A Plague of Talents

Most Christians and probably most non-Christians in western civilization are familiar with the parable of the talents.  For those not, the quick summation is as follows: a man gives his servants some amount of money each.  After a while he calls it back, and it’s not enough to return it untouched.  If you have made no return on the investment you’ll be punished.

For people of faith, it is normal to consider the “talents” as, well, talents, G-d given and for which we owe a return.  In other words “use what you were given.”

One doesn’t need to be religious to believe in talent, or at least a given set of characteristics that makes you perfect for something or some pursuit.  I see this in my kids, as each seems to have been born with a set of abilities and interests that leads them to the careers they wish to pursue.  I see this because I saw them grow up from day one, and it should surprise no one that the kid who figured out how to close the supermarket doors, in the two seconds I had my back turned, should want to be an engineer.  Or the kid who looked after the old/infirm and orphan cats want to be a doctor.

Of course, there’s probably some confirmation/recollection bias there.

However I’ve been known to tell people I don’t believe in talent.  As you can see above, this is not absolutely true.

What I don’t believe in, rather, is the primacy of talent in determining one’s success.  This is for some reason a peculiar belief of people in artistic fields.

There is not only the bizarre belief that you have to have “it” if you’re going to be big”, but also the concomitant belief that if you have “it” you’ll make it big despite yourself.

As far as I can tell neither of these is true.

One of the most naturally talented writers I know: blessed with natural language command ( the very smallest of the writing gifts) but also with good pattern recognition for plots and with the ability to bring characters to life (I have this too, but I honestly don’t even know what natural inclination/ability causes it. I know when it’s not there, but I don’t know how to teach it) won a contest in which I placed second when I was pregnant with number 2 son.  It’s twenty two years later and to my knowledge she’s still not published and is not even attempting indie.  Why?  I don’t know.  She spent years rewriting one book.  So, she’s the most prodigiously talented individual I’ve ever met.  And it’s done nothing towards a career.

On the other hand, in my fifteen years of trying to mentor and help others, I saw people whose first efforts made my eyes cross, and who seemed to have nothing, neither natural facility with language, no concept of plot, not even any idea what a character was supposed to do.  But by dint of reading up and writing a million bad words, they got to good ones, and are now published and some of them are making more than I am.

Because it’s not the talents you are given, it’s what you do with them.  And most of what you do with them is “by the sweat of your brow.”

There are at least three sad conditions relating to talents, and two are related to too-much talent.

The most serious one is called “Easy come, easy go.”  I’m not going to say that is the case of my sometime friend mentioned above, but it might very well be.  I know other people, undoubtedly talented, who either gained notoriety or published right off the bat.  Most of them never succeeded in repeating this feat.

Next one I call “cat with ADHD” and it is the problem of a lot of us.  We write, we do art, some of you crazy people compose music, program, design games, and do only heaven knows what more.

The problem with this is that you can’t pursue several horses at once and catch them all.  (Not even several pokeman.)  Particularly through the years when you’re very busy, say with family or studies or whatever, pick one thing to do and apply yourself to it.  There will always be time for the rest, maybe.  But if you try to be all things, you’ll be nothing.

And then there’s the most tragic condition of all: that is when someone who is actually nothing special, is convinced they are all that– that their natural talents are such they need to do nothing and try no harder than the lowest difficulty setting.

This is sometimes because the person has other qualities (for a while there publishing would fall on its knees if you were female and in your twenties.)  They’re fashionably tan, or have some other distinguishing characteristic, including physical beauty.  Or they’re the “right” political color.  Or even, they sleep with the editor, or were the editor’s roommate in college.

Anything like that (though less in our diminished times) can cause people to acclaim an otherwise mediocre talent.

So why is this not good?  Because when you receive all that acclaim for talent which is in fact not there, at some inner level you either know it, or you are going to find it out.

I’m avoiding making comparisons to politics, and to people who were convinced they could arrest the climb of the seas.  There is plenty, heaven knows, in our own field, of people being acclaimed for work that is at best good journeyman stuff.

The problem is, even if the person him/herself believes it at first, sooner or later they hit the inescapable wall of their own incompetence, lack of training, or lack of knowledge, or sometimes, even, lack of talent.

We all hit it sometimes, and the normal reaction is to go ahead and learn or try or develop what you don’t have.

However, if you hit that wall after years of being told you’re the greatest — for reasons you can’t even figure out — you might not know how to overcome, compensate, or fight.

Heinlein said never ruin your children by making their life too easy.  I’d say the same applies to anyone who wishes to write, or even, simply, to live the best life they can and make use of their talents to their fullest ability.

Learn to maximize what you have and compensate for what you don’t have.  Remember that work is more important than talent and that if you don’t work, study and figure out how to make the most of what you have, talent by itself will get you nowhere.

Do you have a duty to use your talents?  A duty to whom? I don’t believe you’re owned by humanity.  But the waste might be a betrayal of yourself and what you could be.

If you do decide to use your talents, remember, the greatest talent of all is the willingness to work and to get better.

In the mess ahead, all of us will need all our talent and most of all our work to survive and to rebuild.

Go do it.

 

 

 

 

181 responses to “A Plague of Talents

  1. Sigh, I can see myself in your analogy of chasing several horses up there. Right now it’s difficult to write, so I’m making art. But I know you have a point about focus. Only… oooh! Shiny…

    And with that, I’m off to school. Which is a focal point, and maybe the others are just part of the herd right now while this one gets ridden? I dunno. And what happens if I finish school and there’s no there, there? I’ll be 40. It’s possible I won’t be able to use this damn expensive (in life cost more than money cost) degree. In that case, I’d damn well better be able to get back to writing.

    • Reality Observer

      Knowing what you are studying, Cedar, I don’t think it will be wasted at all if you end up with only writing. Or vice-versa, for that matter.

      I have to admit that one reason my writing is lagging is that I’m concentrating on family – mostly helping the children get launched out there. But still working on it as I can, mostly research right now (ugh, going back into some rather basic physics; relativity and quantum theory too).

