Why talent is irrelevant

Some people claim that writing can’t be taught.

That there’s an indefinable spark in a few which, in time, will blossom.
That if you don’t have such a spark, training will do nothing for you.
That hard work and experience is not as important as talent.

This point of view is, in a word, bollocks.

Here’s why.

Let’s assume that you (yes you sir, you madam) have a certain amount of talent. Doesn’t matter how much, but there it is, a certain amount of talent.

Let’s also assume this talent might get you a job as a writer (or director, or actor, or whatever your creative profession may happen to be) if the right person happens to meet you at the right time.

Now, you can’t increase this natural pool of talent by experience and hard work. If you could, then the improvement would (by definition) be down to experience and hard work. Not the raw talent.

We can also safely assume that experience and hard work will sometimes get you a job that you wouldn’t have got without it.

You become a better writer the more you work at it. You gain contacts and friends in the industry the more you hang out with them. Sometimes one or both of these things will tip the scales, get you a job that you might not have had otherwise.

And the harder you work, and the more experience you have, the more cases in which you’ll get a job that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Regardless of the amount of talent that you had in the first place, sometimes hard work and experience will tip the scales in your favour.

Finally, if you were to believe that experience and hard work were the only thing that actually got you a job and that talent didn’t come into it at all – not one jot, not one tittle – then you would work harder and get more experience. Because that’s the only thing that matters, right?

So if you believe that talent doesn’t matter, you’ll work harder and get more experience.

Which will get you more jobs than you would have otherwise.

So if you believe that talent doesn’t matter, you’ll do better in the industry than you would have otherwise, even if it does.

So work hard. No matter how good you think you are.

10 Replies to “Why talent is irrelevant”

  1. Excellent point.

    I have seen people with mediocre talent and strong drive succeed in many areas of life, and have known many brilliant and talented losers who have never done a single thing of consequence.

    My first lesson in this was at girl scout camp when I was about eleven. I met a girl who had been in Annie, in a real theatrical production, touring and everything.

    I was thrilled when it came time for the campfire sing-along, because I’d get to hear her sing. Thing is, her voice was not that great. Her range was limited. But she was skilled – she hit her notes, enunciated, and projected like mad. That’s when I realized that loud and confident trumped talent – and have found it to be true most of the time, and not only in the arts.

  2. Ah, come on, Piers, you can’t get away with that: you posit that talent is bollocks but all of the rest of your maths is predicated solely on disregarding talent, not on proving it doesn’t exist.

    Follow. If we accept every inch of your argument, you would agree that there will be times when two people have worked precisely as hard and as effectively as each other. Are you saying they will both get the same job?

    All this boils down to the same old argument you hear in pubs: is writing an art or a craft? And I abhor those arguments because of course the real answer is both and whose round is it?

    Is hard work important? Undoubtedly. Do crap writers succeed? Yes. But to conclude that talent is irrelevant bollocks, QED, to assume that anyone can write, is at the very least fallacy. It somehow sounds, too, as if you’re abdicating your art: there is no talent, talent is bollocks, therefore you don’t need to try.

    Yeah, yeah, you’re in it for the money, you’ve said. But surely there are easier ways to make money than this?

    Your position is that there’s no talent in writing; my position is that there is talent in everything. Your argument is that anyone can be taught to write, mine is that this is high degree bollocks.

    I equally dislike the notion that we are equipped with X amount of talent, that too feels like a kind of abdication. Much like saying it’s a gift from God. I write and I work hard, it’s not a gift from anyone, it’s mine and I grow it. Talent can’t grow? Hard work is the exclusive route?

    You dress your point up well but in making it simple, I think you make it simplistic.

    William

  3. William: You’ve got the point precisely in paragraph one.

    If you disregard talent – if you pretend that it doesn’t exist, and the only thing that will get you the job is hard work, learning, and persistence – you will do better than if you pretend that a part of the formula for success is down to whether or not you’re a natural writer. Whichever happens to be the truth.

    Craft or art? As you say, we can talk about that until the bell rings for last orders.

    My position is that whether talent – rather than craft – is a determinant in whether you get a job or not, it will improve your chances if you believe that it isn’t.

    And hell, if it was money I was after, I’d be in a different line of business entirely.

  4. Top post. I’m actually wondering what ‘talent’ is exactly? Isn’t it working so hard at practising and learning our craft that we become good at it and ‘talented’?

    I realise that some people just aren’t going to get it but I still think it comes down to them refusing to do any pre-writing or re-writing – in other words, their refusal to work hard.

  5. What an interesting post. I think part of the reason it’s aroused such interest is that talent is such an emotionally charged word, guaranteed to increase the insecurity of anyone in any field – but what if I just haven’t got it…?*

    Perhaps the discussion might become clearer if we used the word aptitude instead? This is of course no substitute for hard work and a willingness to learn, but I’m sure every reader of this blog has encountered people in different fields who have enormous desire and drive for the job in question, but no aptitude whatsoever.

