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Talent, Gift or Aptitude?

First published Tuesday, 12 January 2016

"You are so talented". "It must be wonderful to be born with such a gift". "It must be so relaxing to be able to paint all day". I hear these comments or variations of them almost every time I exhibit at a show, and it is lovely that people like my work and want to compliment me. However, I don't really believe in these definitions unless you are one of the minuscule percent of the population termed a ***** savant. My belief is that we may be born with an aptitude, but are not 'gifted' with 'talent'. My belief is that for most of us talent is hard work and hard won. Apparently there have been studies into the way artists think and see things (good luck with that) which concluded that the biggest factor was the ability to see negative space - simply put, the shapes between objects rather than the shapes of the objects themselves. Some people seem to see hues and colours more clearly, but, unless you have a vision problem these are all skills that can be learned and honed. Likewise some people are drawn to draw (no pun intended), but most of us liked to draw as children and enjoyed it at least while our parents proudly displayed our efforts as masterpieces. So we all had some aptitude for it. Similarly most children given the chance to sing, play an instrument, ride a pony etc show some aptitude though in varying degrees. There are of course always the aforementioned savants and the corresponding hopelessly inept to balance it all out but again they are the tiny percentage exceptions. Among the majority rest of us it is the ones who 'did it' because we 'enjoyed doing it' that started being referred to as having some talent. So I drew in art class, in maths class, on the bus to and from school, at home. . . I also sang in a choir, played piano, netball, rounders, ran for fun, climbed trees, read, wrote poetry and short stories, did gymnastics, swimming, diving, ballet and was good at all of them, though I was bottom stream in maths. The language of the adults around me re-enforced this: I was 'hopeless' at maths and science BECAUSE I was 'talented' at sports, music Art and English literature, and we all know that if your brain leans toward sport and humanities it must lean away from science, right? Wrong. I enjoyed doing them so I did them, i.e. I practised. Things started to change when expectations were placed on me. I found some of the things I had previously enjoyed started to be less enjoyable. I was bullied in ballet class, increased schoolwork and changes in my home situation meant less time for or access to sports and the performing arts and by doing less I did not improve and started to lag behind my peers. I gave up singing, ballet, piano, athletics, swimming and gymnastics, but I carried on drawing and painting and horses. Wherever I could I rode horses. On a previous post about balance, fellow artist Judith Farnsworth commented and mentioned the 10,000 hours 'rule'. This was first proposed by a Swedish psychologist and popularised in Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Outliers: The Story of Success'. The premise is that to achieve excellence in any field you have to practice for 10,000 hours. To put that in perspective, over 5 years, leaving aside 2 weeks per year for holidays/illness, then you would have to put in 40 hours per week. if you find that daunting then you probably don't have an aptitude. If you find it a challenge or are thinking "I can't do 40 hours a week but I could maybe manage 20, so it would take 10 years", then you either do have an aptitude or are just bloody-minded. In fact the original psychologist, Anders Ericsson, has since said that the 10,000 was only an average and that for a classical pianist to achieve world class winning status 25,000 hours of ‘dedicated, solitary practice’ eg 3 hours per day for 20 years, was more likely the minimum case. Still have an aptitude? For me taking that aptitude and running with it, putting in the hours even when it is all going wrong and you are not enjoying it, but want to keep learning and having the drive to do so is where the talent lies. As my old riding mentor used to say “There are four things you need to be a good rider: patience, persistence, persistence and patience.” For rider you can just as easily substitute artist, musician, dancer, gymnast, scientist. And Maths? A timetable mess at school meant that I had to swap to the top stream class, something ‘clicked’, I found I enjoyed the puzzle and got a grade A at 'O' Level. Must be a gift.


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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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