing that maintaining this illusion was of the utmost importance. This meant lying, a lot. My instinct to “keep the peace” at any cost took a long time to overcome. I have a feeling more than a few of you reading this know what I’m talking about.

But a useful aspect of this skill is that it translates well into storytelling, both writing and acting. I wrote my first stories in either kindergarten or first grade, I’m not sure which. I don’t imagine they were terribly inventive, but my teacher would read them to the class at story time. I don’t remember those instances in detail, but I remember how amazing they felt. I wrote poetry through junior high and high school. Yes, most of it was terrible and will never see the light of day, but some of it was good enough to win contests. When I got into college, I started taking writing more seriously. It took me ten years to finish my first novel, but only three months to finish the second. That second, The Stolen, would be my first published novel.

I’m a bit of a rarity among the published authors I know in that I don’t have a sizeable stack of novels (finished or not) in the proverbial drawer. Before The Stolen was published, I’d only worked on two novels, and only finished one (the other won’t ever be finished because, well, it’s crap). I don’t think this is because I’m some literary genius or naturally gifted writer. Rather than writing more novels, I took one (guess which) and started working with freelance editors to improve it. That’s when I learned that coming up with a story, and telling it well, were two different skill sets. I’d gotten pretty good at the first, but had no idea how to do the second. I learned a LOT from those early editors, and even more from my editor at Harper. In the years since, I’ve learned even more and continue to improve my craft. I hope I’ll continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.

I know this has been a long post, and thanks to those of you who made it all the way through, but it has all been prelude to a simple idea. Anyone can learn the skills to become a writer (or nearly anything else) at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since you were five, or you didn’t start until you were in your sixties.I don’t know for sure why we assign an almost magical air to people who are exceptionally successful or talented in a given field. Maybe it’s because it makes it easier to dismiss our dreams (or worse, the dreams of others).

“You’ll never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma.”

It’s worth noting here that he started on the cello at four-and-a-half.

It’s true you might not be the next Amadeus Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Johnny Cash, or Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean that if you put in the time effort, that you can’t ever be amazing at something. It might take you longer that some, or less than others. It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will just plain suck, but you can do it.

And don’t try to be the next anything, or berate yourself because you won’t be. We already have one. Work to be the first you. That’s something we don’t have, and no one else can do it.

12 thoughts on “The Myth of Natural Born Talent

  1. Well, as one who grew up, moving from time to time, have had several jobs and mini-careers, and have come to know many students, I have seen talents in many students, some who were clearly born with “gifts”. Yes, we can work on areas we would like to improve upon, but for some, it just comes naturally. Though I didn’t have it much as a kid, I have learned to understand better, and with this, comes “seeing” in others what is not in everyone to the same degree. And that’s okay. I’m glad we are all different. Makes for an interesting world with people sharing ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that some people have natural aptitudes, and some people learn faster than others, and some people have natural advantages in some things, Michael Phelps joints and reduced lactic acid generation as an example. That being said, I’m dubious of born with it type geniuses, and if they do exist, I think they’re exceedingly rare. We are also in complete agreement about it being a better world because of all our differences. Really, the point of this post was to address anyone who thinks they can’t be good/successful at something because they weren’t born with the gift. I think anyone can learn anything, though some might have to work harder than others, but it can be done.
      Thanks for commenting! I really appreciate when someone takes the time to share their thoughts. 🙂

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      • Yes, I agree with you. Education, training, and determination along with opportunity have much to say regarding whether someone succeeds in his or her field of choice. That’s why, as a teacher, I never stop believing in my students. Some share their wish to become pro-athletes, write, or pursue other lofty goals, and I always explain they can do anything they want. But I also explain the competition will allow for few to rise to such levels, but that it’s up to them and their determination.

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  2. Great post! It reminds me of the book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. He argues that it takes 10000 hours of deliberate hard work to become successful in any field. I don’t know if this is true, but I do agree that anyone can learn anything if he or she works hard enough.

