You don’t have to spend long in the arts before the word “talent” starts popping up in conversation. I’m sure there are people who’ve been called talented tax auditors, middle managers, or waiters, but those in the arts seem to love the idea of talent the way a sprinter loves speed.
And what’s not to love? There is an effortlessness to the talented. We watch a pianist in firm control of a sonata, and if we are not pianists ourselves we might think, “How does she do it? She’s so relaxed and yet so exact. She must be very talented.” A writer turns a phrase both surprising and precise, an actor reveals love with the smallest gesture, a painter finds beauty in the banal, and in that moment after we are struck by the simple, effortless clarity of whatever the artist has rendered, the word “talent” comes floating to our lips, and the mystery of creation is solved. It was talent.
It always struck me as a kind of wishful thinking, this concept of talent—the Holy Grail from which some lucky few have sipped. The talented are like comic book superheroes, gifted with X-Ray vision or the power to breathe underwater. If only I were as strong as Superman, think how much easier my adolescence would have been; if I could have played the piano like Horowitz, think how much fun I would have been at parties.
It is a wish born from the dream of effortlessness. Life, we all sense, need not be such a constant struggle, and yet it so often seems to be. But I think that when we call someone else talented we are hoping, secretly, that the effortlessness of sublime execution can be achieved without that most stubborn, simple, and inescapable of all responsibilities—our own choice.
Anyone in the world can choose to be talented. But oh, what a choice. There is, unfortunately, only one way to be talented at something: you have to be willing to do it in the way you most want to do it. If I were to try to write like Cormac McCarthy, it would be very, very hard. Not because Cormac McCarthy is some superhuman writer, but because I do not want to write like Cormac McCarthy because I am not Cormac McCarthy. However, the more I let myself write like Bill Kenower, the more effortless the work becomes.
The hardest thing in the world is work against oneself. Yet we extol the virtues of sweat and suffering, as if paddling upstream shows great courage in defying the capricious will of the river. Who is the river to tell you where to go? Turn your boat, I say. You will never suffer more than when you are denying yourself. But the choice to be yourself, the choice to turn your boat, can only be made in the solitude of your own heart, before the applause, before the book deal, before the wedding day.
The talented among us are merely the ones who have chosen effortlessness. Which is to say, they chose to do it the way they wanted to, not the way they thought should. The problem is, if you do it the way you want to do it, it will never have been done before, and there will be nothing, truly, that you can compare it to. How will you know if you are doing it right? Because it feels effortless.
And that is what we admire when we behold those we call talented. Not what they are doing. What they are doing doesn’t matter at all to us. No, what we admire, what inspires and calls to us, and what we recognize whether we can ever name it or not, is the courage it takes to choose to be your authentic, sovereign self.