I’ve heard opinions about “natural artistic talent” more than once recently. Usually it’s people saying that natural talent is a myth; that it doesn’t exist at all and never has.
I’ll tell you up front that I disagree. But the two sides probably aren’t as far apart as it may at first seem.
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Why? Because a lot depends on how you define the terms.
Let’s look at how the dictionary defines talent. When I looked online at Merriam-Webster’s definition, there were three definitions that pertained to our discussion:
• A special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude
• General intelligence or mental power : ability
• The natural endowments of a person
If asked, I think most people would have a hard time saying that those definitions of “talent” cannot be seen in the world. You only need to watch the Olympics, listen to an aria, or read a classic novel to see that talent exists.
(I know what you’re going to say: Those people worked hard to get where they are. Just hang on a minute.)
First let’s look for that talent at a younger age. Does it exist there, too? Yes!
Even a casual reading of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s biography reveals at least one case of a youngster born with specific and amazing talents in playing and composing music from a very early age.
And you can find other examples in athletics, intelligence, and so on.
So as far as I am concerned, whether you call it a talent, aptitude, gift, or ability, there is no doubt that people are born with them or develop them at a young age—too young to make sense, if they didn’t have that aptitude already. I would even say that every person is born with at least one natural talent, and some more than that.
Does a natural talent guarantee success?
This is the much better question overall. We can all believe different things about natural talent. What’s important is what that talent means in a person’s life.
And the truth is, no one born with a natural talent is guaranteed success! Even those with natural talent typically need to show persistence and discipline to make something from that talent.
In other words, talent without hard work is almost meaningless.
If someone ignores their talent, or rests on that talent without expending effort, they might be good at what they do, but chances are they will never excel. (Carrie Brummer’s post on what it takes to be a talented artist goes into more detail about how hard work can absolutely transform your level of skill.)
Talent is only the beginning in the same way that a packet of seeds is just a beginning. You aren’t guaranteed a garden because you have a packet of seeds. The seeds have to be planted, then watered, cultivated, pruned, and watered again, until they finally bear fruit.
The person born with a natural aptitude toward art who doesn’t take the time to learn how to use tools, hone their skills, and produce art will not succeed. They will be only a person who had the potential to excel.
Does lack of natural talent guarantee failure?
Of course not! A person with average artistic aptitudes may succeed where a more naturally talented artist fails because they have the drive to do better. They draw more. They practice.
They hone existing skills and learn new ones. They try new things and they’re constantly growing. They have the discipline and persistence to do the best they can, and quite often, they end up excelling.
Making art may not be as easy for them as for others, but they compensate for that by trying harder and working at it longer.
And who’s to say that that kind of discipline and persistence aren’t themselves natural aptitudes (talents, abilities, etc)?
Where does that leave us?
I guess what I’m trying to say is the debate about “natural talent” doesn’t even need to exist. Mozart had natural talent—exceptional natural talent—but he was also born into a musical family and studied and trained to build on the aptitudes with which he was born.
Olympic athletes—and all other successful athletes—train and push themselves to build upon the natural abilities with which they were born.
The best possible combination is a degree of natural talent AND discipline and persistence. Artistic or otherwise.
My advice? Extend your natural talent (or aptitude or ability) as far as hard work, discipline, and persistence will take it. There is no limit to what you can achieve if you have the drive to learn, practice, and