      Of course, you have to retain the useful parts. One of the most amusing (and painful) episodes in my working life was sitting around with several coworkers, including two people with a BS in mathematics (myself not being one of them), trying to recall the quadratic equation… (This was before the real Internet came to life – we ended up deriving it, of all things.)

      • Heh – imagine me in pre-calculus 20 years after highschool trying to recall that silly thing…

        I’m too far gone to back out. I will finish this if for no other reason than to show my kids it can be done.

        • Asimov told of spending several hours fiddling with planetary orbit figures and coming up with an amazing discovery. Which, after a few moments, he realized was Bode’s Law.

          After a pause for chagrin, he reasoned that a person of ordinary intelligence could simply remember Bode’s Law, but one of supreme intelligence would derive it himself when needed. Of course by then he’d forgotten what led him there in the first place…

          • My kids are good at math, but one is a freaking genius. In an intro physics class, she had forgotten the formula used for a particular situation, so she just went back to F=ma and worked it. That sure wasn’t on the teacher’s rubric …

            • Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

              In high school, my physics I teacher told the class if we didn’t memorize a dozen or so specific formulas, we wouldn’t pass. I think I memorized three.

              I also had my calculator die the morning of a midterm, and couldn’t find one to borrow. I convinced the teacher to let me take the test with a log chart.

              That reminds me… I never did learn how to use a slide rule, maybe I should learn. 🙂

        • …if for no other reason than to show my kids it can be done.

          Which is, in and of itself, an achievement of no small worth.

      • I could never remember the quadratic equation. But I knew the method of completing the square so every time I had a test where I needed it, I’d simply derive it quickly and have it ready to use.

    • The downside of making my own covers is that it’s easy to vacuum the cat by tweaking them.

      • Oddly enough, I don’t do this and I probably should. I just make new art – made a commitment to create a piece of art daily for one year. I’m 46 days into it and it’s pretty nifty.

        • That’s…actually a really good idea. Hmmm. That might be a way to boot myself back into *enjoying* creating art again, after getting a degree in it killed the joy for me…

          • I don’t put much pressure on it. Sometimes it’s a doodle I do during class (I have one class I draw through, so I’m not the only one answering questions…LOL). Once it took me three days to finish the most challenging art project I’ve taken on to date. I just make art, and post it to an album on FB. I think by the end of the year I’ll be better… at something. Maybe.

            • It’s a great idea. (Of course, I also know it’s a great idea for getting me back in the habit of writing, to write a little bit each day, but somehow haven’t managed it…)

    • Shortly after I started writing and selling to Analog, I went back to school. And not long after that I managed to meet the then editor of Analog, Stan Schmidt, at a Columbus con (Context, to be exact–at which I also had the opportunity to meet Lois McMaster Bujold). He told me that he’s probably be pestering me to write more for him except he understood what it was like to be a full time undergrad student in the hard sciences. He’d wait until I was in grad school. 😉

      • I got a lot more writing done in grad school (Running code could take an hour and lock up machines) than I have since. Get home drained. I really need to start doing an hour a day again.

      • I don’t plan to do grad school unless a generous employer offers to pay for me to do it. 😛

        • And then make very certain that you need the degree and that the professor you would be working with is someone with whom you can work. I know of horror stories . . .

        • Use a long spoon when supping with generous employers. When I got my MBA, I decided to pay for it myself upon learning that for each quarter I paid for, I would be expected to work for TWO quarters provided they still wanted me. If they decided otherwise, I would be obligated to repay any remaining quarters.

    • You will do just fine.
      I fled from academia after high school graduation, and did not return until age 32 when I blew through a BSE that typically takes 4-5 years in three. Then I got a job and a MSE on my employer’s dime with night classes.
      When I first enrolled I was scared to death of the competition from all those bright shiny kids. Took a couple weeks to realize that they were there to party while I was there to work.

      • I don’t really worry about competition from the bright young things, although I accept that they are closer to the foundations so I do have to work a little harder to relearn things they just learned in highschool. I find myself – like today – helping them by being the one willing to step off the ledge and find out how far down is down. (setting a PCR secondary product up. Professor wanted someone to work it on the board, I was the only one who stood up and put my thoughts on display to the class).

    • Cedar, I did it when I was 50 and I just got done. You will too. And there *will* be a “there” there. It’s just this perverse trick where you’re not allowed to see it ahead of time and have to keep on working your butt off on faith. And frankly, Cedar working her butt off blows me away.

  2. There are many things in life today that seem designed to convince that ordinary, un-special person that they have magical powers and astounding intellect. Educators, media personalities, even friends- they tell you, “oh, you’re an intersectionalist? That’s just the bestest thing ever! So smart, such wow, much win…”

    And what’s such praise worth, so easily won? I don’t think it compares favorably to the kind that reads your book, and immediately demands the next.

  3. An essay I wrote years ago comes to mind. When you take what could have been an ordinary person, then subtract some ability, they strive to overcome that detraction. Thus are created the Helen Kellers, Jose Felicianos,, and Stephen Hawkings. And in fiction, the Miles Vorkosigans.
    The world celebrates the so-called Renaissance Men – the multi-talented who seem to succeed in every endeavor. But the narrowly focussed person with limited talent tends to accomplishmnet much more; albeit with less fanfare.

  4. c4c

  5. Boy, do I understand ‘shiny’! It’s taken me to age 62 to realize I can’t have all those horses, they demand too much training, so I had to let some of them go so I could concentrate on one or maybe two pretty horses.

    I sort of feel like i wasted a lot of years getting bucked off over and over again, and that hurt!

    • Failing health has sent many of my horses to the glue factory. No more motorcycles, no more racing cars, no more big projects. Once I finish my wife’s car I’ll close the door on a hobby and sometimes-business that I’ve done most of my life. And she’ll have the scratchbuilt sports car she wants. Not bad for a last hurrah.

    • Maybe like a dog with lots of squirrels. Squirrels everywhere. Or sometimes it seems like that. Run after one, then run after other, then one on the side seems almost in reach but isn’t, really.

