Talent and Discipline

There’s a graphic that has been making its way around Facebook. It looks like this:

I’ve been thinking about it, even looking up the man who is credited with saying that talent is cheap: Andre Dubus. (His name doesn’t seem to be spelled with an accent anywhere but in the graphic, although that’s the French spelling. Having read that he’s a former marine who received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and passed up lucrative novel deals because he wanted to devote himself to the short story, and that he was a friend of Vonnegut and Updike, I rather doubt that he used an accent. He doesn’t seem the type.)

And I’ve been wondering if it’s right. I’m not so sure it is. I’m not so sure talent really is cheap. If it were, we could all be anything we wanted to. I could, with enough discipline, become a talented gymnast or musician, for example. But that’s not the way it works. If you’ve raised a child, you know that children are good at some things and not good at others. Intellectually, my daughter is ahead of her peers, particularly in terms of her verbal ability. She’s also physically uncoordinated, the way I was at her age. Neither of us is particularly good at sports. No, let me be more specific: there are certain sports I could be good at. I’m good at sports that require grace: downhill skiing, anything involving dance. I’m not good at sports that require spatial skills, anything involving a ball. Even gymnastics. I could get better at them, I’m sure. But do I have talent? No, I don’t.

Talent is what, initially, allows us to do things untaught or self-taught. Later, it allows us to make the most of the training we receive, to move more quickly and benefit more from a training regimen. I’ve seen people with talent. I’ve seen them sit down at a piano and play something after having heard it once. Or sit down at a table and draw something, knowing before they set pen to paper where each line is going to go. Talent is something we envy, because it makes the difficult seem easy. And talent is something that has gotten a bad rap lately, I think because it seems undemocratic. The idea that talent is cheap, and that discipline is what’s important, seems more American somehow. We want to believe that we could all become great at whatever we chose, if we dedicated ourselves sufficiently. But I don’t think that’s true.

I do think that we all have different talents. Perhaps that is my own egalitarianism: I think we all have something we are called to do. Some people answer the call, some don’t. I’ve seen people with significant musical talent go into the business world, where that talent went undeveloped and was used only to entertain during family gatherings. Is there anything wrong with that? Well, to be honest, I actually think there is. But whether or not we develop our talents is our individual choice. That is where discipline comes in. It takes a great deal of discipline to become truly good at anything. But I think in the end, to be truly good (much less to be great), you need the interplay of talent and discipline.

I wish I had a good definition of talent. I’m trying to think of what it is exactly, because I do think I have one (remember, so does everyone else: a talent or talents). Perhaps it’s a capacity to get inside something, to see it from the inside rather than the outside. For a musician, it’s an instinctive sense of how music works. For a writer, it’s an instinctive sense of how words fit together, how they make sense and the different kinds of sense they can make. It’s the way my eight-year-old daughter, told that a painting is Op Art, immediately asks if the word comes from “optics.” It’s the way I can feel dance moves in my body, as I can’t feel the moves in basketball — but I know there are people who can.

Don’t get me wrong: discipline is at least half the battle. But talent is not cheap. If only it were!

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11 thoughts on “Talent and Discipline

  1. Yes. I also think it takes some courage to say this, because it does seem undemocratic. Yet it is true.

  2. Thank you for saying this. I completely agree with you. I’ve read all the books about discipline and hours-put-in being key; talent being overrated; etc. And I agreed with them. But then I became witness to a sport in which it was clear that hard work did really help, but inherent talent incontrovertibly was the reason some people did better than others. Not only are they naturally good at the sport, but their talent motivates them in practice, because they have more successes. It means they take more risks and extend themselves. It also means they are more confident, and so the mistakes they make are smarter, and they aren’t scared of mistakes, and therefore are better able to learn from them. I see the same thing with writers. But of course you’re right, its not egalitarian to say so.

  3. Belief in talent will get you into some trouble in higher education, particularly in the arts, where the measure of the teacher, like it or not, is how your few very best students fare after graduation If you set a pace so that a student must have both talent and discipline to get an A, the great bulk of students will have to work very hard to pass (and your failure rate will cause you to have little heart to heart chats with the chair about how small your major is and what tiny graduation numbers it has, and with the dean about the importance of retention.

    I’ve seen more than a few colleagues, faced with needing to protect a soft job (and faculty in the arts is a soft job if you want it to be), persuade themselves not only that it’s all discipline with no component of talent, but that discipline also cannot be taught (only rewarded). It is remarkable, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, how hard an idea can be to understand for people whose salary depends on not understanding it.

    Nevertheless, there is talent. Much more of it, probably, than we see, but far less of it, certainly, than universal.

  4. I think you’re right in a sense. Someone with real talent can go twice as far with half the effort. Maybe ten times as far with half the effort. On the other hand, someone who really puts in the effort can do incredible things even without much talent.

    Of course, in really competitive fields—principle dancers, major league ball players, concert musicians—we only see the people with both talent and discipline. But in other fields, and I think writing may be one, there’s a lot of room at the top. Discipline alone isn’t enough, and neither is talent, but a modicum one is probably enough, if you’ve got plenty of the other.

  5. I do think that people have an aptitude. I was taught this in my education courses — multiple intelligences we like to call them. And we talk about kinesthetic intelligence, musical, spatial, social. And like any gifts if they are left, they rust. I do think it’s a mixture of both diligence and talent that makes someone rise above the rest.

    • I love this. A new word to look up. It led to proprioception, from
      Latin proprius, “individual.” In my search I discovered: Theory of
      Multiple Intelligence and “Language skills are typically highly developed in those whose base intelligence in musical.”
      Eureka. A close writer friend and I deplore the tin ear of some writers, and love those whose use of language is….Musical! All
      my favorite writers, Isak, Tillie Olsen, Diana Wynne-Jones, Peter
      Beagle, a treasure trove of others, Irish James Stephens’ “Crock of Gold.” And, of course, Theodora Goss.

  6. I’m not sure. I think that some initial ability gets people tracked. The child who’s a good dancer or musician ate age six will get much more training than the person who isn’t. The natural athlete at age nine is going to get a lot more playing time, and by the time they turn ten, they will have much more training than the people they left behind. Thus, training and discipline tend to be forced upon the people with the most talent and small advantages in initial ability are, over time, turned into large discrepancies. In writing, I think there’s such a thing as talent, but most people who have it never get anywhere (because they quit), and many people without much initial ability do manage to get pretty far and become pretty good.

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