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.