I know people mean well when they compliment a creative person by telling them they are “talented,” but I’m going to explain why it makes me a little uncomfortable.
I suppose there is such a thing as talent; certainly not all artists were created equal (just as not all athletes, doctors, or businesspeople were created equal). But what the notion of “talent” does is negate all of the sweat, tears, and years of hard work we put into what we do. It supports the myth that artists are just born being able to do what they do (and by extension, the notion that because it seems “easy” for us it’s not something we should expect to be paid for). A fantastic lawyer probably studied hard in school, read, practiced their work for years before getting as good at it as he/she is, right? The same is true of artists, designers, and illustrators. We went to school. We studied the work that came before us. We put in countless hours in the studio training our eyes, hands, and brains to do what we do. If we make it look easy, it’s because we worked hard to be able to produce the things that we produce.
I also find that because we are lucky enough to do what we love for a living (sort of), people think that we ought to be happy giving it away. Most artists/creatives I know *do* happily give away work to worthy causes on a regular basis, but why as a culture do we attach an inverse relationship between enjoyment and compensation? Why is a job one hates worth more than one we love?
As I’ve delved deeper into the process of creating the work life I want and becoming a full-time artist, I’ve been grappling with these ideas and cultural myths we have that often do artists a great disservice. While I realize that when someone tells me I am “gifted” or “talented,” what they really mean is “Wow, I love what you do and it’s a skill that I don’t have.” I say thank you and I move on, but I would like people to think about the meaning of those words and the weight they carry. Just as we are trying to shift to praising our children for their effort, for the work they do, because the research shows that children (especially girls) do better when they see something like math as a learned skill rather than an innate talent, I think we need to start looking at creative pursuits in the same light. I may have been born with an interest in art, and the proclivity to do it all the time, but my pursuit of mastery of my craft has everything to do with hard work and perseverance rather than some mysterious ability that I was just born with.
I will leave you with a story about Pablo Picasso.
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.
“But, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”