Do we know what Talent is?

Talent - it’s a word I hear bandied about more often that I’d prefer.  Having played music for 26 years, 15 of those professionally, I have had my fair share of accolades in the form of, ”my gosh, you’re so talented.”   I always accept this compliment at face value with a polite “Thank You” because I realize this is how many people communicate their gratitude for the musical experience to which I was a party.  However, lately I can't help but shake the feeling that people have been misusing the word “talent” in this context. 

Starting from talent as “a natural aptitude or ability,” please notice the chasm between popular usage and this definition.  If I practice really hard on a difficult piece of music, why would anyone feel the urge to thank me after its performance for my natural ability?  Would we thank someone for their blue eyes or towering height?  Is gratitude directed at others not predicated on their individual efforts?   

My issue with the word “talent” stems from a desire to be acknowledged for the efforts for which I am in control, as opposed to the affordances to which I have been bestowed.  I come from an upper-middle class background of engineers, lawyers, preachers and other business-men and women.  Besides a primary school education in basic music, or as a hobby in adulthood, none of my extended family members, either living or dead, has ever cultivated the “talent” they must have naturally been bestowed upon me through their genes.  However, what they did impart to me was the power of hard work, self-motivation, patience, and grit; the value of a life whose path we are fortunate enough to choose. 

Without venturing down the slippery slope of Nature vs. Nurture, let me close by sharing a statement I heard recently: “ I mean, I wish I could play music but I don’t have any talent.”    Never before have I been stunned into silence at hearing such a self-defeating statement.  I did not know this person well enough to begin expounding the virtues of musical exploration at any ability level, so I remained silent.   

Talent exists, but so does grit.  Genius exists, but so does spontaneity.  My hope is that people will cease using words and their definitions to justify their lack of motivation: myself included.