The Struggle with being Called “Talented”

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A few months ago, a friend said to me, ” I think you’re the smartest person I know.”  I looked at her funny.  My first thought was, “You must not know many people.”  I would consider myself intellectually curious but certainly not some genius.

Then there’s my boss.  A couple of months ago, he called me “a freak” because of my success in complex sales without any previous sales experience. He sat in a room with me trying to figure out why me and a couple of others have had so much success, hoping to identify some secret to finding the next “freak” sales rep.  My first thought about my boss’ perceptions were that I had him fooled… unintentionally of course.  I didn’t think I was a natural.  Whenever we have a team meeting, I am always facing my insecurities.  Wow, my coworkers are so much better at this than me.  Why don’t I understand this concept? Why didn’t I think of that?  Every meeting I walk away with new empowering ideas on how to improve, hoping it will at least mask my weaknesses.

For most of my life, I’ve been called naturally talented.  Mainly that has come from people that know my musical abilities, but I don’t think I’m as talented as people think I am.

As a youth, after church every week, we’d gather around the piano.  A kid named Jeff, who was about five years older than me, would dazzle us with a new song he had learned.  When it came to talent, he had it.  I was nowhere near as talented as him.

I remember once Jeff had learned one of my favorite songs Chariots of Fire.  After he played it for us, I went home and learned it without any music.  Mind you, I didn’t actually learn what he played.  I merely picked up the melody, stripped down the complexity, and played it in the key of C – the easiest key on the piano.  My version really wasn’t that good, but it could fool the musical lay person.  Sometime later I really wanted to learn the piece, but when I got the music, it was full of sharps (which intimidated me).  I convinced Jeff to sit down with me and show me how to play it, and after a couple of hours, I had it down.  When I showed my piano teacher what I had learned on my own and asked to play it in a music competition, she refused.  I think she felt that it was cheating if I didn’t actually learn by reading the music.  So instead, she gave me an elementary song called Bubble Gum to perform.

In high school, I hung out with the smart people.  These were the type of people that would go to the guidance office and ask for their class rank and compare it with each other.  I never asked because I didn’t want to have to tell them.  Truth be told, I was around 30… in a class of 88.  My SAT scores were a little above average, which would get me into a lot of colleges, but I wasn’t going to Harvard anytime soon.

I took the hardest classes, not because I wanted to be with friends, or because I thought I could do it, but because I wanted to do it.  I was a slow reader who struggled focusing while reading (which is still the case), so I often didn’t complete AP English reading assignments in their entirety. Instead, I would compensate what I hadn’t read by deducing ideas from the class discussions and then contribute.  Sometimes I got lucky, and the comment bordered profundity. Really it was just a matter of listening, formulating an idea, and chiming in.  I’m not an external processor, so you’re not going to get much more verbally out of me than a single comment in a group discussion.  One really good one was all I needed.

In regards to math, I’m shocked that I passed high school honors calculus.  Thank God for partial credit because I had no idea what I was doing.  My college freshman year I took calculus again, and I accidentally slept through my calculus lab final exam.  The professor graciously allowed me to make it up with another section.  As I took the exam, still frazzled at the thought of nearly getting a zero, I realized that I didn’t know any of the material.  After a few minutes of going through problems, I would use concepts revealed on some questions to complete the utter lack of understanding on other questions.  It was like light bulbs started firing.  I went all the way back to question 1, used the knowledge I had acquired during the exam, and answered every single question correctly.  I then retired from math.

I don’t consider myself extra intelligent because I am not an inductive learner.  I can’t take abstract concepts and make sense of them.  It’s why I struggled in math and computer programming.  Arrays, variables… I don’t get it.  So how did I go on to start a web design company?  The answer is that I’m a deductive learner.  I never learned code through memorization.  I learned code by manipulation.  When I wanted to change something, I would stare at the code until I found the patterns, then I would tweak the code until it did what I needed it to do.  I did this efficiently and elegantly enough times to recognize that it could be somewhat profitable.

My wife was trying to explain my career path to a friend.  “How does someone go from a communications major to being a Spanish teacher, to being a pastor, to web design, to selling educational technology?” the friend asked. “When he wants to learn something,” my wife answered, “he just figures it out.”  That prompted the friend to refer to me as a genius, but to me it’s not so much a matter of raw intelligence, as it is persistence.

I had a former student, who by all accounts, was a genius.  He taught himself Spanish then took the AP exam and got a 5 (the highest score).  In high school, he was performing piano pieces that graduate level students were learning.  If he wanted to learn a new instrument he would just pick it up.  Most days I felt bad that he had to sit in the same room as his peers.  Teaching him made me self conscience; I was always afraid that my instruction would actually make him less intelligent.

