A middle-aged white lady sighs heavily as she walks out of my booth at a local craft fair. She turns to her friend and bemoans her fate: “I wish I was talented.” I roll my eyes so hard I can see my hindbrain and paste a smile on my face as someone else wanders into my booth. It’s going to be a long day.
While some people use the word “talented” as a synonym for “skilled,” many others use it as it is strictly defined, namely “a special natural ability or aptitude,” the implication being that my ability to make pots is somehow inborn or innate. (You can tell who these people are because they say things like “I wish I was talented,” as though the universe has been unfair to them in some way.)
True innate talent or “genius” is rare; for the rest of us who choose to use our free time to pursue excellence in a particular arena, we don’t get there by assuming that we should be good at something the first time we try it and then giving up forever when it turns out that we don’t happen to be boy and girl geniuses.
It irks me when people call me “talented” when they’re describing me in relation to the highly skilled work that I’m doing. The implication is that my own sweat equity played no part in the pieces that I’ve created: that I just woke up one morning and starting wedging some porcelain, savant-like, with no prior experience or knowledge of cones, firing schedules, glazing technique, glaze mixing, centering, trimming, or any of the dozens of other skills that I’ve spent several thousand hours working hard to master over the better part of the last decade.
Innate talent certainly does exist, as proven by the likes of child prodigies such as Mozart and Paschal. But here’s the thing: I don’t possess any when it comes to pots. Not even close. I struggled for weeks and months to learn how to center a piece of clay when I was a beginner, just like everyone else. My handles cracked. My glazes pitted. My bowls collapsed. My lids were too small. Even wedging, the process of preparing clay to be thrown, took me several years to perfect.
The one thing- the only thing- that sets me apart from everyone else who takes a beginning pottery class and produces a few lumpy mugs is that I worked longer and harder to get where I am. I watched pottery videos. I drove an hour round trip to the local clay studio four times a week to practice centering. I checked out every book about pottery available at the local library. I asked the owner of the local studio if I could volunteer to load kilns. I joined an online pottery listserve. I sketched pots. I corresponded with potters I admired and eventually arranged apprenticeships with a couple of them. I imagined throwing pots as I was falling asleep at night. In short, I became obsessed. Every gain I’ve made, every skill I’ve mastered, every new idea I’ve had, has been a result of hours spent in front of the wheel, the glazing table, and the kiln.
And here’s the thing: most people who are really good at something are just like me. While some people possess a modicum of talent to begin with, most of the time that’s not enough on its own to truly excel. True innate talent or “genius” is rare; for the rest of us who choose to use our free time to pursue excellence in a particular arena, we don’t get there by assuming that we should be good at something the first time we try it and then giving up forever when it turns out that we don’t happen to be boy and girl geniuses. No, we get there by working our asses off. And then we continue working our asses off because we realize that there’s always another level to reach, another potter or singer songwriter or pianist or writer or poker player or gymnast to look up to and learn from.
This attitude- the “butt in chair” school of learning new skills- should come as a relief to all those people who have always believed that they’re just not good at certain things. Even the biggest landlubber will become a remarkably more efficient and capable swimmer after spending several hours a week in the pool for a year.
Exceptions exist, obviously, and I’m not trying to claim that anyone can do or be anything they want if they just try hard enough. Some fields, like show business or professional sports, are so competitive and the percentage of people who succeed so small that, statistically speaking, they almost don’t exist. Standing 5’2” in my sneakers, I’m never going to become an elite basketball player. But I could become a significantly better basketball player than I am now simply by joining a team and practicing every day. Furthermore, in less competitive fields, (which is most of them) almost anyone can attain excellence simply through the application of time and energy.
Is there a skill that you’d like to acquire but you feel like you have no “talent”? Try putting that belief on a shelf for a few weeks or months and see what happens. Remember, gaining skills takes time; don’t expect that you’re going to become an expert overnight. Just put your head down and keep working. In a few months, you might look back and be surprised at how far you’ve come.