A friend asked me the other day: “What’s more important to artistic success? Talent, judgment, or perseverance?” Frankly, I found the question one of those argumentative things that people say to each other when they’re drinking together and can’t think of anything more interesting to talk about. But it’s been niggling at me nevertheless.
Although my friend’s nonfiction has been published, he had decided to quit writing (both fiction and nonfiction) because after several years of hard work and rewrites, his novel, (either the second or the third unpublished manuscript depending on how you count things) though agented, has yet to find a publisher. His fiction would never get published, he said, because he just wasn’t talented enough as a writer, regardless of how hard he worked at it. I disagreed with him, and suggested that while he waited for his agent to find a publisher, he start something new. At one point in our discussion he said that if a less talented person could catch up through hard work alone with someone who had a genuine gift for their art form, it would mean anybody could sing like Frank Sinatra or could play golf as well as Tiger Woods if they practiced hard enough. “Some people can just do things that others simply cannot,” my friend announced. “Hard work alone can’t make up for a lack of talent at something, at least at the highest level.”
There’s an appealing superficial obviousness to this observation, but I don’t buy it. I work with writers and musicians every day; I see the “talent” in my 11 year old son and I know for that talent to mean something, the hard work he chooses to put in daily into playing the violin and mastering soccer, and the pride of achievement he feels when he performs both well and is recognized for it.
The observation that some people can do some things others can’t do is obvious, on the surface. I remember when I first quit music 20 years ago. I did it for a number of reasons, but the principal one was because I heard great players, friends, and realized I was in awe of things they did because it would never have occurred to me to do them, as a player. My friend told me he decided to quit writing because of that story, which I’d told him casually over lunch a couple of years ago. But he wasn’t paying attention to the fact that when time allows, I’ve been practicing playing jazz quite hard over the last couple of years, and it feels a little like I’ve come home. It’s familiar, but it’s not the same as it was.
My friend’s view of talent as some magic gift assumes that being the best singer, or the best pitcher is synonymous in some ways with destiny. But it’s truer to say that some people have, for example, innately better hand-eye coordination than others. But so what? It’s why we can get into beer soaked arguments about who’s the better ball player, Derek Jeter or Ty Cobb. It’s all just so subjective. What is true, is that every artist or performer has the responsibility to develop and refine a uniqueness of vision that makes them special, regardless of whether or not others appreciate that vision.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study done in the 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson (Dept. of Psychology, Florida State Univ.) on music students. In true British tabloid press fashion, Gladwell overbroadly concluded from the report that elite musicians averaged 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able only practiced 4,000 hours. It was the hard work that did it, was the message. But this conclusion was disputed as simplistic by Ericsson in a letter to the NY Times.
Ericsson’s letter made a better, subtler point though:
Our paper found that the attained level of expert music performance of students at an international level music academy showed a positive correlation with the number of solitary practice hours accumulated in their careers and the gradual improvement due to goal-directed deliberate practice.
In other words, the most accomplished students had focused on mastering technical skills designed to improve performance and express their creativity; they had developed skills using external rewards, such as pay, or concert performances as motivation; and participated in any kind of practice that explored their various skills and was inherently enjoyable, like playing with other people. In other words, whether it’s painting a picture, writing and editing your own work, playing a musical instrument, or getting better at soccer, according to Ericsson it’s not talent, nor even endurance of long hours put into mastering your craft that counts, but the consistency and specifics of what you practice that is so important. It’s also true that at some point fairly early on, true craftsmen and women usually fall in love with practicing to the point where they want to do it every day. The process becomes a kind of meditation in a way.
If my friend was right, then according to his theory, in Ericsson’s study the rare “super talented” should have risen to the elite level with less effort than their peers. No one did. In fact, the data showed a direct correlation between hours of correct practice, and achievement. Wise journeyman study wins out, it seems.