One assembly this student was asked to speak to the entire high school body.  He said, “Most people think I’m gifted and talented, but I’m just like everyone else.”  You could hear people rolling their eyes.  I certainly rolled mine.  But what he said next I’ll never forget.  “I have to work hard just like everyone else.”

I’m reading a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
– a psychologist who has spent her career studying work ethic.  Her conclusion is that raw talent does not make someone successful.  Rather it is those with the drive to persevere that make achievements. Her formula goes something like this:

Talent x Effort = Skill.  Skill x Effort = Achievement.

Notice that according to her formula, effort counts twice.

This resonates with me and my family.  My middle daughter Naomi was just accepted into the gifted and talented program (her older sister was accepted last year).  I’ve told Naomi time and again that she is one of the most talented people I know.  After reading Grit, I think I’ve misspoken.  Teaching Naomi is one of the most exasperating tasks as her parents.  She struggles with auditory processing, so her response is often a frustrated, “What do you mean?”  We have to re-explain and rephrase until the light bulb clicks.  When I taught her piano lessons (which I dreaded doing), she would often get disheartened with herself, start crying, and declare, “I can’t do this.”  Twenty minutes after lessons, she was playing the song perfectly.  She’s not great at reading music, but boy can she play by ear.  Sounds familiar.

What my daughter lacks in raw talent, she more than compensates in persistence, and so it is nearly impossible to tell where talent ends and persistence begins.

I’m not sure I’ll use that word “talented” with Naomi anymore.  As I’ve been processing through my own experiences, I’ve realized that the “talented” label has caused more frustration than flattery.  When I sit down at the piano and struggle through a piece, my fingers clumsily flopping all over keys, I think, “I’m talented; I should be able to do this.”  When I sit in a programming class or in a sales meeting and I fail to grasp ideas, I think, “I’m talented; I should be able to do this.”  I’m sure that’s why my daughter cries at the piano or groans in frustration while doing her homework.  I’m sure she thinks, “If I’m so talented, why can’t I just do this?”  Being called “talented” has been encouraging, but it also has been a source of frustration when I can’t naturally complete certain tasks.

I wonder if we do a disservice to society by emphasizing our focus on the “gifted and talented.”  We create this stigma that certain people have this natural ability that the rest of society lacks.  I’m sure there might be something to natural talent, but what those gifted tests don’t tell you about our daughter is how we limit her television viewing, or how much she’s obsessed with fact books, or how we try and avoid processed foods as a family, or how hard she works at something to get it perfect.  In other words, as talented as she may be, we see the hard work that she (and all of us) put into her development.

Not everyone approaches development the same way we do.  When I taught Spanish, I encountered a student with dyslexia.  Her mother was angry that I would grade her spelling on her Spanish vocab quizzes, and then in no uncertain terms she said, “My daughter really isn’t intelligent.  We’re banking on her lacrosse skills to get to college.”   I felt bad… not for grading this student’s spelling, but that her mother had advocated lower standards her entire life.  I conceded a little to accommodate her learning challenge, but I told her she needed to come the rest of the way.  And wouldn’t you know, the second she realized she wasn’t going to get a free pass (something she was accustomed to getting), her spelling improved.  She learned a valuable lesson: what she lacked naturally, she would need to make up through hard work.

Talent may help you excel at something you’re good at, but grit gets you through the tasks you neither are good at nor want to do.  The more I go through life, the more that I’m forced to do things which are neither natural inclinations nor personal desires.  Every day, I rely much more on grit than any natural talent that I might have been given.

Whenever I think about unsurmountable tasks, I draw inspiration from another former student of mine.  This particular student was someone who tried harder than anyone else in any class I’ve ever taught.  And in all my history of teaching, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard just to maintain Cs and Ds.  He was one dedicated young man who would ask to meet me after school for private tutoring, but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t grasp the abstract ideas involved in learning a second language.  However, what this student lacked in traditional school capability, he more than made up in auto mechanics.  While I witnessed very talented kids present lackluster senior projects, for this student’s senior project, he completely restored and remodeled a Model T car.  A few weeks later, he joined his peers as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.  For some, the journey had been a cakewalk.  For him, it was the culmination of years of grit.  I am convinced he worked harder than anyone else to earn that graduation.

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  It takes a curious mind to come up with ideas, but it takes a work ethic to turn those ideas into fruition and inventions.  In school, the gifted and talented will stand out, but in the corporate world, the awards and promotions are given to the people who work the hardest.

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