talent can be the worst enemy of an artist

Updated: 5 days ago

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Teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, I witnessed young artists' main pitfall: the idea of talent. If that sounds bass-ackwards, it isn't.

Students that work overtake "talented" students, sometimes in a single semester. How do I know? As a new professor, I taught the courses avoided by tenured professors: Non-majors Beginning Drawing, full of first-year students satisfying a distribution requirement with an easy art course. Worse, these students do not believe the class period will last three hours. Natural class skippers. Skippers, I can handle.

"No excused absences," I announce on day one.

Mouths gape.

"We have an appointment from 2-5 on Tuesday and Thursday, and we will both keep that commitment."

"Uh, will we ever leave early?" comes from the back.

"No, you cannot leave early. But you can stay late."

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The Talent Trap

Due to a scheduling conflict, one of my students is an art major. I'll call her Emily. Having taken classes in high school, Emily has skills others do not: she uses the whole page, has an intuition for proportion, and, most importantly, accepts that charcoal creates a mess. Unfortunately, high school teachers had dubbed Emily Talented, not Skilled, which is more accurate and less likely to induce laziness. As a result, Emily skips class regularly.

Talent Undermines Work

Talent becomes a hindrance when viewed as a state of being, like being 5'2" or Norwegian. Even without effort, you will remain 5'2" and Nordic. Skills, however, need continued practice to prevent. A runner who jogs once a month loses wind, for instance, a pianist who practices whenever forgets fingering patterns. A creative who believes in their talented status tends to laurel-rest.

Because I am talented today, I will be talented tomorrow—time for a nap.

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The semester goes on. Emily continues to skip while her classmates began to experience three hours fly by.

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As the semester closes, it is Final Review Time, which means students take turns hanging drawings on the wall for a critique in front of each other. By the time that review hits, all could see some novice students surpass Emily's skills.

Habitual practice beats laurel-resting.


Emily's eyes water, and her voice shakes, but she teaches everyone in the room something valuable about work and skipping class. I lose track of Emily the next semester, as the next set of novice and a few talented students arrive in Non-Majors Drawing, and the scenario repeats itself.

Does Talent Exist?

Inarguably, the lack of talent exists. No amount of work, for example, would make me an Olympic downhiller. But someone else does possess the potential to become a champion skier. The idea of possibility is essential when we talk about talent.

Without work, talent is just potential left to wither.