Talent and its discontents

A dictionary definition of “talent” is “natural aptitude or skill.” This may indeed be what the word means, but we don’t always use it quite that way. Often, it seems, we use it as a kind of placeholder term, standing in for whatever it is that would explain some performance, but which we can’t, or don’t care to, or again perhaps don’t want to, identify. Thus sometimes saying that someone is a talented musician, say, comes fairly close to saying that what accounts for this person’s excellent musicianship is something which it is in the context either impossible, unnecessary, undesirable, or otherwise irrelevant to specify.

This might make it sound as if referring to someone’s talent does not explain much, since “talent” understood as I just suggested is a “whatever-it-is-that” kind of term, which is unspecific. But “talent” used thus still rules out quite a bit. For instance, if (we say) one’s talent is responsible for her performance, then it was something about this person that is responsible for the performance, as opposed to sheer luck or some circumstances external to one in the sense of being outside of one’s intentional control. This secures the connection between talent and the praiseworthiness of the one who possesses it.

Furthermore, talent is in some sense opposed to training or other kinds of efforts, or in general anything that others could in principle execute without having the talent. Efforts and other imitable factors can explain a great deal, but sometimes we feel they do not quite completely explain some outstanding performance. Talent intimates some exceptional quality.

In these ways the concept of talent seems to be connected with that of genius (as developed in the Romantic tradition). We can’t (we feel) quite explain how Mozart could have produced such magnificent music in such a copious quantity. We don’t want to say it was largely by chance; it was his achievement. Nor do we want to say that if one were in relevantly similar circumstances, receiving similar exposure and completing similar training, one would have been just as good as he. So we say he was a genius, possessing this unknown thing we call “talent.”

Although, as I said, “talent” is a placeholder term, the concept it expresses can easily get hypostasized. Thus some people sometimes think of talent as (something like) a spooky magic seed innately implanted in some select population, endowing them with some exceptional ability in some specific domain, such as musical composition, cooking, chess, or cycling. Such hypostasization presents “talent” as if it designated some special kind of natural aptitude, obscuring the fact that it often functions really only as a placeholder term.

Conceiving talent in this way as a special kind of natural aptitude is problematical. To begin with, natural aptitudes, I believe, cannot be very specific, whereas talent is often thought of as talent for some specific activity. There certainly are such things as natural aptitudes, but these are very generic dispositions, more often merely indicating some indeterminate limits than endowing one with some specific exceptional ability. Thus one may be naturally apt (perhaps for some genetic reasons) generically for, say, activities that require sustained attention, but probably not specifically for, say, the craft of pottery.

Furthermore, it is questionable if any natural aptitude provides one with advantages so great that those who lack it cannot otherwise make up for it, say by training or imaginative exploitations of other potentialities. But this would have to be the case if talent, in the genius-oriented conception indicated above, were to be a kind of natural aptitude. For talent, on that conception, is supposed to be precisely what explains excellence that no amount of effort and circumstantial happenstance can account for.

To be sure, some natural aptitudes (or more often ineptitudes) due to one’s physical constitution may endow one with advantages or disadvantages no amount of effort or luck can realistically make up for. So for instance, if one is blind, then it would be all but impossible for one to be a basketball player. But it is noteworthy that natural aptitudes that are in this way obviously physical are seldom regarded as talents (when they are, they tend to be called “gifts”). Thus being naturally endowed with long and flexible fingers may be advantageous for keyboard playing, or robust lung capacity for singing, for instance, but few would call these talents. The reason, again, I suspect, has to do with the intimate connection between talent and the praiseworthiness of the one who possesses it.

These observations may, I think, serve to shed some light on the sense in which “I haven’t got the talent” is often a poor excuse. What one who says this is saying might amount to this: that the relevant shortcoming of one’s performance is due to one’s not being endowed with some innate and fairly specific ability; that one cannot be blamed for not having it, since one was never in the position to choose to have it; that one cannot make up for the lack of it by other means; that, therefore, one is not responsible for the shortcoming. These thoughts rest on a conception of talent that I have suggested is problematical, if not largely mistaken. Honesty would require that one regard “talent” as a placeholder term that it can really only be.

Now, I have often said, and still do often say, that I haven’t got the talent for this or that. If what I have been saying in this post is in the right direction, then, when I do make such appeals to my lack of talent, I reveal myself to be the lazy bastard I am. This is why it’s wrongheaded to try to convince me that, despite what I claim, I have got some talent. For I am not so much denying that I (naturally) possess this or that ability as trying (illicitly and cunningly) to excuse myself of failing and not trying to do better.

More recently, though, indeed because of the thoughts about the concept of talent I have tried to explain here, I am much more strongly inclined to say that I am hopeless rather than talentless. And lack of hope is altogether a different matter, I think, from lack of talent. But that’s a topic for another occasion.

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