An example of all this can be glimpsed in the sad story of the (fairly unknown) brilliant jazz guitarist Billy Bean, who in the 1950s could play the guitar pretty much the way Charlie Parker played the alto sax. Bean was consumed by the demon of alcoholism to the point that he gave up early on a career in music that would have likely matched Wes Montgomery’s or Joe Pass’s if you follow these things. For the non-musical it’s a bit like Picasso deciding he’d rather drink than paint. So what good does talent do for you under those circumstances? That said, I know Billy Bean worked very hard at mastering his instrument when he was young, but he famously told a friend in retrospect of those early recordings, “Oh, I was just goofing off” and reportedly never liked any of them. But that is belied by one interesting kitchen recording he made of a rehearsal for an upcoming record date, when halfway through a tune he makes a mistake. What we hear, preserved for all time, is the genuine belly laughter of a likely sober young man delightedly doing the thing he loved to do most and best in the world, even when it doesn’t work out quite how he wanted it to.
The best definition of talent I ever came across was by the iconic jazz drummer Art Blakey, an equally great spotter and incubator of talented young jazz musicians. He said talent is the speed with which someone learns something. This instantly resonated with me. It’s the least elitist approach to talent, and the one that most emphasizes the need to do the work, rather than just rely on a “magical” ability that one is born with. Because the truth is, we are all born with skill sets buried in our DNA, whether it’s walking, running, singing, storytelling. I know more talented people who pissed it all away the moment things got tough creatively, than you can shake a stick at; you have to be willing and determined to work at the RIGHT stuff technically in order to progress, and some people pick up on that a lot faster than others, and some find it easier than others and progress faster as a result. But it’s all about a willingness to do the work.
Implied in my friend’s question is another that sets my teeth on edge — what do we mean by “success”? Financial success and fame require of the artist an overtly commercial sensibility that may appeal to the masses e.g., Justin Bieber, or Lady Gaga, but artistically in terms of talent are they really comparable to, say, Frank Sinatra or Rene Fleming or Aretha Franklin in their prime? Does it matter? And is that commercial sensibility i.e., a talent to sometimes cynically read what others want in harmless entertainment and give it to them, sometimes pandering to the bottom line at the expense of all else? Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making lots of money, God-knows, as a performing artist or sportsman or woman of some sort. It’s how you do it that matters.
I say pander, because art should not be just about money, and thus aimed at offending the least number of people. Relevance is important as well. Art is often intellectually and emotionally challenging and spiky, not comforting and soporific, because it often attempts to ask interesting questions and make us think differently about the world around us. It’s thus likely to have a small audience at first, which will hopefully grow over time. We hope that we can help others see the world differently, be it a world of wonder, or a world of fear, or something in between. We hope they will ultimately enjoy the work, and look to see if there is more by us. Once in a while something will catch unexpectedly, and a new phenom is born from base clay but you can’t really plan for that.
Artistic success, that is, true admiration from one’s peers, is hard won and not often bestowed on the popular (though there are obvious exceptions). Charlie Parker, for example, considered one of the great jazz musicians of all time, was not hugely popular among audiences at the time. Louis Armstrong had to completely reinvent himself. But their art has remained relevant over time, a great test of good art.
In the end, talent is about discovering who you are, and what you want to say. It is, what it is, nothing more or less. So the true point is for you not to worry about whether or not you’re talented enough to “make it” but instead, to work to find out what you have to say that is unique, important, and said with the most grace and energy you can muster. After that, it’s in the lap of the gods whether or not others connect with it, regardless of your raw talent, or of the effort you may or may not put into achieving recognition.
There is no separating talent from the other qualities, it’s only one piece of a much more complex puzzle when it comes to creating art and successful popular entertainments. (Alas, not always the same thing.) It doesn’t exclude others in the same field who have differing levels of accomplishment or a different perception of the human condition. At some point, becoming the “best” becomes replaced by a realization we all need to go an inner journey.
And, by the way, I’m pleased to report my friend has reconsidered his decision to not write any more, and is about to start work on a new novel.