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Talent vs. practice; grace vs. work

June 3, 2016
Man playing guitar in nature: is he talented or just a hard worker?

Man playing guitar in nature: is he talented or just a hard worker?

In my drafts, I have an essay that has been collecting dust. This essay is my way of trying to wrap my mind around the concept of grace from a Christian spiritual perspective — but more importantly, I’m trying to understand the interplay of grace and works, especially since it seems like that is one area where Mormons feel they’ve gotten a major improvement over Christianity (and yet non-LDS Christians feel that Mormons have gone horribly astray).

The catch: I have tried to talk about it from a secular perspective. Maybe that very effort is doomed from the beginning, but I can’t really say I grok a lot of the God-talk, and so there we have it.

Still, as I mentioned, the essay has been collecting dust. Part of that is because I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it figured out. Maybe that’s fundamental.

However, recently I was listening to a podcast by some YouTube musicians (specializing in covers of video game music, as is my niche). This episode was on the myth of talent. While the entire episode is only 18 minutes (blessedly shorter than some other podcasts I could point to), I think some of the major relevant comments start 14 minutes in on the discussion about “child prodigies” vs. hard work.

For those who don’t want to listen, I’ll summarize the basic contention here:

Many artists/musicians/creative folks of various stripes really dislike being praised for their talent or being recognized as prodigies, because these compliments minimize the hard work that they have invested.

When a person says something like, “I could never have done what you do!” this implies that there is some unbridgeable divide between people. And while this may in some sense be the case, to many artists, this statement is wrong. Anyone who dedicated as much time to practicing as they had could have done that. It’s just that most people don’t practice, and observers watching the final results don’t see the years of practice that were invested to get to that point.

Is talent a myth?

Because of how prevalent the belief is that great works can only be created as a result of sheer inborn talent, I understand why creators of art would like to shift to the other side and emphasize the value of hard work.


I feel like there is still room for recognizing talent.

What is talent?

I think that when people refer to talent, they are referring to a gift (which is why the two words often go together: being talented is often called being gifted. When I was in school, that was a program called “GT” — Gifted and Talented.) What is a gift? A gift is something freely given to someone. A gift is not earned and may not even really be deserved.

How does that apply here?

I think it’s true that most artists practice and work a lot. However, there’s always the case of the person who never had formal training who seems to intuitive grasp certain creative concepts. That’s talent.

I think that’s probably an extreme form of talent though. I’d say we can classify more things as talent.

Let’s take a self-taught artist. The self-taught artist may remark to themselves that they have spent hours of practice, so that’s no mere intuition.

Yet, would it be fair to say that there is no talent involved at all there?

I’d say there is still talent involved here — the ability to self-teach is itself a talent. It is not something everyone has. It is not something earned. It is not something one can necessarily “deserve”. One may have it (to some level, for any given domain of knowledge or ability) or one may not.

It’s also not a binary. Let’s take someone who practices, but who grasps a concept within 100 hours. Let’s compare someone who practices, but who grasps the concept within 1 hour. Both of these are manifestations of talent, but we’d colloquially say that, all things equal, the person who grasped the concept in 1 hour has more talent.

Whether it’s the ability to grasp something in 1 hour or 100, though, that’s not something the person earned. What differentiates the person who can learn something in 1 hour, vs the person who can learn it in 100, vs requiring yet more time or not ever being able to figure it out? Well, we can’t just say it’s how hard they work, because we’re talking about a potential that existed *before* they put in the work. And I certainly can’t say that some people deserve to grasp things more quickly than others. It would seem random to me.

And yet, whether someone learns in 1 hour or 100, they do have to spend that one hour or those one hundred.

The relationship between talent and work

The above paragraph can give us a sneak preview into the concept that talent and gifts may require work. In this above case, both people needed to do some work. One person needed to practice one hour, but another needed to practice 100. Both could say that their talents were dormant until they acted upon them.

I’d say that this is something I failed to realize when I was younger. My band director told me that I had talent and then recommended that I receive private lessons. At the time, I felt insulted — were they just telling me I had talent to soften the blow of telling me that I needed to take lessons?

I ended up not taking any lessons.

Now, I realize that talent is capacity that must be refined. For them to tell me that I had talent and would benefit from private lessons was a recognition of my capacity and a desire to see it used properly. They saw how far I could go with direction and guidance.

I think that it’s probably true that someone with a particular talent who does not practice and exercise that talent will eventually be eclipsed by someone without a particular talent who does diligently exercise. But whoa! If a person with talent has directed, disciplined practice! What a force that would be.

In this way, talent and work are not either/or, but in fact, even if talent is unearned and undeserved, we have a responsibility to gifts like these — a responsibility attitude to gifts is to nurture and to cultivate those gifts.

Maybe that’s similar to the way grace and works should be seen. Grace is the free gift — we didn’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. We can’t earn our grace. Nothing we do can ever quite get there.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s OK or appropriate to do anything we want with something, just because it was free. Gratitude demands a particular response — it demands that we use our graces in a particular way, celebrating, cultivating, etc.,

How  coincidental is it that the parable of the talents (though it ultimately describes measurements of money) is so apt at describing modern gifts of talents:

14 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Haha, hopefully we won’t be thrown into outer darkness though.


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  1. Agellius permalink

    I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to talent and practice. And you’re spot on that it’s analogous to faith and salvation: This is a grace, but those who receive it do have an obligation to nurture it and help it grow, and also to spread it around so that it’s multiplied. The same concept is expressed in the parable of the sower in which Jesus says, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Mt. 13:23.)

  2. Camille permalink

    Basically it’s both, not either/or, according to some modern theologians. I refer you to Hugh Nibley’s interesting essay, “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free.” In other words, Grace is a free gift, but we accept God’s Grace through acts of good works. That may be an oversimplification, but it works for me, although I am no longer Mormon.

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