    Used as a strategy to drive yourself to work, the psychological trick of saying that aptitude is irrelevant might well be effective, but if you have no aptitude for the job you are set on doing, isn’t that trick dooming you to years of disappointment and bitterness?** You may well achieve your goal, but you’re carrying a mighty heavy handicap. Anyone who reads spec scripts in volume will tell you there’s nothing more dispiriting than to read something that has clearly been painstakingly worked and reworked with good advice, that looks like a script, feels like a script, reads like a script, but that as a story withers and dies somewhere on the journey from page to brain.

    If you have no aptitude for the job you want to do, maybe all your hard work and effort might lead to a more rewarding and satisfying life if you put it into a job you do have an aptitude for?

    To widen the debate, I think this feeds into the issue that crops up in Scriptwriter magazine with increasing frequency – just how valuable is the scriptwriting teaching industry that’s sprung up in the last 5-10 years? I feel ambivalent about it; having been on an excellent course myself, North by Northwest in 1998 (or ’97?), I’m in no position to deny their value, but when I see academic institutions scrambling to set up courses to grab a slice of the increasingly lucrative would-be scriptwriters market, alarm bells ring. A BA in screenwriting doesn’t make you a good writer any more than a degree in PPE makes you a good politician, yet many seem to be marketed as vocational courses. Has the amount of good spec scripts arriving on industry desks increased? My entirely unauthorative research – gossip with various editors, producers, and agent’s assistants of my acquaintance – says not.

    What’re your thoughts?

    *Guilty as charged of using the word gift in its place. A minor case of blogger’s hyberbole, a chronic condition in my case.

    **It’s all the evil producers and editors fault for not recognising real brilliance when they see it. Naturally.

  6. Thoughts, as requested:

    “I’m sure every reader of this blog has encountered people in different fields who have enormous desire and drive for the job in question, but no aptitude whatsoever.”

    Actually…

    No.

    Not once, not ever in my years on this planet have I met one single person, in work or at play, who had enormous desire and drive for something and no aptitude.

    (Let’s roll with the word aptitude, if you like. Makes no nevermind from here.)

    Not once.

    Now I’m counting desire/drive in this context as being for the job, not the position. I’ve certainly worked with a couple of talentless fucks who enjoyed their salary, or telling people what to do, or the fact that they were the one in charge…

    But that’s just the position. They didn’t care about the work.

    I’ve also met and worked with dozens, probably hundreds of people who didn’t have any passion about the work they were doing.

    And you know what?

    They were all rubbish.

    In my experience desire and drive to do a good job has directly correlated with the ability to do that job.

    To the second point, the growth of the training industry in writing over the last few years:

    I think you can learn something from everyone. But how much you pay for how much useful information is the important thing.

    Caveat Emptor, and check the references before signing up.

  7. I’m certainly torn between the two arguments because I would like to believe that everyone can learn the skills required and progress if they have the drive and desire but I have to concede that I have known those who have had the drive and desire but gained no ability – both in writing and other fields.

    It’s not a great number of people but enough to make me uncomfortable spouting absolute arguments to the contrary.

    But how can you tell if you’re wasting your time and you’ll never get it? Isn’t that what those with ability who lack confidence might say?

  8. Seems to me that what we have here is an example of a Halting Problem.

    Let’s say you’ve got a computer program which can test for something, and if it finds it, it finishes. So you start running the program. When it halts, you’ve got your answer.

    Unfortunately, other than continuing to run the program, there’s no way to prove that it will never find an answer. It might be that if you’d left it on for another five minutes, it would have halted.

    (Alan Turing has written a truly marvellous proof of this proposition which this blog comment is too narrow to contain.)

    So, bringing out my metaphorical hammer:

    Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is a writer.

    He hasn’t had any success, so he reads Syd Field. Still no success, so he gets other people to read his work. Still no success, so he goes to Bob McKee’s Story. Still no success, so he…

    Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

    Now, it might be that the very next work he writes is the one that people will like.

    Or he could just give up.

    Point is, he’ll never know whether or not the next thing he writes will be the one that takes him over the edge. That finally gets him some work.

    And he never can know, because the only way to find out is to throw the dice one more time.

    So, back to the original question: How can you know when you’ll never get it?

    When you give up.

  9. Weighing in late on this one to say I agree with the original post, but with this qualification: I think talent doesn’t matter above a certain threshold.

    I did fencing on and off for years, and in every place I did it, there were one or two people who just sucked. They loved the sport, they trained regularly, and they couldn’t win a bout to save their lives. Now you may argue (and you’d probably be right) that they didn’t want to win, that they got enjoyment simply from taking part, but I’d still expect their work to have produced some improvement over time. It didn’t.

    On the other hand, I gave up on competing after a couple of years because I wanted to win too much. My sweat and hard graft had produced only a very modest degree of success, and I realised it wasn’t worth the endless frustration. I was never going to be good enough to challenge the best fencers in the region. I just didn’t have it in me.

    Likewise, I think some people just don’t have it in them to write well, no matter how hard they try. I think that proportion of people is relatively small, but the hard work of which Piers speaks will only pay dividends if the potential for improvement is there. And like I say, it usually is — but not always.

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