Whether you base your conclusion on scientific or anecdotal data, there seems to be enough evidence that talent is innate. Some people are born talented, like some people are born with red hair. But the interplay of talent, hard work and passion may not be as clear-cut as we tend to think.
Talent alone does not guarantee success. Someone may be born with an incredible visual intelligence and the motor skills, intuition and creativity to supplement it, enabling him to create astounding works of art. Yet if that talent is not nurtured, if the skills are not honed and enhanced, it might come to nothing. Like the seed of a great tree, despite having all the arboreal potential in the world, it may shrivel and die soon after germinating.
On the other hand, a less talented person can get far through sheer determination and hard work, even if they do not become the next Shakespeare or Rembrandt. The scraggliest seedling may yet turn into a decent shade tree.
But there is another, perhaps more philosophical question about talent. Does talent create the imperative to use it? In other words, is a talented person obliged to pursue that talent? If you have a gift for playing the violin, does that mean you have to give up your dream of becoming a maths teacher?
One answer might come from a Biblical viewpoint, relating to the parable in Matthew 25. In this story a man distributes talents among his servants, expecting an increased yield from his (their) investments when he returns. Woe to you if you do not use what has been given to you. However, the word “talent”, both in the Bible and in etymological terms, simply refers to money, from the Greek talanton. The exact meaning of this parable is thus open to interpretation. But let us leave it at that and all other theological stones unturned.
Another opinion can be summarised in the words of author Herman Wouk: “Death is only a sadness. Tragedy lies waste.” So anyone who has been gifted with a talent, be it for art or music or sport or accounting, and does not use it, i.e. wastes her talent, is therefore a tragedy. And does the world not have enough tragedy?
Indeed. Exactly. Waste (and by implication of the above quote, tragedy) is a natural part of the world. And not only of our manmade world – waste is a natural part of the natural world. A tree produces a thousand seeds. They fall, they glide on the wind, they float, they are carried away by birds or animals. How many “fall on fertile ground” (to quote again from Matthew, chapter 13)? How many actually reach their potential and become trees? And of the many that do not make it, do they constitute a tragedy? Surely not.
The counter argument would thus be: if waste is natural, then the waste of a talent is also natural and Wouk is wrong.
In any case, what is waste really? I am no ecologist, but I suspect there truly is no waste in nature. Seeds that do not germinate or seedlings that do not flourish into trees, serve other purposes. They just enter the endless sequence of recycling and nourishment – food for birds and mammals, fungi and bacteria. Even if they have not themselves fallen on fertile ground, they can become the fertile ground for the next generation of seeds.
This can easily serve as analogy within the creative processes of an individual. Most artists, writers, photographers and other creative people generate not only a mass of ideas that are never realised; they also create a lot of work that never make the grade. Photos, sketches, paragraphs, bits of story, lines of unfinished poems fill drawers and desks with no hope of reaching maturity. They are not wasted. They are the compost for the next big idea, the project that might just become a new giant in the canopy of the forest.
And talent? Does unused talent get recycled into a loop of indestructible energy that is allocated to the next unsuspecting soul who comes along? Who am I to judge with an unequivocal “No”?
Let me therefore recycle Wouk’s statement: Death is only a sadness. Waste is no tragedy. Talent is not an imperative.