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Stop Calling Me Talented

Let’s stop thinking of ‘talented’ as a rigid concept that is inherent (you are born with it), and let’s start thinking about it as something more fluid. Talent can be built on and it isn’t required in order to have fun or do something really well.

When people like my art they often tell me ‘Oh you’re so talented!’. It’s a lovely compliment to receive, but it always makes me feel a bit funny. ‘Talented’ seems such a rigid concept. You can’t become talented, you either are or you aren’t. It also doesn’t take into account the hard work that came before it. It seems the most prevalent attitude is: I am talented therefore I can paint a nice picture, not: I have practiced therefore I can paint a nice picture.

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.  Stephen King  |

I’ve touched upon this before in my article about Deserving to Do Art. There seems to be this notion that there are people who are already inherently good at something, and therefore they are allowed to pursue that thing. On the other side there are people who are not inherently good at something, and therefore they shouldn’t bother.

Yes, there are people who pick up a brush for the first time when they’re 20 (or 30 or 40) and create amazing paintings. There are child savants who create art beyond anything I will ever dream of achieving.

That’s not the norm!

If you’re reading this it’s likely you’re more like me: enthusiastic and passionate, but not ridiculously talented in any way. If you think my paintings have anything to do with talent, think again. Instead, it’s hours and hours of practice. It was picking up a brush and creating something that looked crap. It made me never want to paint again, but instead I said ‘never mind’ and kept creating. Until one day (honestly, this day came MUCH MUCH later than I would’ve wanted!) I painted something and thought ‘hey, I actually quite like that!’

The thing that makes me sad though is that often with the compliment from the first paragraph comes a feeling that is left unsaid: ‘you’re talented, but I’m not’. People lament and say they ‘can’t paint faces’. Back to that feeling of you can only do it if you’re already magically good at it; if you’re talented. Want to know a secret? I couldn’t paint faces either! I took some online courses and I practiced, and now I can!

Stop Calling Me Talented | comparison image before and after practisingLOOKIE!! I practised!!! I actually have a soft spot for the one on the left too, even if I can see all the flaws. It looks like she was created with a lot of freedom, even though I didn’t yet have the skill to know where to put the eyes or do the shading.

It’s so easy to get trapped in that thinking of not being able to acquire a skill (or attributing it to the magical ‘talent’, which makes it even more elusive and ‘not for us mere mortals’), especially once we leave full-time education. We’re formed, we’re done, can’t change now!

BUT WE CAN!!! We just need to want it enough!

And we need to put in the work. Don’t let that put you off though, the work can be fun. You can make it fun. Remember how kids learn? By playing! Get out your art supplies and play. Talent schmalent. Fun and fulfillment is where it’s at, and that is achieved by enjoying the process.

In the video below I embrace playfulness in art and create a journal spread based around giving myself permission to create.

Let me know in the comments what you think of the relationship between talent and doing things well!

By Iris

Hi I'm Iris! I'm a mixed media artist from London, UK. I want to inspire everyone with a creative heart to make and do what they love!

25 replies on “Stop Calling Me Talented”

I’ve been doing this for nearly 4 years now, at the age of 48 – one day I hope to be good. As you say though I do find I actually ‘like’ what I do some days now though. I was once told by someone who ‘was’ a friend without a degree in Art I could not call myself an artist. Taken me a long time to try get through that one. Love the Stephen King quote too. Love your art Iris, must admit though I thought it was talent too.

And look where you are now Lynda! You create art, it’s uniquely you (I can recognise it as your style) and I love it. Talking about ‘good’ is arbitrary, but your work evokes feeling in me, and that’s an excellent achievement. I mean, apart from making art for ourselves, isn’t evoking feeling in other people with our art one of the main things that is so special about sharing our art?

I had a similar conversation with a friend once about professional qualifications and the right to call yourself an artist! It was very frustrating and really complicated the friendship.

Tell you a personal story about this subject. When I was little I was called talented about several things. It has never done me any good. It was not accompanied by the instilling of a work ethic or a notion that hard work gets you where you want to go. It was only ‘wow you’re really good at that, you’re talented!’ which meant I felt like it was inherent (doesn’t matter if I do it or don’t do it, it’s fixed) and it gave me a really big fear of failure.

