When I taught high school art I can’t begin to tell you the number of parents who came to me, worried their kid just “didn’t have the talent,” so how would they possibly perform well in my art class? And this is just one space where we see cultural norms and expectations around art playing out. So I have a question for you:
Do you think art requires more skill or talent?
Hi, my name is Carrie and here on Artist Strong I help artists build their skill and develop their unique voice. Today we are talking about why talent is so overrated.
First off, let’s clearly define both terms so we can be sure we are on the same page in this often triggering discussion.
What is talent?
Talent is the idea that we are born with innate abilities in certain disciplines. In the extreme, it’s the idea that our genetics determine what will be good at later in life. The term talent is often used to describe people in the arts, such as actors, musicians, and visual artists. It is also used to describe professional athletes.
What is skill?
Skill is the amount of technique and knowledge we have around a topic, and our ability to apply that information to the practice of said topic. So for example, a tennis athlete who is skilled knows the different ways to hold and hit with a racket, how to move on the court, in addition to the rules of the game. They may even study the approaches of other tennis players to see if they can pick up new skills to work with.
Okay, so now we know the difference between talent and skill. So why does this conversation come up SO much in this community? In fact, one of my most read articles is all about IS art a skill or a talent?
Well, let’s think about this for a minute. Which do you feel more in control over when it comes to talent or skill? Which do you feel any sense of agency or ability to change?
The answer to this question is exactly why I spend so much time with this conversation.
I’ve met hundreds of people at this point in my life who immediately respond, “I’ve never been good at art,” after asking me what I do for a living. As soon as they hear my answer art and art teacher I get all kinds of stories about childhood teachers or adult figures telling them they will never be good at art.
If you’ve been actively told you won’t be good at something, how hard do you try? If you think you are working with all you’ve been given, and that’s all you can do, why would you keep trying?
Our society sets us up to believe the arts are more talent based than skill based. And when I have this conversation with people so many people frame it around opinion. Carrie, what is your opinion on this? But I’m here to tell you today: this isn’t my opinion. This is research-based fact. Understanding your skill, and your willingness to put in time and hard work to improve it, is what determines how good you will become at art.
Malcolm Gladwell made famous the idea of the 10,000 hour rule: that if we put in 10,000 hours we will be one of the best in our disciplines. Well, did you know this idea actually is from the research of Dr. Anders Ericsson?
Ericsson found specifically in the case of violin players 10,000 hours seemed to be an important factor in their level of skill and perceived talent. But this was not the same for every discipline. Other fields of play could require more or less.
The takeaway was that real committed practice is what sets the best of the best apart.
The good news is he spent 30 years following so-called experts in assorted fields and found a shared formula used by all of them to develop their skill in order to reach their level of competence. It’s a formula we all can use. Because it doesn’t have to be about wanting to be the best, it’s a formula about being better at whatever you care about. Full stop.
Think about WHY this can be so triggering for people too. All our lives we are told you either “have it,” or “you don’t.” Well, if “you don’t” have the talent, then you are free from responsibility. It’s not your fault you aren’t any good at art. You just don’t have the genes. So it’s best to spend your time elsewhere.
But think about what it means if you do have a choice. If your commitment to your art determines your level of skill, well, then, there is a whole lot more personal responsibility and pressure on you. We can’t blame anyone else. And that’s a pretty scary and vulnerable place to be.
I’ve received angry emails in response to statements like this. People who say, “I never had an art class but I’m good at art.” Ericsson’s research is quick to point out you don’t have to have specific classes. You might have parents who encourage strong observational skills because they are scientists, or even opthamologists! Or perhaps someone important to you complimented an artwork you created. This plants a seed of interest, motivation and inspiration so you start showing up for your art. That’s an amazing gift. It’s that planted seed that helped you blossom into the wonderful artist you now are.
Here’s the thing. This knowledge is a good thing. If you aren’t as good at art as you want to be, but you also know you don’t want to practice, study, and put in the time to learn, then don’t. That’s totally okay. And if you know you want to put in the time, now you know that time WILL pay off. Go for it!
There is power in knowing the truth, because you get to decide what you want. And it’s not your genes that make you special. The odds of you being born at all is about 1 in 4 trillion. The fact that you are here, you hold these interests and skills, and work hard to use them, that is what makes you special. Because there are countless humans out there who have an interest, display some skill, and choose to do nothing with it.
If I had listened to countless teachers, comments from family and friends, my art would never have reached new levels of skill and understanding, which it has ever since I really embraced my love of art as a middle school aged student. I was never the best art student in my class, and all of my counselors and teachers did little to encourage my future or career in the arts because they assumed it wasn’t my thing.
Today I’ve had several people, even in this community, comment on how talented I am when looking at my recent work. I’m here to tell you, I’ve always had an interest and love in art (which maybe is god-given or genetic) but it’s taken decades of hard work and continual art-making to reach my current skill level.
Some people may come to this faster than others, and maybe the ease by which some people learn new information and are able to apply it, well this may be something related to the idea of talent. But for far too long, we’ve let the idea of talent take the steering wheel.
Bottom line in today’s conversation: we live in a culture that celebrates the idea of talent.
Our society and media seek out and celebrate the unicorns, outliers who achieve at the highest levels in their disciplines. They are made to seem like they’ve been given a gift and often the idea of effort and their time put into practice to get where they are currently is totally dismissed.
But I’m here to say I’m tired of this paradigm. I’m tired of celebrating only the few. What about us everyday artists who have something to say too?
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I hope today’s conversation gets you considering your own mindset and beliefs around skill and talent. And if you were one of those people told you just “don’t got it” but love making art, I’m here today to tell you: you do. You have exactly what it takes to improve your skill and make the art your heart calls you to create.
I even outline the specific formula or strategy to help you improve your skills that Ericsson shares in his research inside my free mini course calls Drawing Drills. Improve your skill in 7 days! You deserve it. Sign up with the link below this video.
Now it’s your turn:
what internalized beliefs or ideas do you have around skill or talent? How do you think it’s impacted your art? Tell me more in the comments below and I’ll see you in the comments. Thank you for watching and I’ll see you next time here on Artist Strong.