      Never caught one. I don’t know if I knew what to do with one if I finally did catch it. Play with it, eat it or tame it or make a pair of mittens? (Would need more than one for mittens, but anyway)

      I’m interested in almost everything, have enough talent for lots of interesting things that I might have been able to master them at least adequately, do not seem to be able to focus in any one thing long enough to get even to the actual apprentice level, mostly I have remained more of a casual dabbler. Okay, I do have the rather valid excuse of SAD when it comes to formal schooling, considering that pretty much any degree/papers for anything would require being able to focus on studying also during the midwinter months when I damn well just can’t, but then I might also have been able to get pretty far with something by studying it by myself during the rest of the year when I can. But too many squirrels.

  6. I tend to think that “talent” gets both overrated and underrated. On the one side, talent without hard work is like James said of “faith without works”: It is dead, being alone. OTOH, talent can help you get more out of the work you do. I think the people at the top of any field have both the talent and the hard work and, sometimes, more than a little luck.

    When I was younger, one of the things I wanted very much was to be a singer but I had neither the voice nor the ear. I worked with a truly phenomenal voice coach (who happened to be the choir instructor at the Cambridge High and Cambridge Junior High–Cambridge, OH, but whom I later learned was nationally known) for one year. Couldn’t do anything really. He did say he probably could have if he’d had me for six (junior high through high school). I suspect, however, I never would have been better than “adequate.” The raw material just wasn’t there. You can’t forge steel from bauxite. 😉

    Then there’s my daughter. She’s remarkably good in creative fields. She’s trying to create her own “manga.” She was writing the story for the one she tried to do and asked my opinion. (Oh, this is hard.) The story was very–compressed. It read more like an outline than a story. So I told her the story was very creative, a very good start. (And I think it is.) I also told her she might want to flesh it out some. And I also told her that this is where I was when I was first starting. And it’s true. A lot of my early stories (which never, in the end, saw the light of day) were more outlines than stories: brief synopses with a few bits of dialog thrown in. The story was very creative. She’s got the talent. She needs to develop the craft and I definitely want to encourage her in that direction.

    • > talent

      That’s what gags me about a lot of fantasy (particularly the “urban” part) and some newer SF. Characters that “just happen” to have master-level knowledge of complex subjects, which they apparently absorbed by assmosis while at Cute School. Or magic powers that just pop up when they need them and are never mentioned again. (and that they have absolutely no curiosity about…)

      After thirty years I still see the “programming is art” BS being pushed by people who ought to know better. Programming is about as artistic as laying cinderblocks or digging ditches.
      You can art your ass off, but eventually you have to *know* the language, the compiler, the runtime libraries and the APIs. And that’s nothing but hard work, multiplied by the hamster wheel of keeping up with revisions and upgrades. Much of my paid programming career has involved following behind those “artists” and cleaning up their messes.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Yes, programming is the discipline of taking requirements and translating them into logical sequences of operations leading from data input to whatever output is required. The majority of “art” is in interface design, and even that has a lot of parts that aren’t really “art”.

        • You’re describing Software Engineering, which is just engineering. The creative-synthesis part is what we call “art”, the rest is applied science and craftsmanship. And like (Edison?) said, the results are about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

        • After getting a graphic design degree, I realized the program had epically failed because it didn’t teach any programming. Sure, we learned all the art stuff (and I was classically-trained as an artist to start with)…but folks out in the real world? They want someone who can do *both.* Which, I’ve discovered, is still vanishingly rare.

          Which is why I’m paying tuition again and learning how to code. Because if I can do the design AND the code? ‘Jobless’ will likely not be an issue I face ever again… ^_^

          (Of course, learning to code entails a heckuva lot of hard work, as I am learning. Also, ::shudders:: *math*.)

      • Many years ago I had a book, “The Art of Programming.”

        A few years later there was another book, by the same authors covering the same basic level: “The Craft of Programming.”

        There can be an art to figuring out how to do things that haven’t been done before, or in figuring out new and better ways to do the same tasks but the vast majority of the work is craft.

        Lovely line from Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold: “If you have to choose between learning and inspiration, pick learning. It works more of the time.”

        • I think Knuth was using “art” in its older sense, like Gordon R. Dickson said (or quoted) in one of his books:

          “In the elder days of art
          craftsmen wrought with greatest care
          each minute and unseen part
          for the gods see everywhere.”

        • The one and only creative writing teacher I ever had who was worth a damn said–at least once a class period–“Hard work is a better horse to ride than talent any day.” It’s true. Talent can help–and help a lot–but if you don’t work hard and get the craft down…’mediocre’ is probably the best you can hope for.

      • Yes, the UF thing gets on my nerves too.

        • Be fun to do a version where the MC finds someone’s notebook/cribbed notes and tries to act as if he is a master. And disaster ensues.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            One of Patricia Wrede’s stories had the “Bad Guy” get ahold of a magician’s notebook that had “parts” of a magic sharing spell.

            For various reasons, it didn’t work out as he wanted it to do. 😈 😈 😈 😈

          • “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?

      • Anonymous Coward

        I long ago decided that programming has been ruined by (1) the effete snobbery of ‘programming as art’ (2) the self-esteem inflation of ‘all code that works is equally good’ (3) the Interchangeable Morons Theory of Management in which ‘all coders are equal’ (4) cheap offshore/H1B labor as a substitute for skill. Stir these together and you get an industry that refuses to take even the most modest steps to improve the skills of its craftsmen (craftpersons ?). At its heart, success in programming is an exercise in economics. If you write code that can later be handed off to an inexperienced new hire for enhancements/extensions, you are doing it correctly. If the new hire has to reverse-engineer or re-write it, you are doing it wrong. One should not have to pay for the same damn line of code three times. It simply is not rocket science.

        • ‘all code that works is equally good’

          A Rube Goldberg device for slowly increasing applied pressure until a nail is driven into a board is self-evidently as good as a hammer … for certain values of “equal,” of “good” and of “self-evident.”

        • how about the dumping of real code optimization in favor of expediency, because ‘modern machines had so much memory/CPU’?

          • …like it’s expedient to drop all bounds, range, sanity, or error checking, because the code worked with the sample input, so why waste the effort?

