What is TALENT and who has it?

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Blog entry by Don Butler posted 06-02-2010 03:36 PM 1358 reads 0 times favorited 27 comments Add to Favorites Watch

What is TALENT? What to do about it

In today’s blog, I want to talk about talent. Everybody tells me, when they see my woodworking or the pictures I make by hand or with a camera, “Oh, you’re so TALENTED”. I’m flattered, of course, but in my mind I want to quibble with that.
The word talent, as with so many words, has lost its real meaning. Most of the time it’s used to indicate appreciation of good work. When someone, take as an example a knitter, makes a beautiful sweater or hat, some will explain, “Oh, I wish I had your talent”.
Well, that always gets me, because I know, for myself, that I am NOT a talented woodworker or a talented painter or a talented photographer. And I know that the knitter worked hard to get the SKILL to knit beautifully.
Why do I say that? Because I understand the meaning of the WORD. Words means something. When their meaning is lost and the words are used in some other way we don’t communicate well.

Fussy? Yeah, I guess so. I’m a geek and always have been. I have a picture of me at about age four or five that shows just how geeky I was then. I’ve always been geeky.

So I obsess about words. Communication has always been important to me. Maybe I’m worried that other people will misunderstnd me. Actually, people have always misunderstood me. I think that misunderstanding is common and often leads to unnecessary hurt feelings or even anger.
So don’t get mad at me, OK? I just want to clear the air about one word, “talent”. I don’t mean to criticize.

What is the real meaning of the word?
One dictionary definition is this, endowment, gift, natural endowment.”
If something I can do was a GIFT, it is something I was born with. However, I was not born with any natural gift for art. I wanted to acquire ability, but I didn’t have it at the beginning, when I first decided I wanted to be an artist. I must have admired the work of other artists and just wanted to emulate them.
Actually, I worked hard for many years to be able to draw and what I got for my trouble was ABILITY, not talent. I got experience, and at some basic level, could draw fairly well.

And then, after some study, I found out that nearly every person with a normal brain possessed a natural ability to draw! Really! It’s TALENT!
For most people in modern society, however, the brain processes that permit us to draw what we see with our eyes is suppressed in schools that emphasize left brain activity. That means things like heavy emphasis on mathematics, memorization and so forth.

But. I digress. My point is this: One doesn’t get to have talent. Talent is inborn. It is manifested before training. So a child who toddles over to the family piano and begins playing music is indeed talented.
A child who, from the start, has a beautiful singing voice and good pitch, is talented.
But one can’t have a talent for building electronic devices, for example. There’s nothing natural about that. The ability for things like that, having a tendency or desire to work with electronics, I think, comes from another talent, one which seems to be unrecognized, and that is the natural ability or gift of LEARNING.
Think about it. The desire to learn is supremely important in getting the ability to do things which are not natural. Singing is natural. Building a computer is not. I can do both, but I don’t believe that the abilities I have in those endeavors are talents. They are acquired experience. Before I discovered the natural way of drawing I was struggling to do it by practice. But Talent doesn’t work that way.
Talent is precious and must be carefully protected and developed if it is to be of any benefit to its owner. If one shows native ability to draw and paint that one should be exposed to teaching that promotes the Talent. Otherwise, the natural gift will wither. Talented singers, for example, without training to bring the Talent forth, will remain at the level of ability they had when born and will not progress to become great singers.
My woodworking, whether it is common or not, isn’t the product of talent, it comes from practice and learning. My Talent, if I have one, is Learning. I love learning. I’ve been promoting my own education all my life. I even love tests! I think that comes from my love of learning. So, I’ve learned woodworking because of my natural ability to learn, and I applied that ability toward acquiring SKILL in woodworking. Skill and Talent aren’t the same things!

Now, don’t misunderstand. When I say I am skilled not talented at something, that doesn’t imply there is something of less value about it. Talent is the same as aptitude, and it steers us in ways that allow us to become skilled in that particular work. I think many so-called artists have no natural talent and prove it by slopping paint on a canvas and representing it as Art. If they have talent, they haven’t developed it. Using art materials is a skill and if one has artistic Talent, that must be developed until the Talent blooms. Picasso seems to have had Talent, as exhibited in his “Blue Period” but later discovered that people would pay big money for childish and unnatural paintings, he stopped developing his talent.
I hope you notice that I used the upper case “T” where the Talent is cherished and developed. Where it is ignored or unused I don’t capitalize the word. That’s deliberate. I mean to show appreciation for Talent well used.
May all of you find and cherish your own Talents.

Don Butler June 2, 2010

-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

27 comments so far

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

3945 posts in 2589 days

#1 posted 06-02-2010 04:16 PM

Yes, that is how I understand the word. Unfortuanately, I am going to guess that I don’t have a great talent for woodworking, although I will probably develop what little aptitude I have enough to enjoy it. Aptitude is a close synonym. And talent is a relative thing, meaning you may be talented in an arena, but still you can’t make a living at it because relative to others with talent you don’t stand out. There are degrees of talent. It is not an all or nothing thing.

