Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who have talked about wanting to make it as a singer or a songwriter or a writer or a photographer or a painter. When I ask them how much effort they put into their work, a number of them respond that they have loads of natural talent.
What exactly do people mean when they say they have natural talent? Do they mean they have a marked innate ability to do something? Do they mean that doing some things come more easily than doing other things? Do they mean they have above average ability to do something that others can do? Do they mean they have a special aptitude that allow them to do something that others generally cannot do no matter how much effort they put into doing the same thing? Do they mean they have a pre-disposition to sense what must be done to do the task in a seemingly effortless way? Do they mean they were born with all the basic and advanced knowledge required to do something specific?
What I do know is that far too many people use the term “natural talent” far too often without realizing that talent will only take you so far before you hit the brick wall.
Success in life — especially in the arts industry — isn’t a matter of luck and natural talent. It’s a matter of applying yourself, learning what you don’t know, and putting in the hours. Everything improves with repeated, concerted effort.
So how do you nurture talents that aren’t as natural as you would like them to be, and how do you improve on natural talents you believe you already have? The three fundamental elements of succeeding at anything are these: practice, motivation, and knowledge.
Practice Makes Perfect
You’ve heard the adage before, and more than once. According to Josh Kaufman, it only takes 20 hours to learn a new skill. And according to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to hone that new skill. No matter whether you spend 20 hours learning a new skill or 10,000 hours mastering a new skill or any number of hours between the two extremes, you’re going to make mistakes.
Mistakes are not messages from the universe that it’s time for you to hang up your boots and move on. If they were, society would have been deprived of the electric light bulb longer than it was. You see, Thomas Edison is quoted as having said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In other words, welcome and embrace your mistakes and learn from them. Learn that the mistake has just proven to you that what you just tried is something that won’t work for you.
It’s Too Hard
Lots of things in life were too hard for you once upon a time. When you were a baby, talking was too hard. When you were a toddler, walking was too hard. When you were a pre-schooler, reading was too hard. In other words, every stage in life has skills that are too hard at the time either because those skills are unknown to you or you haven’t had an opportunity to learn them yet even though you’ve witnessed other people doing them. While the way some people do things may not work for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t acquire skills you don’t have.
Some will say that you can’t learn to walk if you have a physical impairment that takes away that ability. True. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn how to get around. It means you have to figure out another way to get around … a way that’s different from how others get around.
Back in the early 80s, after reading Og Mandino’s book “The Choice” I wrote a letter to the author. He wrote back (I still have the letter in my files). He’d written a number of books over the years, and they all seemed to have the same message: If you don’t like your life as it is, do something to make it better. But the quote that has stayed with me over the years is this one: Never be too big to ask questions; never know too much to learn something new.
Find ways to motivate and re-motivate yourself as you practice, practice, practice. Read books. Play music. Sketch and doodle. Whatever it is that motivates you, keep those in your life and make the most of them.
Seeing Is Believing, But Knowing Is Hard Work
We’ve all heard the expression, “I know what I know if you know what I mean.” It’s such a popular saying that Paul Simon wrote a song entitled, “I Know What I Know.” The thing is, knowing what you know is a result of observing what you observe, internalizing it and retaining that information somewhere within you on a subconscious level for later retrieval whether you’re aware of it or not.
Knowledge helps you to define and refine your goals. If you want to write a better song, paint a better painting, write a better book, or shoot a better photograph, learning the rules is the place to start. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever break a rule, but how will you know what rules you want to break unless you actually know which rules exist and are accepted by the general population? Once you know how something is usually done, you are in a place where you can try something innovative and different.
So while knowledge really isn’t hard work, acquiring that knowledge is, and it’s well worth the effort.
In A Nutshell
All the natural talent in the world is no guarantee of success in life. Over the years, we’ve all known people with phenomenal potential who have languished at the bottom of their dream career, and it’s usually because they have relied solely on their natural talent to take them to where they wanted to go.
Natural talent is a beautiful thing and should be celebrated. But more important than natural talent are all the other parts of success that support and sustain talent no matter whether it’s natural or hard-earned.
And whatever you do, don’t let the brick wall stop you from getting to where you’re going.
To remind myself of that, I spent hours and hours painting a 3 foot by 5 foot canvas of a brick wall that I hope to install somewhere in my office in the near future. It may seem silly to some to read that I’ve painted nothing but bricks on this canvas, but it’s more about the message than about the bricks.