What’s Talent Got To Do With It?

Charles has a thought-provoking post over at Novel Spaces today, entitled “Two Kinds of Writers.” For those who don’t know him, Charles Gramlich is a psychology professor. His department had a speaker at their first faculty meeting of the school year, a social psychologist named Jeff Howard. To give you the gist:

First, Howard suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: “Performance Oriented” and “Learning Oriented.” Performance Oriented (PO) folks come into every new situation looking to “prove” something to themselves and others. Generally, that means ‘proving’ that they are smart and capable. Thus, PO writers want to show others and themselves how smart they are in their work. PO individuals also tend to believe that writing is a “talent” rather than a learned craft, and PO folks tend to believe that if something requires a lot of “effort,” then that reveals less “talent.”

Learning Oriented (LO) folks come into new situations looking to improve themselves. Their main goal is to learn “how” to do a particular thing, and they don’t doubt their ability to learn that material. LO folks believe that “effort” controls outcome and is the key to success. They don’t equate less effort with a sign of greater talent.

There’s more, but that’s enough for my own jumping off point. I recommend clicking through and reading Charles’s whole post, though.

I left a brief comment, but I didn’t want to spend however many hundred words talking about my own experiences on someone else’s blog. The PO vs. LO dichotomy resonated with me, though.

I’m really smart, for whatever good it’s done me. I have a low-genius level IQ, and I was in enrichment programs for gifted children ever since I was tested, during the summer between first and second grades. I was in the highest level groups for things like math and reading, and I’m usually pretty quick on the uptake in general. Despite all this, though, I didn’t learn all my multiplication tables until seventh grade. For reference, when I was a kid — and possibly still today, although I don’t know for sure — multiplication was introduced (if the class or group got that far in the book) toward the end of second grade. Kids were expected to learn the multiplication tables up through twelves in third grade. After that, they just assume you knew it and moved on. So it took me an extra four or five years to cram this stuff into my head.

My childhood was all about how smart I was. I was so intelligent, so gifted! School would be so easy for me if I’d only try! Which leads to the next conclusion — if you’re smart (or talented) and you try something and fail, then obviously you’re lazy. You’re not really trying. Why don’t you want to do this? Why aren’t you trying?

When I was in fourth grade, my mom tried to “help” me learn my multiplication tables. She made me a set of flashcards and said that I’d study them — doing nothing else with my free time — until I had them down. I had to learn 1-3 the first day, 4-6 the second day, etc. Anything I failed to learn one day would be tacked on to the next day. She was convinced that if I’d just buckle down and concentrate, this would be quick and easy and I’d have all the tables learned within four days. There you go, problem solved.

What actually happened was that I got good at hiding from my mom, until she finally gave up. I did work with the cards for the first two or three days, but results were neither quick nor easy, and by the third day I had so much piled up it was ridiculous. Aside from the fact that long, drawn-out memorization sessions don’t work, this really wasn’t the way to convince a frustrated nine-year-old that school was supposed to be fun. I eventually realized, some time in seventh grade, that I hadn’t had to look up or work out a multiplication fact in a while, probably a couple of months. I’d finally learned them through mental osmosis, just by using them in math classes over and over for years; use and repetition finally did what deliberate effort had failed to do.

I had more and more trouble in school as time went on. I got a 1420 on my SAT (well before they made the test easier) but graduated high school with a 2.65 GPA, which was pretty disgraceful for someone with my IQ and test scores.

I finally figured out many years later, about five years into a two-year associate degree, that I have a learning disability. I realized what all the hard stuff had in common, and what was different about the easy stuff, and realized the difference was rote memorization. If the point of a lesson is concepts — what happened and why and what the results were, how something came about, how things hang together, what’s related and what’s different and why — I can listen to a lecture or read a book, and that’s it, I know it, hand me the exam. Information on a conceptual level, where everything hangs together in a logical framework, makes instinctive sense to me, and sticks easily in my brain. If the point is memorization, though — names and dates and figures, mathematical and scientific formulas, foreign language vocabulary, all the little bits and pieces you have to Just Memorize — then forget it, no more than a tiny fraction is going to stick.

As an example, I was taking Analytical Geometry in college, and we were doing a chapter on conic sections. I’d studied conic sections at least five or six times before, in other math classes, but except for the line and the parabola (which were introduced the earliest, in 7th and 8th grade in my case) I’d never managed to memorize the formulas. I knew the definitions, though. So I was sitting there staring at an exam where we were given certain data — say, the center of a circle and the slope of a line tangent to it — and had to figure out certain other data — say, the circumference of the circle. If you know the formulas, it’s easy; you plug the givens in and the answers come out. If you don’t know the formulas, you either give up or you do it the hard way. I did it the hard way. I didn’t remember the formulas, but I did remember the definitions of the sections. A circle is defined by its center and radius. Stick a pin in your paper at the center. Tie a string to the pin. Tie a pencil to the string such that the length between the pin and the pencil is the length of the radius. Everywhere the pencil can touch (while held vertically) is your circle. A line tangent to the circle is always going to be perpendicular to the radius between the center and that point on the circle, so knowing that tangent line and the center gives you the point on the circle. With the center and that point, the you have the length of the radius. The circumference is 2*pi*r. I did basically that for all the problems about circles, ellipses and hyperbolas, essentially re-deriving all the equations on my scratch paper, based on the definitions of the sections. I got a hundred percent on the exam, but I was also the last person to turn in my paper.

