If it’s true, as we often hear, that the artist is not a special kind of person, but rather that every person is a special kind of artist, then the journey to creative excellence must begin with finding the key to unlocking that special artistry. We may never understand it fully – and I don’t think we really need to – but we can certainly find it and follow it to see where it leads us.
Now, this approach breaks with the traditional wisdom that would have us first decide on some dramatic destination. But a destination has little relevance if we don’t have the means to reach it in the first place. Our natural gifts are the means to any significant end, so we must start there. Only then can a dramatic destination be reached.
The artist’s true colors are not found in paints and brushes, but in one’s palette of talent. The first order of business, then, is recognizing our talent, because it represents the greatest source of power and personal energy in performing any kind of work. That energy must then be released, developed and directed, because that’s how we achieve something significant. I can’t think of any original masterpiece that didn’t involve a well-developed talent.
Clues to your creative calling in life, the general nature of the work you are best suited for – your real potential – reside in knowing and understanding your natural gifts and talents. Work that engages your gifts will be intrinsically meaningful for you.
But the concept of talent is a difficult and often misunderstood one.
WHAT IS TALENT?
Talent provides an endless source of fascination with human behavior, dating back at least twenty-five hundred years to the time of Hippocrates (5th century B.C.), the “Father of Medicine,” who was the first to propose that people are highly formed at birth, with fundamentally different gifts in life. Modern research on brain activity has added new scientific insight into the origins and sources of different intelligences, but the concept of talent itself remains one that is open to at least some interpretation.
For purposes of speaking about artistry in performing our work, it makes sense to say that talent is best thought of asendowed potential, a mystic constellation of qualities given to us by nature – raw at birth, noticeable at a young age, and developed over time through continued exposure to exercise and environment.
The key here is the notion of a natural gift: A talent is not something we can acquire, and we cannot learn to be talented.
I believe everyone has talent. Still, most people don’t really know what their talents are, or at least have difficulty describing them. Why? Perhaps because talents are innate and reflexive, and we don’t need to think hard about them – they’re like the air we breathe – we tend to take them for granted.
Perhaps we falsely presume talent is supposed to involve a rare skill, or some activity deemed to be tremendously difficult to execute, like performing arts and professional athletics. And perhaps we just don’t appreciate our own abilities enough – mistaken in our thinking that talent is reserved for others who can do things we can’t, especially those notable individuals who have accomplished extraordinary things.
Ask someone what they think their real talent in life is and my bet is that they will adopt a look of utter bewilderment and shrug, “nothing really.”
What’s interesting is if you ask someone they work with to describe the talent of that person, they can easily rattle off a handful of abilities they admire and even envy in the other, and consider gifts. Explanation? No two people share the same gifts, so others often have a good view of our talents because they’re in a better position to observe something they don’t possess.
The challenge remains for us to find our talents.
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Matthew E. May is founder of EDIT Innovation and author most recently of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.