Is Talent a Myth?

Whether we’re talking about an actor we admire or wondering if we’re qualified for that job we want, we talk a lot about “talent.” Are you talented? What’s your talent? HR people and recruiters even call people “talent.” Talent seems to define our skills and marketability, and if we feel like something doesn’t match our talents, we don’t pursue it. We might even say that we are simply “not talented.”

To quote Morpheus: What if I told you … that talent is a myth? “Talent” is an ambiguous word that connotes a certain innate quality. You have it, or you don’t. Coupled with the job search, auditions, or submissions to editors or gallery owners, “talent” becomes a proxy for our self-esteem. When we’re rejected, we tend to immediately feel untalented. Such is the nature of our paradoxical society, in which we encourage hard work yet yammer on about “talent” whenever possible.

Talent is nothing more than a combination of propensity and persistence. It’s not something that people simply have or don’t have. By acknowledging this, we can free ourselves from the problematic tendency to call ourselves “talented” or “untalented.”

Thinking of talent as this unequivocal asset also leads to problems in the workplace, argues Malcolm Gladwell. He notes that people are often promoted beyond their skill set because they seem like “top performers.” And you might imagine, this means that narcissistic workers and those who steal credit are more likely to be promoted. If you’ve ever had a boss who seemed completely inept yet thought of herself as amazing, you’re likely looking at the result of a system that favors “talent” over “ability.”

The problem with “talent” is that it implies that the person with “talent” needs to be favored for some elusive quality rather than their actual contributions. Their talent is considered to be their most valuable resource, rather than their current or potential skills. Experience and training are diminished or disregarded, while the force of someone’s personality or passion is treated as a guarantee that the person will succeed in the role.

And so, most people are not hired for their skills. They’re hired based on “fit” or some illusion of talent. That means that skilled people who aren’t as good at selling themselves are left behind. It’s not too dissimilar from the use of personality type tests to see if someone will “fit in.” People’s performance is what matters, not an arbitrary assessment that could vary by the day and context.

What would happen if we hired based on skills and experience rather than some elusive quality? More importantly, how differently would you think of yourself if you abandoned any notion of your talent, or lack thereof?

If you think you’re talented, imagine ways to describe yourself that don’t use that word.

“I am a talented writer.” This implies that you’re an excellent writer who’s naturally good at it. And so with each rejection letter, you might feel like your life is a lie. If you’re so good, why would they reject you? What if instead, you said:

“I am an experienced and skilled writer.” This describes two things: the amount of time you’ve put into your writing and the amount of training you’ve achieved. Here, you’ll feel more in control, and you’ll also set yourself up for further improvement. After all, talent can’t be “grown” — it’s either there or it isn’t. But experience can be gained and skills can be developed.

If you’re in a hiring position, looking for talent might have you looking in the wrong places. By focusing on skills and experience, you can get a better sense of a person’s potential. Hiring based on “fit” is the easy way out, yet can cause problems down the line. Do you really know someone during the interview? No. Can you learn to work with a different personality who has extraordinary skills? Yes.

Understanding that talent is a myth doesn’t mean abandoning all concepts of how good you are — or someone else is — at something. It’s a mindset change that can help you unlock your potential and better deal with rejection. It’s also a means of honoring someone’s achievements rather than how they sell themselves.

Remember: talent doesn’t give us the opportunity to describe potential, and that limits what we can achieve. Talent is an illusion. Skills and experience are what drive our motivation and our potential.

Originally published on Creative Juices, our Medium publication.

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