I had horrible study habits because of my memory issues, although I didn’t know why I was developing them while it happened. If something made sense to me, though, then listening to the teacher explain it was enough. I got it right then, and doing homework, working exercises, whatever, was a pointless waste of time. But if I didn’t get it, if I needed to memorize things, including formulas or a sequence of problem solving steps which didn’t fall into logical place in my head, then doing the homework wouldn’t help. I’d be just as clueless after I finished the exercises as I’d been before, so again, it was a pointless waste of time.

It took until I was in my twenties, though, to figure this out. I’d never thought about it before; I’d bought into the idea that there was something wrong with me, that I was lazy. I knew I was trying hard, but I still didn’t get the results my mom and my teachers expected. I was frustrated and angry; there was something wrong but I didn’t know what. It wasn’t until I took a mental step back and sorted out classes I got easy As in from classes where I barely passed, that I saw it.

No one else did. No one, not my mother nor any of my teachers — one of whom had me in both third and fifth grade — figured out what the problem was, where the dividing line ran. Everyone was so caught up in “Angela is so smart!” “It’d be so easy if she’d only try!” that it never occurred to them to look for an actual problem. My third/fifth grade teacher actually called me “the absent-minded professor” but it still didn’t click for her. They were so invested in the talent idea that an actual learning issue was unthinkable. The test scores said I had the talent to do well in school, therefore I should, and if I didn’t it was my own fault. The concept that I might have a high IQ and a learning disability never occurred to any of them. Nope, much easier to just assume the whole problem was me being lazy.

Charles again:

A key difference between PO and LO folks shows up when a “failure” occurs. Say the writer approaches a major magazine publisher with a story and gets rejected out of hand. PO individuals take the failure as a sign of lack of talent, and often develop a sense of helplessness, which leads them to either quit writing or to lower their sights.

Yep, that’s me. My entire identity when I was young centered on being a smart kid. It was essentially the only thing I was ever praised for, so that’s what I focused on. And as a smart person, obviously things should be easy. If I tried something and failed, I turned away from it and tried something else, because failure is particularly shameful when you’re supposed to be smart. Anything I couldn’t get right off, I just didn’t do. Except for school, because I was told over and over and over that I should be good at it, that I should love it, that it should be easy for me. It was always assumed that I’d go to college and do something intellectual because that’s where my talent was, so I kept beating my head against that particular wall, long after I’d have given up on anything else. It was all just supposed to click for me, and I kept trying, and waiting for that click.

I’ve always been interested in writing, and I’ve scribbled stories (or more often, fragments of stories) since I was six or seven. When I was fifteen I submitted a story to Family Circle magazine. It was a horrible, treacly piece of garbage, and the editors quite rightly rejected it with a fifth-generation xeroxed form. It was seventeen years before I submitted anything else.

I had the drive to write and didn’t quit, although I had long periods of hiatus when I was doing other things — things I was more successful at right off. I’ve always come back to writing, but it took a very long time before I finally realized and accepted that I wasn’t very good at it yet (there being a huge difference between being better than most of my peers and being good), but that I could study and learn and get better. It seems obvious now, and I’m sure any number of readers are eyerolling and thinking what an idiot I was, but if you’re raised on the theory of talent, the idea of needing to work and study and learn and do a lot of failing while you slowly improve isn’t at all obvious.

We’ve all heard about the “overnight sensations” who actually worked for ten or twenty years to get there, about the bestselling “first novels” that were actually tenth novels with the previous nine unsold in the trunk, but we still praise people for their talent. Maybe it’s ego protection, the thought that if someone who’s successful is talented — and therefore their success came easily to them — if we’re not similarly successful then it’s because we don’t have that talent, that advantage. And that’s not our fault, right? In that situation, talent almost feels like a cheat, something to resent as much as envy.

Whatever it is, our culture idolizes talent, assuming it trumps everything else, including work, study, perseverance and even luck. “You’re so talented!” is thought to be praise, even if it comes with a bit of envy or resentment. Emphasizing talent denies the work, though, the determination and study and slow improvement everyone needs in order to succeed, no matter how talented they might be. Assuming “talent” actually exists. In my case, the emphasis on talent when I was young was certainly damaging, more than cancelling out any advantage that talent — the “smart kid” factor — might have given me.


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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.

2 thoughts on “What’s Talent Got To Do With It?”

  1. You know, this is true to a point, but I am really halfway between the two polarities. I have ridiculously easy time with a lot of things at school, including memorization, but certain kinds of conceptual stuff like trig and higher math just didn’t make sense to me…yet I could plug the numbers into the formulae and get Bs and even As on the tests.

    I think I may be number dyslexic, because when it comes to dealing with numbers I simply cannot deal with them consistently unless it’s in my head. If I am dealing with them on paper, I can try sixteen times and get sixteen different numbers for the answer, even if I am adding up columns using a calculator with a tape. And if I do get duplicate answers, I can’t be sure it’s the right number even then. It made doing reports for work miserable. 🙂

    but what you describe seems like a miserable experience for you. I’m lucky I was the hear it once remember it for months type of kid.

  2. WW — your issues sound pretty sucky too. I think it depends which classes you’re taking and what you end up doing later, whether lacking memorization or processing makes your life worse. Of course, a nice chunk of both is best.


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