The Problem with Talent (And What to Do About It)

Why do I shudder when people use the word ‘talented’ to describe me? Why would I ask journalists and marketers to remove it from articles about me? Though it might seem like praise, the word ‘talent’ actually holds us and our people back.

When I was younger I wore ‘talented’ as a badge of honour. But what I didn’t know then was that this label was actually restricting my growth and ability to learn.

I’ve spent the time since then living in, and now recovering from, toxic perfectionism. It’s held me back in more ways than I can imagine - from taking risks, to being willing to fail, to stepping into my authority.

Now, the word ‘talented’ pushes all my perfectionist, fixed mindset buttons.

So, what’s the problem with talent?

The Oxford Dictionary defines talent as “a natural aptitude or skill”. By definition it’s not something we can control. Like height, we’re stuck with what we’re born with.

When I hear the word ‘talented’ it reignites my old belief that I have no control over my talent. I’m defined by what I do or don’t have. No matter how much effort I expend, my talent is fixed.

When we praise talent, we are praising innate ability. In doing so, we teach that self-worth is determined by something over which you have no control. “Chenille is so talented” tells Chenille that she’s good…and that she can’t get better or worse.

Conversely, “Ruby has no talent”, tells Ruby she’s no good and that she can’t do anything about it.

As a kid, I grew up being told that I was very talented. By the time I became a teenager I began to believe this meant I didn’t have the ability to work hard or improve. (Despite evidence to the contrary). I believed that I’d spent school coasting along on my natural gifts, but achieving beyond that wasn’t possible.

Talent does exist

This isn’t to say that talent isn’t real. Everyone has natural abilities - things that come more easily to them than others. However the mere presence of talent doesn’t equal success. It will only take us so far. After that, deliberate effort is required to continue building competence.

By praising talent, we discourage investment in deliberate effort. We cultivate the belief that we or our students can get by on talent alone. This can become debilitating, as we aren’t encouraged to apply ourselves to improve tour skills.

We learn that once we have maxed out our natural ability, we cannot progress further. We believe our capacity is limited by our natural ability (or lack thereof). As a result, we develop a fixed mindset where our skill becomes linked to our identity: “I am good at English”.

When we’re told we don’t possess talent, the same thing happens. We learn we don’t have the capacity to improve, and internalise a fixed view of our skills: “I am not good at Maths”.

These fixed beliefs lead to a decrease in effort and slow or stagnant progress. When we believe our ability is fixed, what’s the point in trying?

A real world problem

Like me, you’ve probably said or heard this in your staff room:

”Julia is a good student

”Sondra is a bad student

This is the fixed mindset in full flight. When we label students or colleagues as good or bad we deny their ability to change.

Even if we don’t say this to their face our actions reinforce our internal beliefs: good students/colleagues can excel and bad students/colleagues can’t.

Confusing skill/competence for talent

Often, when we use the word talent, what we actually mean is skill or competence: “the ability to do something well”. Skill or competence can be built, learned and improved. It’s something we can control.

When we praise effort we promote the belief that skill is malleable. This promotes an internal locus of control. We have agency over our growth, progress and success.

Separating People from Performance

When we praise innate ability, we often unintentionally link performance to self-worth.

“You ARE a great player” sends a very different message to “You played really well”. When performance isn’t great we internalise the opposite: “I AM a bad player”.

We internalise these phrases as part of our identity as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ player. Both limit our likelihood of applying effort, because we believe we can’t change.

Musicians expend so much time and effort honing their skills. When we hear the ‘“you are” phrases over an over from teachers, they become our own internal monologue. And we perceive them to be immutable facts.

It’s then very easy to confuse comments about our performance for being comments about ourselves as people. We hear “You are bad at X” as ”You are bad”. “Your performance was no good“ comes across as “You are no good”.

It takes sustained intention and effort as a leader to ensure we praise or criticise the behaviour rather than the person. The same is true if we want to change our own beliefs.

When we instead create a conscious link between effort and outcome we develop a sense of agency and control in ourselves and others.

Simply put, we instead learn a much healthier belief: “you get out what you put in”.

