Friday, June 29, 2018

It's time to change how we talk about "talent."

One of the Great Divides between the creators and non-creators (or even hopeful creators) in my circles of friends right now is the concept of Talent. It's to a point where my creator friends share joke comics about it, which the rest of my friends then struggle to understand.

A point we lose in conversation a lot is the fact that there are many things we can't understand unless we experience them. And that's annoying. Whether it's a point of career, lifestyle, or general overall experience, we'd like people to believe us when we say "No, it doesn't work that way." We want our experiences to be validated, but we as people also want to be shown that we're "worth believing." So when something we say is discounted — actively or passively — it hurts.

That. Said.

When I look at people who don't create, whether it's because they don't have the time or drive or desire or because they don't believe they have the "talent," I genuinely can understand why they chalk up the result of a person's hard work to something innate rather than something practiced. Like, I get it. On a psychological level, on a personal level, all that.

But — and here's your big pill — creators aren't playing when they say it "isn't all about talent." It's just that we also have a slightly skewed idea of what "talent" actually is.

What is "talent"?

Before we do anything else, I want to give my fellow creators a big pill, too: talent is real, it's a thing, and it does indeed affect our creative output.

What "talent" is, though, is often mistaken. We think of the concept as some magic little spark that makes us good at a thing, that replaces or shortcuts education and effort. And while there are absolutely prodigies out there who seem to have a magic knack for what they do, "talent" as a whole is a lot less about creation and a lot more about observation.

If we go by the idea that talent is defined as "something inherent to a person that positively affects their output," then there are two aspects of a person that count: knack and personality. And it's those two things alone that boil down to what we could consider "talent" by a traditional definition.

A knack is just something you're good at because you are, with little to no purposeful training. For example, I type at 100wpm, which absolutely affects my output as a writer. I didn't train to type that fast... I just really liked typing games as a kid and inadvertently made myself hardcore. Artists or designers may have a knack for abstract spatial calculations, or maybe they're one of those peeps who scores super high on the color recognition test. Musicians may have perfect pitch. These are all things they didn't (knowingly) train up, but which allow them to skip steps in their process or refine what they do in a way that someone without that knack cannot.

And then there's personality, which affects how you do a thing. An artist who loves certain colors or settings or lighting effects will be more likely to integrate them into their work. A writer is likely to write stories that reflect how they talk or think or what genres they enjoy. These are all the injection of personal feeling and preference and practice into the work.

Are these both things that make a creative work better and unique? Yes. Are they things that are inherent to the creator? Also yes.

So why do creators get mad at being called "talented"?

Talent vs. Effort

Learning to do something well, be it art or music or writing or decorating cakes or whatever, requires effort and learning. And lots of it. A good writer who rarely writes will remain the same level of good for years, but a mediocre writer who writes daily and receives regular critique will improve measurably from year to year. Or even from month to month. A fast learner who can pick out a tune on a guitar after learning how frets work, but someone hopeless with instruments can still become good if they study and practice.

Talent (as discussed above, anyway) will definitely have an impact on that. If you can type quickly, you will have time to write more, thus you will improve faster. If you have a good memory, you won't always have to look up poses and will improve more quickly at art. These elements do have an effect on a creator's ability... but they do not make the creator what they are.

Being told you're "talented" isn't the issue in and of itself. We tend to understand that it's shorthand for "You are very good at this thing," and as a standalone it doesn't pass judgment on how the goodness at the thing was achieved. And admittedly, being told "Wow, I can tell how much time and effort you put into learning how to do this!" runs a risk of sounding either disingenuous or low-level catty. So I get it.

The issue comes when "You're so talented!" is paired with "I could never do that!" That's when it gets kind of hinky for a few reasons:

1. It's compliment by comparison, which is a bad habit to get into.
2. It redirects the conversation back to the speaker.
3. It's fallacious.