I make extra sure with my kids to recognise their effort, to encourage them to try things and I try not to focus on whether something is ‘good’ or whether they’re especially impressive compared to someone else.

Great article and what an eye opener Iris!!
Also, I’m so glad to see someone else my age (I’m 51) who’s developped herself in art and calles herself an artist! I am into mixed media since last summer and am often unhappy and frustrated about my work, but reading all these personal stories really helps to persevere!
Thanks everyone!
Inge x

AMEN! 😉 You know that I have gone through this same struggle and contemplation and learning to PLAY. My husband and I were just discussing “talent” and “passion” recently and the many misconceptions or expectations often associated with these ideas. I felt lost without much of either for many years… trying to find both in a way that fit with education or vocation. I’m not so sure that so much emphasis should be put on either any more. I have learned to play and explore… again… since losing those somewhat in the process of growing up and getting a job and getting responsible/practical. I am blessed and fortunate to be able to spend more time playing and exploring now, but my husband still feels caged by a job (that he honestly likes in many ways… aside from the enormous time demand!). Our culture and expectations (personal and tribal) can sometimes be quite at odds with our hearts, ideas, needs, and diverse interests, eh? Perhaps the phrase “practice makes perfect” should be discarded and we should focus more on “play makes progress”? 😉

“Play makes progress” Julia I LOVE THAT!!!! Your thoughts are so in line with mine! For years I was waiting to find out what my passion was… it was only through DOING stuff (art mainly) that I have found my passion. And by pursuing what I feel passionate about now, I I’m honing my senses and realisations about what makes my heart sing, and let that develop over time. That whole doing, rather than waiting, has been such an epiphany to me (I know it sounds so logical… but I really thought it was going to be a thinking process rather than a doing process if you know what I mean). There are so many ‘shoulds’ in life that get in the way of pursuing playfulness, and in a way it’s a bit backwards, because when you’re playful and open you’re getting MORE done. I think certain companies do understand this or are changing.

Lovely post, Iris! The word talent has a negative connotation to me: “You’re so talented, but what are you doing about it?” It’s like talent is something that is waiting to happen. The word is wrong per se. Accomplished would be a better word. You’re right in that people don’t see any possibility for them to make art a practice in their lives. It’s sad because art is life in a way, because you can only be in the middle of art, not standing on the sidelines. Still, people choose to stand on the sidelines. I’m so grateful that art has an important place in my life. It can be frustrating and I often feel the resistance to push through on a piece, but eventually it comes together. Being committed will bring us through those difficult times. Thanks for the post. 🙂 xo

Yes it does to me too Maria. Accomplished it definitely a better word to describe what people are trying to convey when they use the word talented. Accomplished doesn’t feel like it’s trying to say that it’s an inherent feature or didn’t involve practice. And yes it’s absolutely a choice to participate in art!!! I’m so glad you said that, because it’s something that is often on my mind too! I think we’re both doing work in that area of helping people unlock that potential inside themselves to not be on the sidelines but to realise that they can make art too, as long as they want to!

Great post iris! I agree completely! I always call my kids in school up on this, when i draw something and they ooh and ahh about how “talented” i am and how they cant draw the same, i tell them, you know what, im a lot older than you and have drawn for many many years more, and i still cant draw everything, but i love doing it and if you love doing it carry on and you will get better and better and be able to draw things you love. I also tell them that the enjoyment, the fullfillment of their soul, can come from playing with art and not worrying about whether they are “talented” or not. Apparently it takes 10,000 hours to get really great at something…i always said practice makes perfect, but i much prefer the phrase play makes progress, im going to start using that!

Sometimes I feel like people using the word ‘talented’ to someone else is like a cop-out for them applying themselves and getting good at something themselves. It’s so scary to start with something you’re crap at and working on it, not knowing whether it’s going to get better. Definitely requires a leap of faith, but then again I’ve also never seen anyone who practiced diligently and didn’t get any better over time! It’s a proven strategy lol! Love your attitude Lucy, your students are very lucky to have you!