I may have some talent for making gizmos and designing things. That is my engineering talent showing through. But I suspect I will never make anything very wonderful to look at. I tested out when in high school, as having strongest aptitude for engineering….........and secretarial work….......(-:

So I enjoy making gizmos, you know, jigs, fixtures, etc to help with making…...............more jigs, fixtures and gizmos…........(-:

.........and I find I can do repetitive tasks over and over again without making errors….....the secretarial thing.

I do have a few other talents, and I have been labeled in those arenas correctly. A couple I have developed, another not, on purpose. My strongest talents are work related. Perhaps those are the obvious ones because they have been developed.


-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View PurpLev's profile


8523 posts in 3073 days

#2 posted 06-02-2010 04:54 PM

I agree with you in more than one way. seems like words are losing their meanings in today’s world as they are used and abused. It’s nice to sometimes stop and think of a word and actually realize it’s true meaning which gives it so much more power.

As for ‘Talent’ – I believe ‘talent’ is someone’s ease of getting the hang of something and be natural with it. that being said – even a talented person (pianist, painter, engineer, woodworker,anything else) will not go far without learning, practicing, and developing skills.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View longgone's profile


5688 posts in 2733 days

#3 posted 06-02-2010 05:01 PM

How many levels of talent exist? I do not believe there is only one level of talent. Work has been created by people that I consider talented and have seen work from people that I consider extrremely talented. There is alot of in-between talent. I do not consider myself a talented woodworker but I do have a passion for it that I know I have had all my life.
When in high school I knew numerous people who started playing musical instruments. I always remember one particular person who was so far superior in his musical skills on the guitar after just a couple of years of playing. I remember older musicians who haad been playing 40-50 years saying they would never reach his skill level..Some called him a prodigy….is this the same as talent?
Does talent automatically make a person creative or is creatitivity a whole different area? Who knows?

View a1Jim's profile


115177 posts in 3001 days

#4 posted 06-02-2010 05:02 PM

Talent is the belief of others thinking your good at something.

-- Custom furniture

View BarbS's profile


2434 posts in 3510 days

#5 posted 06-02-2010 05:47 PM

“Words mean something. When their meaning is lost and the words are used in some other way we don’t communicate well.”
Thank you, Don. I know your post is slanted toward praise and ‘talent,’ which is, after all, only the result of repeated practice and skill building, but to a writer, your bringing this up is much appreciated. I contend the slurring of the language is one big factor in the decline of the whole society, and I hope people can become aware of its effects and do what we can to be more precise and communicate better.


View GregD's profile


778 posts in 2560 days

#6 posted 06-02-2010 07:30 PM

I usually avoid using the word “talent” and instead use something more specific because I’m not sure what people will think when I use it. But Jim’s version seems about right to me.

I agree that words mean something. Using them to mean something different than their standard definitions does make communication less effective.

On the other hand, communication is not well served by those that get preoccupied by less than optimal word choice, grammar, or spelling. Effective communication requires a good-faith effort from both the speaker/writer and listener/reader.

I am skeptical that slurring of language is a modern phenomena. Rather, I suspect it is as old as human speech and simply reflects a diminished interest in sharing ideas by those that do it.

I particularly dislike the comment “I wish I had your talent” and its ilk. When I parse those words I end up with a message that I find somewhat offensive, although rarely do I think the speaker actually meant anything of the sort. The usual intent is pretty well approximated by Jim’s version, which is why I like it.

-- Greg D.

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 3318 days

#7 posted 06-02-2010 08:03 PM

AWESOME…............yet another word so often misused.

I do not often read something so long as it bores me to death but I read your post from beginning to end and enjoyed it very much and I also agree whole heartedly.

My mother recently gave me ALL of my report cards through grade school and high school. Without exception there was always a comment from the teacher about my art work and how my folks might let me develop it further on in my education. Sadly but respectfully, my folks wanted nothing to do with it but I have always taken pen and brush to paper which has later moved to carving. So many can carve a bird that is anotomically perfect but most cannot “capture” and attitude, personality, one is skill, the other is talent.

I will forever remember the post on Talent and talent and the next time some body says I am “talented” I will correct them and let them know that I am Talented.

If I could only type and spell…..that would be awesome !!

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 2772 days

#8 posted 06-02-2010 08:47 PM


”I think many so-called artists have no natural talent and prove it by slopping paint on a canvas and representing it as Art. If they have talent, they haven’t developed it. ... Picasso seems to have had Talent, as exhibited in his “Blue Period” but later discovered that people would pay big money for childish and unnatural paintings, he stopped developing his talent.”

For someone who claims to be “obsess about words”, your statement of what constitutes a legitimate artistic act reveals a remarkably limited opinion. While I am not particularly interested in the work of Picasso it is simply false to dismiss his work as his deliberate ploy to make ‘big money’ and anyone with even a little understanding of the history of art should be able to understand this.

