Let's Re-think "Talent"
Let’s Re-think “talent”
Sometimes people say to me and to each other “you’re so talented!” It’s meant as a compliment and I take it as such. I hope you do too, when you hear it. So the following remarks are not about accepting and celebrating natural gifts. We all have them in varying degrees and different areas and they are nice. I, for example, may have some talent at needle arts and ZERO talent in the area of basketball, but I gather that those who do possess basketball talent get a lot of enjoyment from it.
The subject on my mind today is that, in celebrating talent, I think I’ve spotted a cultural tendency to overlook the contribution of hard work in success at anything. And that includes knitting. Remember what Grandma said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Add what Thomas Edison said: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration.” Communication these days is instantaneous. Shopping in the modern world means that we can usually get the goods we want when we want them. I love being able to pursue an idle interest in the moment via Google. But some things will never become instantaneous and expertise is one of them.
Taking basketball as an example, what separates the big sports stars from everyone else? Talent is surely a player. Height and natural physical excellence are helpful. But did any of them ever reach the top of their game without hours upon hours, days, weeks and years of practice and drills? No.
For part of my career, I was supervisor of a newspaper night shift of what was then called the “paste up” department of a newspaper. It was a job that benefited from intelligence, quickness and a bit of artistic ability so the people who applied and worked for me often had those qualities. I enjoyed them, but supervising a bunch of smart, artistic people is a bit like herding monkeys. I soon discovered that the most important quality in a paste up artist was willingness to work hard and long and accept correction with equanimity and keep working. As it turned out, some of my very best employees had the least natural talent. But with persistence, they learned to turn out top notch work and did so reliably.
Here’s how all of this relates to knitting: Whether knitting on two needles, a loom or a machine, knitting is a skill that requires the ability to visualize something and bring it into being by means of physical actions. Conceptual and motor skills are both in play. It’s a great head start to have natural physical and mental talent in these areas but absolutely nobody is born into the world as a good knitter. It takes practice. Some of our efforts are not going to succeed. When that happens, remember Grandma and “try, try again.”
This is where I take issue with “talent”. Because talent is in-born, we can’t do anything about it. So if we assign the success of someone we admire to pure talent, we do two very negative things. First, we overlook the enormous effort this person has made to turn talent into skill. Second, we imply that those who lack natural talent simply couldn’t succeed. It’s not true. With enough effort, we can all succeed at almost anything. Can I become a good enough basketball player to be desirable in the NBA? Um….NO. But can I learn to play basketball competently? Of course. It’s a game with rules I can learn and skills I can work on. The same is true of knitting. Everyone can learn it, even some with significant disabilities.
It’s an open question whether you want to put in the time and effort to be good at something and it’s your choice. Knitting in the modern world is an optional pastime for most people. But if you do want to knit or be good at anything else, please don’t trip yourself by assuming that lack of immediate success dooms you to failure. It doesn’t.
Hang in there!
Once upon a time I was an ambitious 13 year old seamstress. I desired above all things to have a bandana print two piece bathing suit ready to wear to summer camp. I sewed and struggled for weeks. It was barely within my abilities but I got it done in time and off I went to camp. The first day we had swimming placement tests. I was quite a good swimmer so I dove confidently off the dock and began to stroke when I became aware that something was terribly amiss.
In those days, the bottoms of two piece suits were much like bloomers, gathered in tightly. It wasn't my favorite thing about the suit. The sketch on the pattern looked much sleeker, but what could I do? The yardage in the trunks would have encircled a considerable larger heinie than my teenage tush and only the elastic defended my modesty. Sadly, unbeknownst to me, not all elastic at this terrible point in history was "waterproof" and I had used the NON waterproof variety. So you can imagine what happened when I hit the water.
Should such a debacle occur at this point in my life it would be no big deal. I'd simply confess to a wardrobe malfunction and request that somebody toss me a towel. But at13, this obvious solution did not occur to me so I completed my swimming test like this: stroke, swim out of drawers, retrieve drawers, tug them as far up as possible and repeat.
Astonishingly, I placed pretty well on the test! I realize now that besides giggling at my plight, the counselors were probably impressed that I could actually swim in and out of my suit like that. Also, astonishingly, I survived the mortification and am thought to be fairly normal in the mental health department.