Iris, thanks for inspiring my first blog post since returning with this one of yours! 🙂 You got me thinking and I love the idea that “play makes progress” and that led to my latest blog post today. 🙂

Excellent truths explained! Talent may be a starting point for some people, but it takes PASSION to succeed. Only passion will keep one going during the slog of practice after practice after practice. I think in today’s culture telling someone they are “so talented” (and implying that they themselves are not) becomes more of an excuse for themselves, absolving them of any need or responsibility to pursue interests.One of our sons was an extremely talented, natural athlete. He was amazing at whatever sport he tried. However, that raw talent was not going to make him an expert at every sport. It took hours and hours every day at the ice rink over years and years of time to start medaling at competitions in ice-dance. With that talent, he had to find something he was passionate about and something he was interested in pursuing for an extended time. Creative arenas are no different…

Yes Jill exactly, passion and hard work is where it’s at! For me it’s taken years of doing nothing and feeling passionless to realise that being naturally good at something means nothing if you don’t pursue it with passion and hard work! I think when I was little a lot of emphasis was put on how I was naturally good at certain stuff, and no emphasis on what should have come after that. It meant I didn’t enjoy the things I did nor did I get very far with them! Great to read about how your son pursued ice skating with dedication and effort!

I’ve never really liked to be called “talented.” To me, the subtle subtext underneath that is “you obviously don’t have to work at it.” And that’s just simply not the case. I have always loved art and it is truly my passion. But it’s never come “easily” for me. I work at it all the time. I could do the same side-by-side comparison of faces I’ve drawn/painted years ago to those I’ve done this year, and you’d think they were done by different people. I’m always working, always trying new things, new techniques, new media…always learning and trying to grow as an artist. The journey is the most important thing to me–the process of art and growth. And I believe that ANYONE who creates is an artist. No one needs a degree to be an artist (I have a degree, but that in no way makes me an artist). Nor do they need to be someone else’s idea of what “good” is. Create with your heart and soul and you are an artist; and whatever you create in the process is art. Good or bad makes no difference, because those are subjective and relative terms based on someone else’s opinion. Thanks for your inspiring posts, as always, Iris. 🙂

Tina, yes it’s EXACTLY that subtext that rubs me the wrong way!! You’ve really hit the nail on the head. I’m also learning now about the journey. I lived a childhood that was very destination focused, and I realise now that is not how to achieve happiness or fulfillment. The satisfaction needs to be not in what you’re going to become, but in what you already are. I really agree with what you said about everybody who creates is an artist!

Thank you for your wonderful article, My experience is also that doing stuff is way more important than talent, everyone has his own style but you need to create to discover it. I have added you to my bloglovin feed, looking forward to more lovely posts from you!

Thank you Helena! Recently just GETTING.STUFF.DONE has been my priority. I used to be such a procrastinator and perfectionist, resulting in never actually doing or achieving anything. Doing stuff and letting yourself make mistakes is so much more productive than waiting for perfection!

I love this post Iris… I’ve had this conversation many times… with myself as well as others. I totally agree with you. Have you ever read Carol Dwecks book ‘mindset’? It explores this idea of attaching labels to kids and how damaging it can be! very good read.

Thanks Amanda! I’ve heard of Carol Dweck, or maybe saw a talk by her? I try to be really careful about labeling my kids because I know how damaging it can be. I found it so interesting to discover that both positive and negative labeling are pretty much equally counterproductive.

Your discussion is so true. I AM one of those “talented” people who drew as soon as I could find something to do it with. I grew up in a family where it was a given you could draw. But it still takes practice and work to maintain. Like any other skill in life it can be learned and needs practice. I find it frustrating that drawing is considered totally differently to all other skills. We don’t expect children to write sonnets like shakespeare as soon as they know how to write, so why do we think that art is an inborn skill? If you read about vincent van gogh’s life, you find that he started drawing in his twenties and spent years copying the masters before he began painting. I think we need to question the belief that most artists are born with talent and can just do it without any work. That is the only way to change the conception.

Vicki, thank you so much for your insightful comment! You’re totally right that it seems to be that art is seen as different from other skills. It might also be that people actually LIKE to buy into the romantic notion of artists and inspiration (rather than the reality which is years of hard work, whether you’re inspired or not!).

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