So, one by one:

Compliment by Comparison

Generally we think of these in terms of either a non-present party or a subset of people. "Oh, you're very good at this. Not like those other people." That's a nasty thing to do, and it's something I think fandom is slowly but surely realizing they need to get away from.

But compliment by comparison to yourself is still a bad habit. A self-own is still an own. And even if you're not secretly insulting a third party, you're inadvertently setting up the compliment as one half of a dichotomy. If a compliment is genuine, it shouldn't need a second variable. Even if that second variable is you. "You're good at this" should stand on its own.

Redirection of Conversation

This is likely something that's predominantly true for Americans; for other cultures, your mileage may vary. When Americans hear someone insult themselves, we're hard-wired to counter that. This is why self-effacing humor flies more with a British crowd, but results in awkwardness in US circles. At least in my experience.

So while the speaker may be thinking "I am paying the person a compliment by saying that they are above and beyond something I personally can conceive of doing," what they're risking doing is creating a feedback loop that pulls the discussion away from its original intent.

It's Just Plain Not True

This is actually the most important one. The other two are largely unintentional, conditional, and don't always even come into play.

So, first things first: I will never write like Robert Shearman or Paul Magrs. Rob has a tone that manages to flip macabre humor into sentiment when you're not paying attention, and Paul walks a line between fantastical realism and fairy tale that is easily recognizable from twenty paces. Those are things that are products of their personalities, their upbringing, their choice of reading, and their own taste. I will never write like them just as much as they will never write like each other.

But. Their levels of experience, qualification, and technical expertise are achievable. Because they, like any writer, put in the work. Any writer or artist or musician or anything can become a peer (in terms of skill, at least) of someone they admire, provided they have the commitment. They won't spin the same brand of stories or lay down the same brush strokes, sure. But from a purely technical level, anyone can achieve a level of prowess in anything they put their mind to.

Speaking personally, I do find "I could never do what you do" a little frustrating. Because my brain goes, "Yes. Yes, you could. If you wrote every day, if you wrote for multiple people in multiple formats, if you read every genre you could get your hands on, if you studied writing and form, you absolutely could." And it feels a little bit like the work that goes into improving and achieving gets forgotten when someone says that.

This is all bearing in mind that this is reading a whole lot into a few words. Absolutely. But even if that isn't the thought process that goes into saying those words, it is somewhat symptomatic of the confusion of innate talent with effort.

Fine, what do I say instead?

So yeah. With the rather garbage realization that I've just told you "Don't pay compliments in the manner to which you are accustomed," I am in a position where I really ought to tell you what would work instead.

The easiest way to pay a creator a compliment is to just tell them you like the thing. Just saying so straight up isn't empty or feeble or anything like that. Just saying "I really like this" or "Hey, this is good" or something that simple honestly is enough when it comes to paying a compliment. We're a ridiculous breed of people who decided to make our livings in a way that requires others to approve of us. So yeah, positive feedback without any decoration is truly enough.

If you want to make a comment concerning just how good you think the person is, try "I can tell you really put your heart into this" or something similar. An acknowledgment that we worked hard, and that what we created is the result of a lot more than just a randomized magical skill, means a lot.

A third option is to flip the script: instead of making statements, ask questions. Instead of saying "I wish I could draw like that," ask "Where did you learn to draw?" Instead of saying "I could never write a book," ask what inspired them to write about that subject. It doesn't have to be a big cerebral question. But avoiding saying what you can't do in favor of what they did do will not only be more genuine in the long run... it may just inspire you to try something of your own.

The short version of all this is that creators like having their effort acknowledged rather than being assumed to be born with something that allows them to magically create, "talent" is a thing but not at nearly the level we assume, and creating works of art or fiction is not something reserved for a special few born with certain skill sets. And when we change how we talk to and about creators, we can start to not only appreciate what really goes into creating, we can potentially open the door for more creatively-minded people who won't pick something up because they aren't already good at it.

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