Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Innate Talent Question: Thus Spake Überdouche

Well, the Talent Wars have flared up again. The fight over how much “talent” is a factor in a person’s writing ability almost invariably gets ugly. And, if you scratch the surface, it’s pretty easy to see why.

I try not to be a complete asshole when interacting with people, whether on the internet or standing in line at the airport. It’s usually not all that hard. When this issue comes up, though, I have to consciously restrain myself. If we were in a bar, there would be a fight. This argument flat out pisses me off.

There’s a legitimate reason this pisses me off, and it goes beyond the standard, frustrating internet discourse loop:

Opinion –> Counter Opinion, with supporting evidence –> Opinion stated more strongly –> I’m not making this up, here’s a journal article with metadata –> Opinion stated angrily –> Look, there’s no reason to get angry –> Name calling.

On this issue, it’s all I can do to stop from being the angry, name calling part of that equation. This is unlike most internet shitstorms — I couldn’t give a fuck whether you outline or not, as long as you don’t state inaccurate facts or tell other people they are doing it wrong. On this issue, I am personally invested in the very real impact of the discourse itself. Not because I lay awake at night questioning my own talents (I sleep just fine, not giving a damn whether I have any talent). But there are some kids (which I mean literally, high school aged) who I coach and mentor and care about, who do worry about that kind of shit. Often, kids with emotional issues (way beyond the issues we all have at that age) and family situations that are dicey as shit. Not uncommonly, having spent a lifetime being told they’re worthless pieces of shit.

Nobody else will ever be able to convince them they are wonderful, not worthless. They have to decide that for themselves. And I’ve seen it happen – almost miraculously, and well over half the time. A bit of encouragement leads to a shred of success that leads to increased interest that results in a bit more success, more work/practice, more success, until the kid finally looks around and thinks “Holy shit, I’m one of the best people in the state, region, or country at something. I’m GOOD at this.”

Want to make sure that kid stays down? Tell her at the outset that whether she can be good at something is determined by some cosmic special sauce she either was or wasn’t born with. Because if there’s anything the parents, school system, sometime even the foster care and or juvenile justice system have taught a lot of these kids, it’s that they were filled with useless shit when everyone else was getting special sauce. They’ve never had success at anything, so that seems true. Why bother?

The hardest thing to get those kids to do is realize that they can control outcomes. That they can use dedication and learned skills — even their own horrific experiences — to compensate for other kids’ supportive backgrounds, loving parents, and douchey prep school blazers. I can think of no better way to keep a kid like that down than to tell her “it’s not up to you, it just depends on whether you got sprinkled with magic faery dust when your were born.” Or wherever the fuck “talent” is supposed to come from.

There’s another, less horrible, but almost laughably arrogant, statement implied in that as well. Let’s see, you’re a member of a writing community and are working on a novel and/or have completed other novels. You believe that only certain people have been graced by the cosmos with a limited-edition gift that gives them a (quite literally) God-given right to be better writers than lesser humans who merely work hard to learn and hone their craft. Gee, any chance you think you fit into that category of cosmically blessed, divinely graced, faerie-dust sprinkled literary Übermensch?

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Yea, you can go fuck yourself about that. I’ll take a kid who was told she was mentally retarded for the first nine years of her life. The kid who was on so many medications, she was basically stoned from kindergarten through middle school. Straighten that kid’s meds out, give her a decent work ethic, and I’ll take her over you and your “talent” every fucking day.  Überdouche.

So, is talent a factor?

Meh. Maybe, at the extreme top levels of performance. As is so often the case with these things, the real answer is: Who gives a fuck? There could be some brain chemistry going on that would separate the Nobel-level writers from, say, Vonnegut. Maybe even separating Vonnegut from Elmore Leonard. The latter being such a nuts-and-bolts writer, coming up through the magazine then pulp/genre writing career path, that I doubt he’d attribute his success (or even the brilliance of some of his writing, which, at times, is brilliant) to any kind of cosmic special sauce. I know scores of people who actually write better than Dan Brown, though he does a good job of coming up with a story. The same is true of Stephanie Meyer. If “talent” is really a thing that results in great writing, I wouldn’t say either of them got much. But they both came up with great stories to tell that people wanted to read. Which is what makes them gazillionaire writers.

There are a lot of factors, and how each plays into a given person’s success is going to vary. An encouraging childhood with a lot of practice is not an option for a kid with illiterate and abusive parents, so that kid’s level of interest will have to be far greater to land her even close to the same place. But, one way or the other, some cocktail of several issues is going to be at play:

  • Practice — Whatever you want to call it. Dedication, hard work, the willingness to study and improve, writing a million words or for ten thousand hours or whatever.
  • Interest level — Someone obsessed with a subject at age five is probably going to be one of the world’s leading experts on that thing if she remains obsessed until she’s 50.
  • Childhood and adolescent environment – this, more than anything, is what I think gets mislabeled as “talent.” There are also mountains of data on this, since we standardize test the hell out of kids. Is there a single factor that will heavily influence how well kids do on the English portion of the SAT, ACT, or any of the elementary basic skills tests? Hells yes — their parents’ median income. That predicts the outcome on standardized tests so well, we could probably save ourselves a lot of time and money and just score kids based on their parents’ W-2s.  In a trial to calculate the damages (lost future earnings) of a child who was killed or permanently impaired, trial economists on both sides rely primarily on one consideration. The parents’ education levels. Not their income, jobs, criminal histories, color, whether they’re married or divorced, or anything else. The parent’s education level correlates to future earnings even more than the kids own grades and test scores. That’s how much childhood environment eventually plays out (statistically) in your future.
  • Opportunity/luck — right place/right time, or whatever you want to call it. I have an accountant friend who was assigned Microsoft as a client at his first job at an accounting firm (because Microsoft was a ten employee company and did not have a full time accountant yet). A friend from college was a limo driver in Vegas with an idea for a TV show about Crime Scene Investigation units, who lucked into a chance to pitch his idea to Jerry Bruckheimer. In big and little/good and bad ways, I don’t think this can be ignored as a factor.

Those are all things that happen before you get to the idea that someone is somehow predestined to be wonderful at something or imbued by God or Zeus or whoever with some magical gift. Since syntaptic connections in our brains are ridiculously flexible during the first 5 years of life, I think a lot of what we are calling “innate” is anything but. I don’t have a special debate gene, but I have a ten-year-old daughter whose favorite weekend activity is going with me to judge debate rounds, which she’s been doing since she was four. If Joyce Carol Oats was extremely close to her father and he was a Volleyball coach/former captain of the Olympic Volleyball Team, you think she’d have won the National Book Award for Them, or do you think she’d be one of the great women’s volleyball coaches of all time?

  • Talent? Meh. Fine. There is probably some ideal combination of chemical and environmental factors that would make someone who worked at least as hard as someone else, and who had at least as much exposure and support, and who had at least as much luck marginally better. To some people, anyway. Since writing is subjective, the differences are bound to cut both ways with some readers. So, even then, it’s going to be a matter of opinion whether that “talent” thing went with writer A or writer B. Which shows how unbelievably stupid the whole argument is in the first place.

The Bottom Line

1)      Tell a kid who appears to suck at everything she does when she’s 14 (because she sucks at everything she does when she’s 14) that she needs cosmic special sauce to be good at something, I may well punch you in the throat.

2)      If you want to walk around believing you have been imbued by the cosmos with special writing sauce, go for it. But it’s probably best to keep that a secret. By which I mean, we don’t really want to hear about it. Like you probably don’t want to hear how much of a douche I think you are.

3)      When someone shows me a writer who has diligently worked to hone her craft for ten years who cannot rise to the literary level of Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (I’m talking literary level, not commercial success), I’ll worry about talent. Until then, I am going to keep reading, writing, and reading.

Brief update to add a new source:

Just tagging this on, because researching my next post (the impact of the type of music you listen to on tasks like editing), I ran across another article basically debunking the “talent” myth. It’s from American Psychologist, and is available free, courtesy of M.I.T.:

http://web.mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/expertise.pdf

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8 thoughts on “The Innate Talent Question: Thus Spake Überdouche

  1. Linda on said:

    Happy to learn that you coach and mentor kids. I’m guessing you’re good at it. Also, I’ve learned I can stop asking at my local liquor store where they keep the “cosmic special sauce” and just stick with my martinis and read and write and learn.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I like to think I’m good at helping them — I sure get a lot out of it.

    As for special sauce, I have noticed I think I’m quite brilliant after a couple of scotches. Quite hansome, too 🙂

  3. leandrajwallace on said:

    I love your drive to stand up for your kids. If their parents can’t do right by them, it’s good to know you are. And you’re right that they don’t need to hear more of this sort of stuff. Determination and hard work will get you where you want to be- not some lucky star that determines you’re ‘special’.

  4. Nadja on said:

    Great post. I think that “talent” can help one along, but it is no substitute for really working your arse off. One can be sopping with talent and sit on one’s laurels and never accomplish much of anything. For me, the joy is in the progress and development of one’s craft, and that takes work.

    It’s like drawing…in Victorian times, kids were taught to draw and watercolor from nature, and many became quite good and carried sketchbooks and journals around. Not everyone turned out to be a great artist, but one can learn to draw, just as one can develop powers of observation, a vocabulary, an understanding of what makes a good story.

    And in my opinion, just as lousy as telling a kid he can’t do shit all throughout his childhood is the opposite: parents who cripple their kids with meaningless praise all the time, thinking that it’s good for their self esteem. Does a six year old really need to be given a high-five for going down a slide, or told that every ridiculous scribble he does is great? Self esteem built on that sort of foundation crumbles pretty quickly out in the real world. I generally give constructive criticism, but if I tell one of my 6 kids that something he did is really great, he knows I mean it, and that it is something that would stand up to comparison among his peers.

  5. That’s a fantastic point. “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” is one of the most accurate adages I’ve ever heard. And just telling someone that what he or she does is great all the time isn’t going to help anyone get better at anything.

  6. Terry Rodgers on said:

    Nice rant. I love it. But you still can’t see my w2.

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