            See also: using “Lines Of Code” as a programmer’s performance metric. There’s a reason behind bloatware…

            • See, and what I’m taking away (myself, admittedly, but it seems good sense) as a very, very beginning programmer is…one shouldn’t be sloppy. It just seems wrong to me. 😀

              Of course, I’m still waiting for my brain to click on the “Oh, THAT’S why it works/doesn’t work this way” so I definitely don’t want to also have to wade through sloppy code.

        • My spouse makes a nice living taking an inspired artiste’s code and making it live-with-able for future support and revision. The artiste in question founded the company and has the most amazing knowledge in the field, but I guess he suffers from all-the-squirrels when he is actually writing code.

      • “assmosis”

        Heh. I’ll be looking for a way to work that into conversation.

      • I have to disagree with you about programming. Yes, you have to know your language, compiler, libraries, etc., but you also have to have the talent to know what to do with these in order to make the computer do what you want. My teaching career has involved dealing with those who have memorized all the syntax rules and know the math and file operations libraries inside out, yet still have no clue how to read in a file full of numbers and then write out a file containing the square roots of those numbers (for example). The fact that you need to know your tools doesn’t mean programming isn’t an art any more than the fact that you need to do your research before writing a historical novel mean that that isn’t art.

        • You have to be able to visualize the data moving around. What does it look like at any given point in the process. Holding a lot of different pieces of data in one’s head is difficult.

        • So…it’s like the difference between someone who, without any knowledge/background/grounding in painting slops paint onto a canvas and demands it be recognized as art, versus someone who has put in the years of training, who can indeed produce ‘proper’ art…and who then chooses (but with the structure and knowledge behind it–as an example: Picasso. Say what you will about his most famous stuff, but the man *did* know his art theory. He just wanted to do something else.) to create a painting that, to the untrained eye, might not look any different to the other one?

          I can see that.

          • A while back, when I was still involved in comic books graphic novels and short stories, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the question of whether writers were necessary (mmmm, early 90s, I think it was.) Some of the hot young artists (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefield, others) had gotten a little full of themselves and declared the artists did all the work and writers just filled in the balloons.

            Thing is, many of those artists (not necessarily the ones named above, for legal reasons as well as that teapot having been long since put aside) couldn’t draw worth crap. They had learned to draw comics by studying (tracing over) the work of people who had learned to draw comics by studying the work of people like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Gene Colan, Sal Buscema, Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and others.

            While their antecedents had learned how to draw, how to exaggerate, how to force perspective, how to create distortions to evoke energy and dynamism in their work. Studying with such masters of the genre as Burne Hogarth, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Al Capp, Frank Frazetta and Milt Caniff those early comics creators understood human anatomy, perspective and the other tools used to create energy and depth on the printed page.


            Those new punks? Look at any of their pages for more than a moment — really look at their drawing — and you see impossibly malformed limbs, painful postures and awkward contortions. Because those new artists didn’t understand the techniques they were employing. Look at a group shot done by one of them and you’re likely to find a stray arm or unattached leg. Often the only way to distinguish one character from another was to employ different hair colour or add a scar.

            There is a world of difference between knowing what you’re doing and thinking you know what you’re doing.

            • Oops – I left out Neal Adams, John Romita, George Pérez, Curt Swan, Joe Kubert (and probably several dozen more) from that list of guys who really knew how to draw and tell a story.


              If you have any interest in the subject and haven’t found a copy of Burne Hogarth’s instruction books … you have a real treat awaiting.

                • Mentioned him in the first (by no means comprehensive; merely the first names I could recall) list:
                  Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Gene Colan, Sal Buscema, Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and others.

                  I remember issues of Creepy and Eerie (and Vampirella featuring cover art by Frazetta and interior stories illustrated by him, Neal Adams, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Johnny Craig, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, John Severin, Angelo Torres, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Wally Wood and others — in glorious black and white which allowed the art to truly shine.


                  I believe it was in those magazines I first read the serialization of Adam Link, Robot, adapted from the stories by Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) that had originally been published in Amazing Stories between 1939 – 42.

            • *snicker* Yeah…I am well familiar with some of those 90s artists. There’s a darned good reason it’s known amongst as the ghetto age of comics…

              And yep, I own several Burne Hogarth books in print and hope to grab them in digital–he does excellent dynamic anatomy, rather than hiding poor drawing skills behind a billion pouches/straps/belts and oversized boobs/butts… >.>

      • The thing I have always thought is that we misconstrue art today. With most modern artwork you need to be told what the piece is about or what it evokes. While the classics are typically somewhat self explanatory. Anyone can kludge together code, especially with google and copypasta. The actual art of coding is keeping it simple enough so that it can be understood by the next guy and that the company that buys the software and is running on 2gen old machines can get sufficient functionality.

        Now it often seems it is a ‘I need my security iGoldBrickSupercomputer to write vba’ from programmers and running on high power machines when they test something. Plus the cycle idiocy becomes a question of what new whiz bang will we put in vs actually making it more stable or useful.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          I’m out-of-date when it comes to programming but I hated the programs that the programmer seemed to be thinking “what cool tools I can put in this” rather than “will the next guy be able to understand this”. :frown:

          Years ago, I was given this production program to study because it had the Database Calls that I needed to know for a new program that I was to write.

          On my first study of it, my thought was “This Can Not Work”. 😈

          My program used the Database Calls but the logic was easy to follow. 🙂

          • Most of the code I write will ultimately be used as demonstration code for customers to base their own applications on. Most of it fits into the “here’s how to use this hardware capability” category.

            From time to time, other coders who’ve read my stuff say, “You’re missing the expressive power of $(language)” and “This would be a lot shorter and faster if you’d …” My response is always, “My code has to be simple and straightforward and well-enough documented for my customers to understand and use.”

            Somewhere, I have a rant about a ring buffer routine that a former coworker wrote that was implemented with a state machine with 64 states. Not to mention one bug that he never detected that was persistent once it occurred.

      • Anyone that thinks art does not require mastery of craft has never tried to write a fugue. Or a sonnet. Or painted a photo-realistic picture. (Anybody can splatter paint on a canvas.)