The Gender Gap

I’ve recently been reading The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart. It’s helped me realised that the way we think and speak about talent differs substantially depending on gender.

Interestingly, men and boys are more likely to be praised for their ‘talent’, ‘genius’ or ‘brilliance’, whereas women are described as ‘diligent’, ‘hard work’, ‘work ethic’ or ‘grit’.

Does this mean women and girls are more likely to develop a growth mindset and be more successful? On the contrary, it teaches them that males are innately smarter and promotes them to internalise that women are the opposite.

These stereotypes are internalised early. Psychologist Lin Bian tested this, reading a story about a ‘really, really smart person’ to young children. They were then shown photos of a man and a woman and asked which was the person from the story. At age 5, children chose an adult of their own gender. But once girls reached age 6 and 7, they attributed brilliance more readily to men.

What happened to children in that one year? Though not mentioned in the study, they likely experienced a profound life-changing event: they started school.

Why Our Words Matter

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re a teacher or a leader in your organisation. Your words have power. When you speak, people listen.

I recently met up with a friend who, like many of us, had a story to tell about a teacher whose words had stayed with her.

In her early twenties she had made the decision to swap her studies in dentistry for music. After her first lesson with “the best piano teacher in town” she was told “You’ll never be a concert pianist. I’m sorry. You’ve made a mistake”.

When I met with my friend, she’d just given a solo recital of her own compositions to a full house.

Luckily, she had been able to break free from the limitations imposed by that teacher. But she said “I still remember those words, 10 years later. I can feel it in my body”.

We’ve all got stories like this. I’ve told one on this blog. Two more stand out for me.

”She doesn’t have the ears for it”

My dad caught up with my first violin teacher. When he told him I’d just taken up French Horn he said “Oh, she won’t be any good at that. She doesn’t have the ears for it.” I’m not sure why Dad chose to recount this story to me. Luckily, rather than sinking to my former teacher’s fixed mindset of my abilities, it lit a “I’ll show him” fire under me.

But I still remember it.

”You’ll never…”

Fast forward six years and I was finishing high school. I was torn between a career in music or medicine. A well-meaning teacher said to me “You’ll never be in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But if you choose music you’ll probably be my boss someday” (as a music teacher).

That sentence stuck in my head for years. Unlike the French horn comment, it had a lasting impact. It was one seed of many that led me to believe, for more than 15 years, that I wouldn’t succeed in the world of professional music-making.

Perhaps he meant that my skills at the time in teaching and mentoring were stronger than my skills on the horn.

He was right. I never did play horn in the MSO. Now I conduct them.

The Alternative to ‘Talent’

We’ve already broken down how to decouple people from outcomes, and praising effort. But what about when people’s performance or effort isn’t up to scratch?

The simple addition of the word ‘yet’ makes all the difference for those we lead.

“Elsa can’t sight read well.” seems like the end of the story. But “Elsa can‘t sight read well yet” opens the possibility for Elsa to grow and improve her skills.

”Shayla isn’t listening and doesn’t understand why we’re doing this” becomes less frustrating when it’s “Shayla isn’t listening and doesn’t understand why we’re doing this, yet”.

The ‘yet’ gives everyone the grace and space to change their beliefs and behaviour. It signals a belief in the potential for resolution and improvement. It shifts our perspective from thinking a problem is unsolvable to being curious about finding a solution.

Choose Your Words Carefully

How we speak to our people matters. Our words can live for a lifetime.

When we praise talent, we promote fixed mindset. Instead, we need to praise process and effort, to promote agency and a growth mindset.

When we tie results to identity, we tie outcomes self-worth.

Instead, we need to separate the person from the outcome and praise their effort.

By adding the word yet, we signal our belief that change is possible.

Your Challenge

Do you have a fixed mindset about your own skills, or those of the people you lead?

What internal beliefs about talent, or lack there of, are holding you or your people back?

Knowing what you know now, how will you use the power of your words differently?

Further Reading

The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, And What We Can Do About It - Mary Ann Sieghart

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills - Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Here’s How - Daniel Coyle

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