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  3. I believe you about the writing part of it. But what about the idea/story that you’re writing? Getting the idea, & fleshing it out: that’s where the real magic seems to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how it looks that way, but like all magic (in this world anyway) a lot of work and planning goes into it. Can’t speak for anyone else, but my story ideas usually start simple and slowly grow and develop. My first book started as a very different short story, very typical werewolves versus vampires. But and editor I hired told me to ditch it and focus on the faerie aspect, to trust myself enough to not pull from over played tropes. After that, the story usually starts with a simple idea. The Forgotten was just the idea of a girl using quantum mechanics to do magic. I ended up having to cut more than 30k words from the first draft. The Returned started as the idea of bodies coming back to the morgue for a second time. My fantasy western (not published yet) was imagining the old west duals with wizards instead of cowboys using wands that looked like guns but shot spells.
      Basically, start with an idea. Then start branching out, think about all that needs to happen for that idea to be supported. The more you build, the more of the story develops. At least that’s how I do it. Most importantly, do give up. Keep at it. You’re the only person who decides you’ve failed, and that’s when you give up. 🙂

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  4. I have several writer friends who are stuck in ‘noodling around’ mode because (from my perspective), they place too much emphasis on the genius-fallacy. They’re invariably the people who breezed through lower education without having to work hard, and that has left them now wondering if they ‘have what it takes’ to be a published/successful/whatever author because they don’t feel like they have enough raw talent/genius.

    I recognize them because for a long time I was them. It took me years to learn that persistence and a willingness to do the work is also a talent, and it’s one that these particular bright kids often didn’t have to develop because they could skate by on quick wits and bullshitting alone. I’ve tried to tell them that (almost) nobody succeeds on talent alone, and that the thing that most ‘successful’ writers have in common is that they’re good at persistence, but this almost never works. It’s hard to escape the allure of being ‘the bright kid’.

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    • You’re right, and I’ve seen it myself. I had a cousin (he passed) who was much older than me, and he was an absolute genius who seemed able to pick up anything without much effort. When he got to MIT, he realized he never learned how to study because he never had to, but now he needed to. He ended up dropping out, though he did end up going back and finishing. I don’t know if it’s not being persistent or willing to do the work, or if it’s just not sure how to handle something that doesn’t come easy. Might be I’m also splitting hairs.
      I will say that bullshitting developed as a skill can be quite useful! haha I speak from experience. You are right though, very, very, very, very few people ever succeed on talent alone. I’d even argue that more people succeed only on luck than those who success only on talent.
      At least in writing (I can’t speak to other creative areas) I find the willingness to work isn’t as common as giving up. Sometimes it’s because it’s hard, but the process itself can grind you down and eat up any hope you manage to scrape together. I know for me, I relied on spite to get me through those dark times when I’d lost hope and saw no point in going on. For me, it became more of “screw you, I’m going to do it just because you say I can’t!”. It might not be the healthiest way to go, but it worked for me. I think there is something to your point though that those branded as “bright kids” or “gifted” or what have you might be confused by something that is harder than they thought it would be, or that their best wasn’t good enough (yet). Some of those kids will double down their efforts and push through, others will toss it aside and move on to other things and declare it impossible. Now as I write this though, I imagine privilege has a lot to do with that as well. I was one of those gifted kids, but I had a father who excelled at keeping my self esteem and confidence are near zero. For me, I assumed I’d fail at everything so why bother. That’s probably why spite worked for me.
      There are certainly people more predisposed to be willing to put in the time and effort, but it’s also something you can learn over time. The benefit, as cliche as it might be, is that the success on the other side of all that work is all the sweeter. Of course like everything I’ve said, it’s all my opinion and I very well could have my head up my ass. haha
      Thanks for posting! I’m always grateful when people make a post into a discussion.

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  5. I have a couple of friends who wanted to become writers, and one finally broke through, selling his novel, but that’s where I think he decided book writing wasn’t for him. Both of them had book ideas, but they put their apples in one crate. I think of Anne McCauffrey (Spell?) who had always been writing since little. I think she must have written hundreds if not thousands of stories. She may not have started with more talent, but maybe she did, but the work is ultimately what led to her success. Myself, I spent a couple of years on a book, and finally had an agent recommend changes which might result in a contract. It was then, after other rejections, that it was just a hobby and not something I would wish to spend a career on. So, I found another career I had talent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, writing isn’t for everyone. Some people write one book and are content, others (like myself) want to keep writing forever. It’s worth noting though that the overwhelming majority of authors also have a “day job” because their writing won’t pay the bills. Some people consider it a hobby if you have another full time job, but I still think of it as my career. I understand the decision you made, the rejection process is tough, and you really have to want it to push through it. There’s certainly no shame in deciding it isn’t for you. If you don’t love it, it’s all that much harder. I hope you’re enjoying the career path you choose. Even so, you finished a book and got an agent. That’s no nothing and something you feel proud of.

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