      • Mmm. I just started taking classes to learn how to program (blech, homework, why did I think this was a good idea again?), and my single largest frustration is the fact that the textbook…does not explain *why* things work/don’t work. It just spews out a lot of examples and…little to no explanation. (Also: online course, and I work full time, so talking to the professor about it is…problematic.)

        I’m an artist, by training and by inclination. But I would never be stupid enough to consider programming under the heading ‘artistic.’ As I am learning with my painful forays into beginning Javascript…if someone gets “artistic” they’re probably doing one of two things: doing it wrong, or doing it sloppy. (Which to my mind is nearly as bad as doing it wrong.)

        Now, the idea that programming shares as much with languages as it does with other things…that I’ll buy. Certainly, the last time I felt this frustrated/annoyed/challenged was while learning an entirely foreign language. I’m trying to take comfort in the knowledge that I did, in time, become fluent in that language…(Except that programming is foreign language with added math horror…)

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          See if you can find a “For Dummies” Javascript book. [Smile]

          • I’m thinking that’s a really good idea. I mean, the textbook isn’t bad, it really isn’t, but I am someone who wants to know WHY. And lacking an actual-in-person-class for that, a book is my next best bet. ^_^

            • Here’s a problem. Every existing utterance exists against the backdrop of all the things that could have been said, but were not. In the case of programming languages, the “why” you’re looking for includes scholarship in the history and evolution of programming languages. And that’s not available by construction when you’re learning your first. Sometimes “because that’s the way Brendan did it” will have to suffice. When later you can compare and contrast with the ways Larry, Bjarne and Guido did it, you will get the nourishment you crave. But first, plant seeds.

        • This. Oh, man, THIS. I apologize on behalf of many of my fellow computer book authors, who somehow never sit back and see their work as a brand-new student would see it. I wrote an intro-to-programming book back in 1989 that doesn’t present an actual program until after the first third of the book is finished. The whole point was explaining what computation *was* and what the underlying machine was actually doing. I used funny stories and SF metaphors and drew a great many pictures. All my other programming books are now ancient history. That one is still in print, almost 27 years later.

          Programming is mechanical engineering for a different sort of mechanics. What people call the “art” in programming cooks down to the occasional brilliant solution to a difficult problem. Most of the time, you have simple but domain-specific problems that need solving. The hard part isn’t doing the engineering, but just learning the tools, which churn far too much. Bored academics create new programming languages every year that differ about 5% from all the others. Some few of them become stylish enough to be utter nuisances before withering away. The languages are not really important. The nature of computation (which includes computer hardware) is. Learn that, and the languages will fall into place.

    • What annoys me is when people cite “talent” as the reason for your success when you know darn well it was hard work! Saying it was “talent” implies it was just handed to you. Maybe I am good at writing, or programming, or cooking. I had an inclination toward all those things and yes, talent, but gosh darn it I’ve spent a whole lot of time and effort getting good at them.

      • I have gotten “it’s so easy for you” or “you just threw that out” — when actually I just work like a lunatic, all hours of night and day and my “life” is limited to the occasional dinner with kids or trip to the zoo or park with husband. I mean. “You too can produce x novels a year.”

        • I have gotten “it’s so easy for you” or “you just threw that out”

          There’s a story I’ve read–I think it was supposed to be about Whistler, he of the famous mother*, but it could be someone else or it might be entirely apocryphal, but it illustrates a point.

          A man came to, let’s say it was Whistler, wanting to commission a drawing. Whistler accepted the commission and they agreed on a price, a rather high one but not outrageous for the famous artist’s work. Whistler selected paper and instruments and proceeded to quickly turn out the drawing, handed it to the gentleman and asked for the price. The man sputtered and demanded why he should pay so much for such a brief bit of work. Whistler responded that he wasn’t paying for a few moments’ work, but for the years of effort that went into being able to make that drawing.

          Let this be a parable unto you. 😉

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Of course, there’s the story about the repairman who fixed the gadget by hitting it with a hammer and charged $50.50 for the fix.

            It was $0.50 for hitting the gadget and $50 for knowing where to hit the gadget. 😉

          • An old engineer was called in to troubleshoot a machine that had stopped an assembly line, costing thousands a day. After hearing the problem he walked to the machine and drew an X with a piece of chalk. He silently walked to the supervisor with his bill.

            $1 for the X
            $49,999 to know where to put it.

            Simplified but you get the gist. One warning for this though is that you need to know your industry and what it will support. You may know more than a competitor but your cost delta must make sense or no further jobs.

        • Gah, I *hate* it when someone is looking through one of my sketchbooks and goes “oooh, you’re just so naturally good at this, I could never–” as if I did it without any effort at all. It took me years to realize why I wanted to slap every person who said that to me…

    • You can’t forge steel from bauxite.

      You can’t? You mean that investment opportunity I bought into was a scam?
      Well crud.

    • My Unified Theory of Artistic Decay, or The Process by Which Art Becomes Rubbish:
      To start, pretty much any Art is seen more as a craft and a trade- whether one is painting, sculpting, composing, architectureing, et al. To make a living at it, one must put in hours and hours of study and practice to build a foundation of fundamentals, in much the same way as any apprentice tradesman.
      Enter the mass media era of the 19th century and beyond. It is at this point that the artist can become a celebrity, and really achieve fame and fortune. It is now that the artist is cut free from the needs of pleasing patrons.
      So, in the arts, you will see people of talent produce simplified, modern works of great vitality, which bring the artist much fame and fortune. Other, lazier artist notice that they too can create simplified, rough edged art with a minimum of work and craftsmanship.
      Of course, even the non-artistic can spot that splats of paint on canvas, or junk welded together, or glass boxes are lazy. Thus a development of schools of art criticism to explain why it isn’t laziness, but (insert some Marxist nonsense here) brilliance.

      • I’m…pretty sure that my time in a university art program took me from someone who created art almost obsessively to someone who barely touches paint/pencils/markers.

