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June 24
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The Myth of Talent

Tue Jun 24, 2014, 6:00 AM

The Myth of Talent

If there's one comment that is made more often than any other on any decent piece of artwork it's "you're so talented."

It's also the one [positively intended] comment I've seen the most artists bristle at, sometimes even retort. For some of us, it's a pet hate. Why?

We know it's meant as a compliment, so we smile and say thank you and try to resist the urge to insist that 'talent' is the biggest myth there is. Not only is it a myth, at its worst the use of the word is potentially destructive to the artistic community. 


What's so wrong with the word 'talent'?

You might not realise it, but calling someone talented can often feel like a backhanded compliment. No skilled artist woke up one day just being able to do what they can do. We were all born completely unable to do just about anything useful. But through daily practise we learned how to use our limbs for motility, our voices for words, and our hands for creativity.

When you praise an artists talent, you are ignoring all of that. You make out like their work is some innate gift that got magicked out of thin air. You boil down all their artistic achievements into a matter of being a lucky recipient. The artists ceases to be the agent of their own creation. 

The artist knows how much hard work they have put into a piece, how many years of practise and experience got them to the point of where they are. All the mistakes and feeling like you weren't getting anywhere, the lessons learned and the eventual breakthrough. All if that is discounted the moment we pretend artistic ability is a gift.

What's destructive about calling someone talented?

We have a really terrible habit for praising people for 'natural' abilities. This is something that extends beyond just art and into everything thing there is. You're good at something? Wow! You're so gifted! You're so smart, so athletic, so talented

Study after study after study has shown that praising someone's apparent innate ability to achieve something can be destructive to their development. Kids in particular, but it is true of any person in any stage of learning. 

People praised for being innately talented come to depend on this ability being innate. When they hit a hurdle, they are more likely to give up. They take it personally, they see it as being a failure of self: "I'm not smart/talented/good enough for this." Let's face it, it's an easy way out. Once you decide you're just naturally not meant to do a thing it's easy to stop trying.

Conversely, people praised for being hard workers understand that hitting a hurdle means jumping higher next time. They know they have to work harder, work longer, and that their next attempt will end in a different result. And as a result, they are able to reach greater heights because they push themselves to them

Countless scientific and social studies have demonstrated this effect. There are even more countless anecdotes of these experiences. Perhaps you have one of your own? Talk to anyone who, as a child, was constantly told they were gifted at something, only to give up on that thing when they could no longer sustain being accidentally gifted in adolescence. It's an enormous problem in school classrooms and is one of the many failures of our reward-based learning methodology. But it's also just as important in any learning environment, personal artistic learning included.

Why are the words I use on deviantART important?

We are a community that prides itself on fostering artistic growth. The best thing about dA is how readily we can help and be helped, teach as we are being taught, inspire as we are being inspired. To grow together as a community, we ought to provide the best learning environment possible. The language we use is a powerful tool that shapes not only our psyche, but how we learn as well. 

The next time you promote an artist in a feature, try substituting the word 'talented' with 'skilled'. When you fall in love with an art piece, praise the artist's hard work. Talk about their eye for detail, their choice of colour, their neat stitches, the perfect choice of shutter speed, their wonderful concept or their incredible realism. Try talking about all the extrinsic things about the piece, all the things they did to make that piece happen.

Not only will you probably make the artist feel better, but when you realise that the level of artistic brilliance you dream to achieve happens through something we can all control, you'll feel better about your own artistic journey too. 


Still don't believe talent has nothing to do with it? Check out these improvement memes. Now, to my knowledge none of the following artists received a visit from a fairy godmother who bestowed upon them to gift to art. They worked hard and nurtured their skill. The results speak for themselves. 

Improvement Meme by Ryo-Thae Craft this Again: Pizza by Bon-AppetEats
Doll Meme - Bjd Photography by lajvio Draw this again 3 by E-tane
Plush this again Meme by Bubble-Rhapsody Sparrow old and new by popChar
Before-After meme by K-wuet Majora's Mask redo by Halcreix Aries baby by RogerStork
Draw this owl again by EvelineVdp BJD Photography Meme by Aoi-kajin
elephant2 by BBarends Draw It Again by Artgerm

Always remember; practise makes progress!

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Sapphire-Stitch Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
I do think of talent when I see art that I admire. I then think to myself "They have worked with their talent to improve their art."

I have been told I'm talented in certain things on a number of occasions, and actually this has made me anxious -- anxious that I will do something that goes against this talent, for example, if I create a bad plush, which has happened in the last few days. I actually cried when my plush turned out poorly. I thought that I didn't have a talent and that I had nothing. But hell! I made another one and I love it. "Talent" does not mean you evade mistakes.

I think there has to be an element of talent in drawing and crafting -- but maybe I'm mistaking talent for deep interest. I mean, I am the only one in my family interested in writing and art, and thus the only one who produces work like that. My other family members are not able to produce plushies or anything much more than little simple sketches, but of course, I have had more practice because I am interested...

People have a natural interest, but natural talent -- I'm not sure.  I think people do need to have so e sort of innate ability in order to become good, but nobody (normal) starts off being "good".
Harrisons-Forge Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2014  Professional General Artist
I think the basic problem with any language is the fact that it needs to be used with absolute clarity and precision so as not to be misunderstood.......unfortunately this makes it very formal and stuffy and makes you sound like you digested a couple of lawyers for breakfast :D Language is also evolving constantly, words meanings change in subtle increments over time until they bear little resemblance to the original meaning.

