Maybe what we call talent is actually stacked advantages

Maybe what we call talent is actually stacked advantages

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

There’s no such thing as talent,” the young author stated flatly.

I looked up from my notes, glanced around the room, and felt sure I wasn’t the only one stunned. Although some of us were established writers, editors, or teachers, most of us were wannabe authors in disguise as whatever role we woke up daily to do.

We were there to learn what the successful could teach.

The conference speaker, Benjamin Herson, wrote The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, the tale of his trek to fix typos in signage across the United States. As the public’s ruthless copy editor, he almost landed in jail when he and his buddy attempted to correct a historic marker in Grand Canyon National Park.

His message that morning was as vigilant as his book.

The high-octane lad wooed us in the beginning of his lecture, boldly claiming the world’s need for confident writing and courageous editing. But just when we felt energized to go forth and continue what must be our mission in life, he dropped the room-silencing bombshell, “There is no such thing as talent.”

“Talent is an illusion,” Herson ranted on as if preaching to the unconverted. “Talent is the myth created by those who don’t want anyone coming after them.”

My pen hung in the air, refusing to touch paper again until my mind could understand more. The childhood, adulthood, and parenthood principles that governed my life were grounded in the premise that we each have unique gifts and talents that need to be discovered and nurtured for a meaningful life. Herson was trampling on a core tenet. His argument better be good.

He began with the January birthday research from Malcolm Gladwell’s success-examining book, Outliers. The best young Canadian hockey players were born in January, he told us, just after the age-grouping January 1 cut-off date. These children had up to a year advantage over others born only a few months earlier, giving them more experience with older kids. Their playing improved, attracting extra coaching that led to even better playing — creating an upward spiral of success based on the advantage of timing, not talent.

Herson then highlighted Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule that revealed that most phenoms, including Bill Gates and the Beatles, had an extraordinary opportunity to practice and perfect their skills–10,000 times.

What is critical to success, Herson suggested, was not raw talent, but stacked advantages–putting together small advantages that create a base for success.

My pen met the paper again, underlining that concept as my mind wandered a bit. What does it mean when we are told we have talent? Do we relax a little? Feel we are ahead without even trying? Feel we can do less and still succeed?

If we replace talent with stacked advantages, perhaps we shift from an unearned, unmeasured internal gift to an appropriate selection of experience that can be easily tracked.

Talent becomes just one advantage to be stacked along with training, education, and that non-negotiable element, hard work over time.

But why stop there?

Surely we should count the advantages of a supportive family, strong friendships, community involvement, or a balanced lifestyle. And for our children, won’t visible rules and consequences, unconditional love (regardless of the score), and the stress-busting activities of fun, adventure, and laughter create a stronger base to support success?

Perhaps these advantages would stay with us even longer than finely-honed talents. Or help us when those talents fail us or we misuse them.

St. Paul’s school psychologist, Rosemary Hanley recently presented another shift in terminology that could yield a more lasting result.

“Focus on your sons’ qualities, not their competencies,” she told a group of eleventh grade parents seeking advice for that daunting college search ahead.

“Think of not only what they achieved, but the strengths developed to accomplish it.”

A championship, a lead role in a play, or a grade point average could become discipline, persistence, or resilience.

Those, too, will last a lifetime.

Far beyond just talent.