        I used to *love* creating art. Almost to the point of obsession. And then, somewhere in the slog of school, I…didn’t. And now, some five years after graduation, I’ve barely created *any* art. (Certainly, I didn’t find a job in my field–graphic design–though part of that was graduation-just-as-the-economy-tanked and all the jobs dried up. But only part of it. In all honesty, the thought of working in a graphic design firm–which, by ‘artiste’ standards is commercial and soulless already, though they’re quite wrong–fills me with horror…) Some of it was also working full time while doing a full class load (too exhausted to do anything requiring creative energy expenditure)…but only part of it, I think.

        Frankly, university killed a LOT of things I loved. Including, to some extent, writing. Having to regurgitate a lot of that Marxist crap just to survive is a bit soul killing (and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve recognized it for what it was and begun clawing my way out of that stupid mindset).

        • I know the feeling. Most of my family have some form of art they do (not always as a day job). Musician, comic artist, painter, sculptor, writer… I took a dozen years of music instruction, theory, performed thousands of times, taught, and wrung every last note dry… and lost my enjoyment of music almost completely by the time I was twenty-five.

          I couldn’t listen to the radio without seeing notes on a page, hearing slack timing, cringing when the tune was *just* a bit sharp. Any music. Most of my life (we sang as a family even when I was learning to talk, just for fun) was in and around music, and now it had no joy for me.

          It can come back, after awhile. Not always, but sometimes. I don’t teach or perform anymore- but I can enjoy music again. I had to forget a lot of crap to get to that point.

          You might find a time when you want to see what’s in your head in real life again, someday. Give it time.

  7. Wayne Blackburn

    I think there are two other sad situations relating to talent, and they are polar opposites, yet can often be found in the same person: First, is the person who has a serious talent in an area, yet hates to perform any activities in that area, and second is a person who loves a field, yet has absolutely no talent for it. When they are found in one person, you find that person either working in a field which expresses their talent and hating it, but staying because it’s the only thing they know how to make a living at, or you find them trying to work in a field they love, and being unable to excel. And sometimes they move back and forth between the two.

    • I got some of that in school. “Why don’t you go into X?” “I hate X.” “But…. you do so well at it!” “Because I do NOT want to do it over again.”

      • A pair of acquaintances worked at a jobs at which they were quite good. There was a great deal of pressure on them both to move up the ladder. Both refused — each for their own reasons. One, because he truly loved what he was doing (chemistry) and did not like the idea of giving that up to supervise others who got to do it. The other because he didn’t really enjoy the job (sales), but at the level he was it both afforded him the money and the time to pursue what he did enjoy.

    • And what keeps me up at night is the terrifying thought that this might be the case. I’m *good* at my day job but…

      • It took me years to learn that the secret of academic (and professional) success was to learn how to enjoy what was requisite. It is a rather easy matter to study topics in which you are interested; discovering how to be interested in topics which you must study is another matter.

        The pleasures of a job well done are second only to those of a job well paid.

        • Currently, neither my day job nor my paid hobby are well paid. Though I do have outside confirmation that the day job is well done. Now to work on getting better enough at the hobby that it can become both well paid and well done.

    • The second is remediable with REALLY hard work. Arguably this was me. I could make a lot translating, but I hated it, so…

    • Oh, I had that – being good at something, without being particularly interested in it, and everyone saying – but why don’t you …
      I did always want to be a writer, though – and made the usual half-hearted stabs at getting published as a free-lance now and again. What I didn’t realize until very late was that writing as part of my military specialty was excellent preparation, and then as a mil-blogger … it was a roundabout way to get to writing full-length fiction, but it worked for me.
      I just counted it up: ten novels in ten years. It astounded my late business partner, who had been in publishing and editing for years, that my first several books were so polished, right off the bat. They didn’t seem to her to be anything like a “first novel” and she had read a LOT of them.

      (PS – thanks, Sarah – for the link to Luna City on Insty yesterday! My daughter was absolutely thrilled with how the sales for it zoomed up!”

    • In writing, you get the writer who thinks his most popular works are mere hackwork and pins his hope of immortality on his Serious Work.

  8. Because it’s not the talents you are given, it’s what you do with them. And most of what you do with them is “by the sweat of your brow.”

    “Genius is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.” — attributed to Thomas Edison, though in some attributions the percents vary from the above.

    There’s a great deal of truth in that. However, for completeness we should note some…contrasting views:

    “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” — Originator unknown.

    “It’s not who you know, it’s what you’ve got on ’em.” — Lawrence Block

  9. “What I don’t believe in, rather, is the primacy of talent in determining one’s success. This is for some reason a peculiar belief of people in artistic fields.”

    I suspect this may be because a lot of them have seen, or perhaps luckily think themselves to have escaped, the last sad condition of talent other than the three you mention — where the would-be artist has the tragic combination of a drive to succeed in an art form with a talent so limited or utterly absent that no amount of hard work can compensate. Even Stephen King believed that writers came in four degrees of quality — bad, competent, good and great — and that hard work and craft were sufficient only to turn competent writers into good ones; “bad” meant by definition the unimprovable and “great” meant by definition the sui generis geniuses. And in Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Dan Simmons’ short story collection Prayers to Broken Stones, Ellison tells a heartbreaking story of having to tell a writing class student who’s written a dozen novels and a hundred short stories and gotten none of them published that he simply doesn’t believe the man can write. The man in question shrugs, says, “Thank you,” and states his intention to continue trying anyway.

    This may correlate with something I’ve seen in a lot of collectivist thinking as well: the belief that the “most important” causal factors for any situation are the ones the individual can’t control, like whether one has talent or not, was born to the right circumstances or not or got the right breaks of chance or not.

    • It’s possible that the problem was working on it the wrong way. Merely putting down words on paper may not suffice.

      But if you are in the habit — as a dozen novels attest — you may not be able to change how you work on it.

    • I’ve had one agent tell me I’d never be published, because my timing was off and it can’t be taught. He was right, it was off, because it’s internalized “Portuguese timing” — on the can’t be taught f*ck that. Curiously five years later he represented me. He can’t be taught.