Talent has always been seen as an innate ability, but as my Grandfather often stressed when I was growing up, 'If you don't use it, you lose it.' Raw talent often starts us off on our journey in life but cannot carry us all the way. Being told you are talented is a double edged sword and very much depends on your character as to whether you sit on your laurels or work that bit harder, so I don't think that either side of this argument is intrinsically is just that neither is 100% right ;)

Nurturing someones skills and talents is never an easy task...I have five children, all of whom need a different approach....and choice of language is very important. I know my children well and can vary my approach, but I don't always get it how can we expect to be understood with accuracy over the internet, where we know very little about the person at the other end, viewing our work and commenting on it. Common courtesy tends to pare things down to acceptable and non-acceptable phraseology and it often ends up sounding blase and insincere.....which is hardly ever the intention....normal rules of engagement are skewed by the internet and we often forget this.

Good draughtsmanship can be learned by almost anyone if they apply themselves thoroughly...but this is not necessarily good art. There is a beauty to an architectural blueprint which can be appreciated... but it wouldn't fetch millions at Sotheby's  in an art sale (unless it was really special).... I can paint a door perfectly in gloss paint...that doesn't make me Da Vinci....

The difference that talent makes is the ability to see and express things in a way which resonates which the people viewing the work...the ability to connect emotionally with another human being through the medium of your choice...and the ability to see things from a different perspective. As every human is unique and slightly different, so there is room for artists to be unique and different and for their talents, abilities, mental focus and opportunities to shape their work :)

I think it also very much depends on how well we take a complement....if you have had nasty life experiences, or lack confidence, your first thought may be, "OK. what are you trying to get out of me?", whereas a well balanced person who has had good fortune may think, "Wow. That was really nice of them to comment" Our reactions mirror our nature in many ways....

A thought provoking article. Thank you :)
Wishsayer Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you person for pointing this out! I need to show this to one of my friends in the non internet world, she's always bugging me about how I have so much talent and she has none.
thebluekraken Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Professional Artisan Crafter
i had a very skilled artist critique my work once when i was still doing doodles. he told me i clearly had a technical skill that was well honed but over all no real artistic talent.  that might seem like something harsh and mean but it made me rethink a lot of the things i had been doing and probably the only helpful compliment i ever got insted of being pat on the head the usual way. I stopped a lot of the things i had been doing and picked up some things i clearly didnt have 'talent' for. What's the harm in trying something new then? Maybe I will be better at that?

my next pet peve when people compliment me is along the same line as this whole post. "oh look at that i could never do that!" when they see my metal work. the hell you can't lady. That just an excuse and you putting yourself down. I say thanks anyways and smile even when i get self depriciating compliments or destructive ones cause its polite. i started out doing crappy brick stich bracelets and scanning images of my work on a flat bed scanner. awful. i did not take classes ive had no help. i dont have a big studio. only a 4 by 6 space and a ton of on line turotials.ive taught myself how to do everything from my own mistakes. i still dont have a magical talent. I am not imbued with anything special. What i did was learn and i still am every day and its not pulled from thin air.... I dont tell myself i cant do something these days. The only thing that holds me back these days is tools, space, and infinate resources. Not tallent 
blueartis Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2014  Professional Photographer
This is awesome. It's right on point and just opened my eyes to why I've struggled so much and gotten so frustrated with myself. Given up on things I loved and even miscomunicated my frustrations with others or even reciprocated the same destructive praise! 
 I read a lot of articles and tutorials, but I rarely have moments of deep self awareness, opening me up and leaving me standing on the edge of knowledge I know will change not only the way I treat, encourage and appreciate myself in my own endeavours but also those who inspire me as well as those I might inspire.

 Thank you. From the bottom of my heart thank you. <3
MikoHon3y3a3y Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Here's my entry  :>    Neko Emoji-27 (Being kawaii) [V2] 
Ink-and-think Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2014  Professional General Artist
Great post. I find the "you are very talented" thing just I dunno takes away from the effort I put unto things. The word talent makes things sound like some magical superhero power where as a successfully completed project is less about magic and much more about a great deal of practice, time, dedication, effort, stubbornness and often sacrifice. Its seems cheap to write that off as magic. 
KrisCynical Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
It drives me nuts when I say something — no matter WHAT the subject — that has a very straight forward meaning/interpretation but the person I said it to reads all kinds of garbage into it that wasn't there. Crazy. Ca-ray-zee. The word "talent" only translates to "writing off effort as magic" because you are MAKING it translate as such. :\

All of you are reading SO MUCH into a simple compliment while giving the person behind it SO LITTLE credit for common sense and basic intelligence. The vast majority of laymen who say "You're very talented!" mean "You're very talented!". They KNOW it takes effort and practice to be good at something or produce something worthy of compliment. It's a basic law of the universe.

Yes, there may be one oddball here or there who says "You're very talented!" but actually means "You shat this out of thin air with no effort at all!", but there's always one dentist out of five that doesn't recommend Trident gum, too.

And in both cases, everyone else wonders "Who the hell was that idiot?" :B
thebluekraken Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Professional Artisan Crafter
Ive never really read into the compliments i get but the ones that always bother me are the ones with an attached self depriciation. I hate it. "You are so tallented! I could neever do anything like this. i just have none" i hate hearing people put themselves down while complimenting me. its almost painful because some people feel that they have no worth when they dont have a 'talent'.. They think at an early age that some people are imbued with some special 'talent' thats much like a magical gift. They perceive they dont have one so they are not good enough to try to even learn and thats a sad place to be mentally.
laniessa Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
But on the other hand, that phrase is usually followed with an, "I wish I could draw like you." or an "I'll never be able to draw like you." Which suggests that they think the artist who draws well had that 'drawing attribute' from birth.

I understand that the other party usually has the best of intentions! So I just tell them that I'm flattered, but it could be a bit offensive to other artists, and then I'm on my way.
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