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View Cato's profile


693 posts in 2737 days

#9 posted 06-02-2010 10:32 PM

Don- some nice statements there on the word and its usage for us all to ponder.

View Div's profile


1653 posts in 2364 days

#10 posted 06-02-2010 11:14 PM

Don, very well written. Ask any truly successful artist/artisan and they will tell you its is 99% hard work. Talent alone brings you nowhere. PERSISTENCE does.

-- Div @ the bottom end of Africa. "A woodworker's sharpest tool should be his mind."

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

3945 posts in 2589 days

#11 posted 06-03-2010 01:51 AM

I think Don has pointed out what is happening to a word, whether we want it to or not. Talent used to be understood to mean what Don says it means. But its popular meaning is drifting.

It’s like the word ‘hero’. Used to be you had to risk your life to be a hero. Now all you have to do is impress someone in any field of endeavour from tiddlywinks to professional sports to politics. It has lost its former meaning. Is there a good substitute for this word? Unfortunately none comes to mind. And that is sad. Someone out there got a different word?

There is no question in my mind that the original meaning of ‘talent’ is a real item. There are people with no aptitude for some things, and others that have an extraordinary talent. And no amount of work will offset having no aptitude.

But someone with a modest aptitude, and just a whole lot of perserverance can rise to the top, because a lot of the truly talented, don’t make the most of it. They lack other personal attributes.

This is a woodworking forum, so bringing the concept to bear on our issues in this forum seems appropriate. Woodworking is not like some disciplines. It covers a tremendous range of artisty, inventiveness, manual skills, engineering, etc. There is no ‘best’ kind of furniture, or ultimate shape of a bowl, or holy grail of the most rustic, or finest finish. It is an extremely varied and complex discipline. It’s not like quibbling about which is better, a Steinway or a Yamaha piano. There is no best ‘sound’.

The LJ’s product has an extraordinary range of purpose, price, durability, and taste. Be it a jig, a cane, a fine table, a bowl, a cutting board, a pen, a utilitarian chair, etc. There is no level of ‘talent’ you must have to be a woodworker, because the product and the techniques needed to make it, vary too much. And there are too many processes in the production of the usual project to make a specific level of talent absolutely necessary for any individual step.

Making it a truly egalitarian pursuit. A niche somewhere for everyone.

.............might even find a place for a feckless woodworker like me…...........(-:

Here in Anchorage 66 degrees, sun is shining, sky is blue, bees are all over the back yard crabapple tree, now in full bloom, doing something they have great talent for….........making honey, and pollinating the plants and trees….......a win-win situation if ever there was one…............

Alaska Jim

-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View Woodbutchery's profile


289 posts in 3010 days

#12 posted 06-03-2010 05:26 AM

Wow, AJ, those were some bold statements ;-).

Don, I agree that we as a society often confuse talent with aptitude. I am walking proof that all the talent in the world will not help you with something that you have not aptitude for.

I’ve got a good ear for music, pleasant voice, and understand musicality, but after years of practicing a trombone I could never get the instrument to speak as it was meant to, mellow and smoothe (it’s the reason the bell is flared so wide from the cone of the instrument, to soften the sound. This vs. the sackbut, the predecessor to the trombone, which had a very cone-shaped bell with hardly a lip at all). Took me a while to find my instrument (flute), but I found it.

Everyone, thanks for sharing, even the occasional opinion police ;-).

-- Making scrap with zen-like precision - Woodbutchery

View Roger Clark aka Rex's profile

Roger Clark aka Rex

6940 posts in 2859 days

#13 posted 06-03-2010 05:48 AM

Everyone has a natural talent for one thing or another. Various talents gathered together can produce something really wonderful.
A marriage can be a great success when complimenting talents are combined, as can be also a be a business.

I’m looking for someone who knows woodworking!

-- Roger-R, Republic of Texas. "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" - An eyeball to eyeball confrontation with a blind person is as complete waste of Time.

View BertFlores58's profile


1684 posts in 2346 days

#14 posted 06-03-2010 05:59 AM

What a suprise topic… What about the non-english speaking talented people? They don’t even know how primitive they may be… without education.. so called aborigins … here we ifugao, tasadays, or any any other ethnic groups who lives from ancestral learning. But they (the primitive) can wave bamboos, they could carve quickly and good designs of bridges without any mechanical means. Is this the same TALENT we are talking about or the Talent, or the talent ..
What I understand.. We should not relate any words verbally or vocabularically or dictionarily. What is important is how, where, who, what, where the word TALENT was used? It may be sarcastic or methapor or a phraise. Dont be literal. When somebody speaks, I always look around and see what the situation is thinking of the REALITY that the words used CONNOTES or gives the meaning. REMEMBER ACTION SPEAKS LAUDER THAN WORDS…

-- Bert

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 3318 days

#15 posted 06-03-2010 06:56 AM

very few have talent

those who think they do are misguided

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

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