      • Performers doing comedic characters are also successful in accordance with their sense of timing. Many successful ones have it and have no idea how to analyze or teach it; a smaller number have analyzed it in others’ performances well enough to learn it.

        • This is very true; I’ve done comedy on stage and gotten great laughs with it, when my material was funny, but I could not for the life of me explain how to time a delivery or how I know one delivery is funnier than another except for how it feels at the moment. (And even more curiously, I have a very hard time writing comedic material from scratch; my sense of what’s funny is almost totally limited to recognizing it rather than creating it.)

          Comedy, I think, is one of those things for which there is no analytical method of teaching but only observation and practice; maybe not 10,000 hours’ worth, but a good long time at any rate.

          • most comedians had writers to generate the funny stuff. (One such writer called his mother to tell her that he had gotten a job doing it for George Burns, and his mother’s response was why didn’t he get one with Gracie? She was the one who said all the funny things.)

    • I’ve had some music students who half-assed their practicing and were mediocre. I’ve had others who practiced their fingers raw and couldn’t get beyond mediocre.
      That’s where talent comes into play. Having both talent and drive seems to be a rare combination, but, most talented music students are kids and don’t have drive for anything beyond immediate gratification. Kids. Most adult students don’t have much talent but do have drive. (Not in the measure needed, when picking up as an adult, to go pro. That’s . . . nearly non-existent. I’ve got one who might, right now. Certainly has the potential for community symphony within five years.)
      I want a talented five-year-old with the drive of a fifty-year-old . . . I expect that’s why W.A. Mozarts are so rare!

      • With the young ones you have to watch out for plateaus, too. They’ll sometimes get to a point they think is “good enough,” and stop going forward. Adults tend not to do that- either their “good enough” point is higher, or they recognize the trap for what it is.

  10. I always took the parable to mean that talents were given to be used, risked, rather than hidden and kept safe. Which as a socially awkward introvert makes it one of the most valuable biblical lessons I’ve heard. Mind you, that’s an easy bar, as I rarely attend church.

    But I remember it, every time I finish a story . . . and then I put in the work to edit and publish it.

  11. People often confuse talent and skill. The first is where you start and the second is where you go from there. Sadly, too many a) mistake the latter for the former and fail to give due credit for achievement, b) imagine the latter is less important than the former, c) fail to appreciate how the latter enables the former and d) abuse the practice of constructing compound sentences.

    Michelangelo had the talent to look at a large flawed slab of marble and see David; he had the skill to chip away everything that didn’t look like David. But equally, having the skill enabled his talent to envision what could be achieved.

  12. Another name for your ADHD cats is Popcorn Kittens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDABjGGeZzM

    I also want to agree so much that talent can give you a leg up but it doesn’t mean you automatically succeed or are better. The person who works their tail off who has little to no natural talent for something can be much better than the person who coasts along on natural talent.

  13. I’ve been thinking about this, and it is not just talent and just skill and practice that is necessary. You have to be brave enough to let other people see what you have done. That’s often the hardest part for me.

    • That was the hard thing for me to contemplate, early on. I was actually afraid that I’d be crushed by the rejection letters, criticism and bad reviews. Nope – got to be downright insouciant about the letters, criticism is to be used as a tool to better the product, and bad reviews … well, what you write is not gonna be everyone’s cuppa tea.

      • And in my odd little field of fiber art, one person’s masterpiece is another person’s “What did you do, throw that wool scarf in the washer?”

        • You just have to internalize that not everyone is going to like your product – and to avoid getting full of yourself. I tell stories, to amuse and educate. I don’t expect them to ever be mistaken for great LITRACHUER.

  14. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    What’s “fun” is when you have a “talent” for something that makes it easy for you to learn and then you have to try to help somebody to learn something that’s easy for you but not easy for them. 😉

    • Or “Why husband can’t teach me math.” I was quite good at math at school, after I figured out the “do not scramble digits” thing, and I even learn it for fun (I have a course on number theory waiting for new house) BUT our brains don’t approach math the same way.

  15. A minimal level of talent is necessary but not sufficient. What’s needed is the need to work. A writer is not someone with a talent for writing. An A+ writing student who quits writing when school is over is not a writer. A writer is someone who just needs to write. A writer with a modicum of talent can become a skilled wordsmith.

    Of course telling stories is a separate skill. Some skilled writers can’t tell stories.

  16. Practice. Malcolm Gladwell, in “Outliers,” reports that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to produce brilliance. He points to the time the Beatles spent in Hamburg, playing all night long for months, as the reason behind their bombalicious later success.

  17. I’ve read some incredibly different talents this week, and as I commented elsewhere, it’s my review of Nick Cole’s book that brought the most attention, but it’s Alma Boykin & Christopher Woods I am sure I’ll re-read. I’d like to send a million readers their way.
    https://www.amazon.com/review/R3UGOMDUZVMUJ0/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm
    https://www.amazon.com/review/R1EY2T8THNK9W8/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

  18. I have been around writers, artists and musicians practically my entire life and I have seen all these issues so many times that I just consider it part and parcel of the artistic biosphere.

  19. Thank you. I needed this today. I probably fall into ‘too many horses’ category. I have a story I need to finish editing. Thank you again for the polite kick in the posterior.

  20. C’mon, Chief – you know I’ve got what it takes.


    A little brains-a little talent
    With the emphasis on the latter!

  21. One interesting thing about that parable is that these were rather large sums of money the rich man was entrusting his servants with to invest for him. Wikipedia lists several different measures of weight that were called “talent”: the Greek talent was the smallest, and the talent used in New Testament times was about double the Greek talent. Let’s assume this was a talent of silver, not of gold, that he gave his servants, and see what that comes out to in modern terms.

    Wikipedia states that a Greek talent of silver was considered to be the value of nine man-years of skilled work. Looking up the salary of a carpenter for a modern comparison, I see that it depends on skill and experience, with a beginner starting around $10 per hour and an expert making around $30, with the average being about $20 per hour. Taking the average as a guide, $20 per hour is $40,000 per year if you assume 50 40-hour work weeks per year. Nine years of skilled carpentry therefore earns you about $360,000. And since the talent used in New Testament times was about double the weight of the Greek talent (actually a little more than double), that means the rich man was entrusting his servants with more than $720,000 each; let’s call it three-quarters of a million dollars each.

