Oh reader, your talents require TLC!

In my last blog entry I riffed on the notion of talent, the gist of my convictions being that everyone is born multitalented. A brave voice rose in the wilderness, pointedly letting me know I’m crazy. Just kidding! The brave voice, who answers to the name of Lisa Marie, makes some very good points. Here they are.

I think there is a problem with the word “talent.” Isn't it used to mean the exceptional thing, the thing that most people don't have? I think one tends to use the word unthinkingly in order to designate that happy (and indeed, rare) combination of qualities and circumstances (energy, enthusiasm, time, a little salutary egoism to enable one to be a bit annoyingly obsessive, good teachers, etc.) and one ends up being mislead by the existence of the word into thinking one is referring to something else, some further magic entity, apart from these ingredients.

And so my more somber version of your “we are all multi-talented'” would be to say “we quite probably all aren't, but that this is a lot less of a problem than we have been led to believe... particularly if it is possible to muster energy, enthusiasm, time, egoism, etc.”

Genius, now that would be something else again, I suppose.

This is my abbreviation of what the brave voice is saying in the wilderness:

“Talent” as people normally see it is a kind of illusion; people do things well because of down-to-earth qualities such as energy, enthusiasm, time, and so on—not because of a magic, mysterious quality, which we might want to call “genius” instead. It’s not a problem to be “untalented” as long as you find the necessary time, energy, and enthusiasm to accomplish your goals.

I see talent as an innate capacity to do something, a biological inheritance that is independent of these down-to-earth qualities but that needs some of them to blossom. So, I do think everyone is multitalented indeed, having many built-in capacities from birth. Ultimately, however, the brave voice is quite right: things happen not by magic but through dedicated effort. Here's the film maker Ridley Scott in a recent interview in the magazine Film Comment: "[My mother] was a real force of nature. [My brother] Tony and I inherited perseverance from her. It's really the thing you need to succeed. I always say it's stamina, stamina, stamina, then perseverance, and last is talent."

As for "genius," I’d like to offer a very specific definition. I see a genius not as someone with brilliant inborn capacities, but someone with an original insight who creates a new paradigm within his or her field. In that sense Claude Debussy was a genius, since he created a new musical paradigm contributing to the development of, among other things, atonality; but Maurice Ravel wasn’t a genius, since his work—however brilliant—hewed to the paradigms, tonal and rhythmic, that came before him. Ludwig van Beethoven: genius. Felix Mendelssohn: not (even though he was an astounding child prodigy). Miguel de Cervantes: genius (he "invented" the modern novel). Jane Austen: not. Mahatma Gandhi: genius (he created a new paradigm, non-violent resistance). The Dalai Lama: not (he embraces a paradigm that was fully formed before his birth). But note that I admire the Dalai Lama unconditionally, and I think he represents humanity's highest ideals. Here I'm using the word "genius" as a technical term, narrowly (and perhaps idiosyncratically) defined.

Given a choice between talent, genius, and stamina, I know which one I would pick for myself and my career. Phew! Writing this blog entry has exhausted the resident genius here, so please excuse me while I take a nap.