Usually when I say that, people get all upset and offended and say “what about Mozart”?
What about him? Was Mozart a genius? A natural talent? Who knows, but if your Dad was a pretty good composer, and everyone in your family played music, and the house was full of it, and that same Dad made you a scale violin when you were 3 years old … well, hell, you might be a brilliant musician too. You might not, but you might. You don’t know though, do you? Because who of us have had those extraordinary advantages?
And that’s not to say Mozart shouldn’t have had those advantages, but it is to say that the words ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ imply he’d have created that work anyway. And actually, I doubt it. Some careers really benefit from early learning, and music is definitely one of them.
Aside then, from the Mozart genius or not question, what’s wrong with the idea of talent? And why do people mind when I say I don’t believe in it? Well, the thing I think is wrong with it, is that it suggests that only some people can make good, only some people can be extraordinary – and that kind of lets the rest of us off the hook of providing good, all-round education and care for everyone, doesn’t it? If we decide that those few brilliant ‘talented’ people will rise to the top – regardless, because they have ‘talent’ (like the old stereotype of the amazing boy boxer from the ghetto, overcoming all against the odds) – then we don’t have to make any effort taking care of EVERYONE, because ‘talent will out’ anyway.
The problem is, I don’t think it will. I think incredible, astonishing people are regularly failing to give their all to the world because we’re not giving them a chance. I’m pretty sure we’d find the cure for most of our awful diseases, not to mention the problems of global warming, if we truly offered full education to the Third World, creating a couple of hundred thousand more potential research scientists in the process. I’m absolutely certain we could pick up a few Mozarts if we were making more scale-size violins and handing them out in our inner cities – along with brilliant teachers. We’d probably get some good writers too, if we weren’t sending our children away from school, functionally illiterate at the age of fifteen. In Britain.
So why do people mind when I say I don’t believe in talent? Usually it comes up when I’m teaching a writing group, or maybe working with theatre people. Usually I see crestfallen or furious faces staring back at me in horror. And I think it’s because people want to believe they are ‘talented’ – we all really really want to be special. Which is fair enough. I know I do too. But I’d far rather feel I was ‘special’ because I’ve tried very hard to make the most of the single factor that immediately singled me out for good fortune from the day I was born – ie, being born in the West to my (not wealthy, not tertiary educated, not privileged in any way) parents. Which had absolutely nothing to do with me. Just the luck of the draw that I was born in a place and time that gave a fairly adequate standard of free education and parents that encouraged me to use it. (Not least because they hadn’t had that good fortune themselves.)
So I’m not talented and you’re not talented. No one is talented. And if no-ONE is special – then that makes it much more likely, that actually, we all are. And ‘all’ we need to do is share it round a bit more fairly, and see what great gains we give ourselves. The other, splendid thing about this of course, is that if there is no ‘talent’, then we (not everyone, no, not with the world poverty we live beside on a daily basis, but pretty much anyone with the ability to read this blog) are free to make of ourselves what we will. Which takes us neatly back to self-discipline and getting on with it and doing the work …