    I don’t have a particular point to make, I just wanted to throw a little more light on that particular parable. Most of us have not studied history in enough depth to get a real sense of what a “talent of silver” was worth, so putting it in terms of modern dollars can help with understanding.

    • What I always thought interesting was that over whatever time period the master was away, two of the three servants got a 100% return on the initial investment. One wonders what kind of risk factor was associated with that rate of return.

      It seemed to me that the third servant buried the talent because he was afraid of losing it. What’s really missing from this parable is a fourth servant who did take the money to the moneychangers to invest and then had the investment go toes up leading to the loss of the initial principle and how the master responded to that. That would not have been part of the lesson being taught, so stipulated, but I do think it would have been an interesting addition.

      • Catticus Finch

        I’d wondered something along those lines since I was a kid. What if one of the two stewards had lost on the investment and had to return to the master with less money than was originally entrusted to him?

        I think that would have made its own good parable: what does the master (G-d) do when we try to use our talents and make a hacked-off mess of it? For many people (myself among them), that might be the more pertinent question. 😉

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I remember reading on a D&D blog something about historical investments, and expected rates of returns. Unfortunately, I forget what I read, except that there was some significant difference from now.

        We may have enough records to say something about investing in the biblical and classical eras.

      • It’s interesting to look at the 3rd servant’s excuse- “I knew you are a hard man…”. The entrusting of the talents was a loyalty test, a test of both ability and of shared interest in the Master’s goals. The 3rd servant’s professed belief in the Master’s wrongdoing and fear of his bad character shows the servant had no true loyalty.

  22. Speaking of hackwork, my lovely wife just summed up Chronicles of Shannara on SyFy: “It’s not that bad compared with Sharknado!”

    There’s a high bar to clear…. 😎

  23. So what’s the difference between lack of focus and being a Renaissance man? Variety is good, but it’s a fine line between being well-rounded and having too many irons in the fire. As a writer, a broad base is a fantastic tool, yet you have to move from “learn” to “do” at some point.

  24. You made a comment which caught my attention. About the person who receives acclaim for non-existent talent and then hits the wall. You concluded that the person would learn that they did not, in fact, possess that talent. Or, that, all along, they had some inkling that it was missing.

    In modernity, for a significant segment of the population, that has not been my observation.

    A good number of contemporary, young people — say from 16-35 years old — have probably been fed success for most of their young and early adult life. Note that I did not say that they earned success. They were presented it. Based upon their talents.

    They were handed success and recognition in the form of group awards, participation awards, an infinity of “good job” comments for trivial or even imaginary efforts, accomplishment certificates for non-accomplishments, and on and on. Their parents, through various insecurities of their own, swooned about their talents, paid fees and tuition to folks who affirmed that the child was talented, broadcast the talents of their children repeatedly and vigorously, and demanded recognition for that talent at every turn. This phenomenon applies particularly to the upper-middle class, some minorities, some women, and others chosen by a society that provides rewards for whom one is rather than for what one does.

    My kids went to a private high school. I know. And, it appears, that universities — in some disciplines and some departments — continue the farce.

    These folk, in short, were acclaimed for talent, whether they had it or not. They created videos that were unwatchable, wrote poems that were unreadable, wrote books that were mind numbing, played games where nobody lost, took photographs that were meritless, and gave presentations that were unintelligible. And were told how talented they were. And how they held the future in their talented hands.

    Then they entered the world. And a rough world it is.

    Some, indeed, are aware all along they they are charlatans. But liked the rewards. And some, after being thrown in with the truly talented, understand that they are not going to be a principle dancer for the New York ballet. They aren’t even going to make the corps. And they adjust and move on.

    But, some, believing that they are truly talented can only conclude that their talent is being unjustly denied. Due to sexism or racism or homophobia or soulless capitalism, or a political agenda, or to stupid and bigoted voters …. or whatever. They form the aggrieved classes. The victim strata. The professionally oppressed. They deserve yet another chance. And are entitled to assistance. And should get a free university education … because of the value of their talents to the broader society.

    And, they have become a permanent part of our society.

    • Sigh:
      Students Say Burlesque Show Violated Their Safe Space
      Northwestern’s burlesque show becomes the latest battlefield in the War on Hurt Feelings.

      If I told you a provocative burlesque show at Northwestern University was being restructured in response to student complaints, you would probably assume a handful of whiny, sex-averse conservatives had complained. But no—the event has infuriated left-leaning students who insist that it isn’t going to be inclusive enough.

      Since perpetrators of non-inclusivity on college campuses are all but tried at the Hague for war crimes these days, the burlesque show’s student-organizers are desperately trying to switch up the performance roster. In doing so, they hope to “reestablish a safe space” for students who felt marginalized by the first round of casting choices.

      In other words, not getting a part in a school production—a fairly typical life experience—now counts as a microaggression.

      NU Burlesque will host its fourth annual show in April. Previous incarnations of the production have unfolded during Northwestern’s transgressive “sex week,” alongside such events as “Reclaiming Pornography One Orgasm at a Time” and “Bad Ass MCs and Big Booty Beauties: A Panel on Women, Sexuality, and Hip Hop,” according to Campus Reform.

      It’s entertaining. It’s educational! But it’s also highly triggering for students who didn’t get a solo.

      [Don’t read the whole thing – the excerpt provided ought be more than sufficiently depressing]

    • Yep. This type of education has ruined a generation. I never lied to my kids about the merit of their efforts, and I encouraged them to compete with the age group above, in art contests and such. And I resisted having them branded “geniuses” (though by IQ they are.) Mostly I told them the proof was in the pudding and I knew many low-achievers with stratospheric IQs. I might have overdone it, as they’re driven and a little insecure. BUT it’s better than the other side of the coin.

      • Being a “genius” and $2.15 will get you the same cuppa coffee at Starbucks as being a moron with $2.15 … although the moron is less likely to make the barrista contemplate spitting in the cup.