Stop Using the T-word!
Updated: Apr 14
There's a word I've heard all my life, probably since a time I don't remember (when I supposedly figured out by ear how to play the melody of a hymn when I was 3 years old). It's always been used as one of the first adjectives when people meet me. Even now, it's the first thing many people think to use when offering me a compliment!
If you're a musician with any level of success, you've probably heard it. If you're a student making progress, you've probably heard it. If you're not a musician but know one, you've probably used it. You almost certainly meant it as a compliment. And your intentions are always appreciated. You admire what a musician (or athlete, artist, author, dancer, or other performer) has just done. You want to extol your praise, and the first thing that comes out is a certain word, a certain adjective.
I'd like to convince you if I can that this word needs to be one that we drop, if not completely, at least to move further down your choices when talking to a musician or talking about a musician. That word is...
Your granddaughter does a great job on her recital, and you tell her, "you're so talented!" I play well in a performance, and hear the same thing. It's a default for many people, almost like looking at a sunset and saying "beautiful" or tasting the homemade cake and saying "delicious". However, the sunset can't reply with gratitude and neither can the cake, although the baker of the cake might offer thanks for your reply because almost certainly they were hoping it actually would be "delicious". However, the word "talented" has two big problems.
It praises natural ability while demeaning effort.
When you praise someone's performance by calling them talented, you are doing at least one or more of the following things:
You are first and foremost complimenting their natural ability.
You are ignoring the effort they spent in preparing for the performance.
You are placing a higher value on things coming easy rather than triumph through hard work.
What is talent anyway, and what is it actually good for?
Talent is some combination of physical or mental attributes that allow a skill to seem easy. And for some things, it really does matter. After watching my first Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when I was 13, I was convinced that I could work my way to looking like him. By the time I was 15 with a prematurely injured back, I had already realized that I didn't have the body type to have muscles respond to the certain type of training. I would love to run faster than a 6 minute mile, but I don't have either the leg length or twitchy muscles that this requires. I always wanted to slam dunk a basketball, but no amount of effort ever got me taller than 5' 8".
Finally, I would love to be able to play all of the chords as written from composers like Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, but my hand size will never be larger than what it is, so I'm one of many pianists who needs creative solutions.
But what would have happened if Schwarzenegger lifted weights for a year or two and gave up? Michael Jordan was cut from his school basketball team one year and didn't get a starting job the next? What if he said it wasn't worth it and gave up? What if the 4-minute mile runner would rather just swim and doesn't actually like running?
So, there's another reason that I had no chance to ever look like Arnold, actually a whole bunch of them.
For 2 years, I was disciplined to work 4-6 days a week for 30 minutes a day. Arnold was always doing 6 for a couple of hours per day.
I gave up after 2 years after my first setback of any kind. He didn't.
I practiced on my own and occasionally used my dad as a spotter. Arnold was surrounded by mentors.
My financial investment was weight sets found at a thrift store. Arnold's financial investment gave him what's known as skin in the game.
Finally, and it has to be said, I was never willing to partake of the, um, performance-enhancing nutrition that Arnold used.
Michael Jordan is well-documented for just how HARD and LONG he practiced. And Kobe Bryant would do the Lakers team practices and then stay and shoot nothing but free throws until he had successfully made 1,000 for the day. They're all talented by the definition of the word, but how many of you are willing to practice hard for 3 hours and then take the time and patience to sink 1,000 free throws multiple days per week for nearly 2 decades?
When I play a Chopin piece well, and someone tells me how talented I am, I wish I could let them hear what it sounded like when I could only play it at 1/6 the tempo while trying to figure out fingerings. I wish I could show them my moments of having to shush my lingering doubts. And I wish the relatives of students could understand the value of practice.
I could never be like Mike, or like Arnold. But even with the immeasurable lack of talent I had for basketball or bodybuilding, I could have gotten a mentor or two, committed to daily work for multiple years, and am confident I would be very good at either one - albeit on less than a world class level.
Before we're done, I'm going to say one more thing about what talent is actually good for, but first let's talk about the other reason that using the term for praise is bad.
Those who embrace being "talented" are being set up to fail.
Anybody who is genuinely talented at what they do will find it easy in the beginning, but what happens in the following situations: when they finally get to a piece or a skill that doesn't come easy? when they encounter other musicians or people of their skill who have progressed further?
Because I was "SOOO talented" for years, I didn't understand why I HAD to practice. I hated practice until I was in my last couple of years of college, and never genuinely loved it until I began to teach. I started taking lessons just before I turned 6, but I find myself teaching 11 year olds who practice the same level of music I was learning when I was 16. As a child or an adolescent, I hated adversity. I hated the STRUGGLE of learning something hard. It was a lovely hit of dopamine to just have someone call me "talented" with genuine enthusiasm, because then I could rest on that no matter what. I wasn't preparing myself to be a good pianist on a much faster timetable because I was resting on some adjective.
My story is actually good, because I DID learn to practice and value having a challenge. But what about the student who is always told how talented they are who finally reaches a level when things get challenging, and quits lessons within a year? I've seen it happen many times.
What talent is ACTUALLY good for?
Talent gives you a head start. It just means that you're not struggling to get the basic concepts and may pick up some things on your own that others require being shown how to do, but nearly everyone hits a wall at some point. At that point, talent no longer becomes a virtue. If a person with talent starts learning their skill at a young age, develops a fondness for challenges, commits to practice every day and doesn't quit for at least 10 years...they will probably become elite!
A talented person who skips days of practicing and doesn't embrace the challenge will soon find themselves WAY behind the level of "ordinary" students who simply had determination and commitment.
A New Script: What to say instead of "You're so talented!"
"Wow! You must have put in a lot of work to play that well"
"Congratulations! I know you earned such a great performance!"
"Wow! You've come such a long way! Keep up the great work!"
Yes, you should praise the effort rather than the skill. If you want to cultivate greatness, here's one more crucial thing. Genuinely praise the EFFORT even if the RESULT wasn't good. At the same time, work with the student or have the teacher work on making the results better, but the right way of doing things won't always lead to the desired outcome, but it's a process that will get you there far more often than not.
Recommended book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
Listen to the podcast version of this blog post here.