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Talent vs. Skill

October 17, 2007

I spend a lot of time on various internet message boards (way more than I ought to), and I see a lot of people asking, essentially, whether it is possible to teach talent. Often this is part of a discussion on film school (which I’ll save for another post), but the question is general enough: can you teach talent?

To me, the answer is a definite no. I believe that, like many other things, talent is inborn. You have a certain amount of it and you can’t get any more talented over time, because talent is a natural thing. One might APPEAR to become more talented in something, but that is in fact a development of skill.

As I see it, talent is your capacity to achieve something. In artistic endeavors, the word most frequently used is vision. In physical pursuits, like sports, a person is said to be or have “natural talent”, which I’m arguing here is redundant — although I think “raw talent” is still valid.

The example is most easily illustrated by continuing with a physical example. Pick a sport, any sport. If you take two people who have never played the sport before, and teach them both the same way at the same time, and chances are one of them is going to be better at it than the other. He will learn faster, understand more quickly, and surpass his “peer”, sometimes almost effortlessly.

Another example. You take two people who can’t draw, and you teach them. Or some other artistic pursuit — painting, 3D animation, whatever. Teach them all the same information, and test them to ensure that they both possess the same knowledge with their tools and the attendant skillset. Then ask them to create something. One of them may bring back something absolutely astonishing, while the other will bring back something straight out of his lessons, or similar to it.

The one who made something astounding didn’t gain talent from his training, he just learned the skills necessary to express his talent using the given tools. Talent is the ability to create art, skills are the physical or mental processes to facilitate that art.

In film, it is perfectly possible to be a highly-skilled filmmaker without being particularly talented. An example I always use is Chris Columbus. Columbus is a very skillful filmmaker. He knows where to put the camera, he knows how to cover a scene, he knows how to put the world of the film in front of the lens. He puts the page, on the screen. His productions are well-made technically, but they are not art. He’s got all the skills a filmmaker needs, but not the talent/vision to make his films soar. They simply get the job done.

The reason I like to use Chris Columbus is because I can then compare him to Alfonso Cuaron, as they both made films in the Harry Potter series. Comparing the first two films to the third is completely night and day. Cuaron took more license with the story, but still got all the major beats across and managed to make the world feel like it existed, not like a storybook land. I could gush about Cuaron’s use of the camera for hours (especially if we bring Children of Men into it), but the point is that I’m not sure that there’s any technical knowledge Cuaron has that Columbus doesn’t. Cuaron just has a vision of what he wants to do with it, whereas Columbus has a sense of where it’s “supposed” to go.

Everyone has a talent, and everyone’s talent is different. And even if you learn the skills for something, without talent you’ll be mediocre; above-average at best.

Personal example: I enjoy music. I was in the band in high school and I think I have the capacity to learn all the skills I would need to be a composer. But the problem is, I lack the talent. I could learn HOW to write music, but no one could teach me WHAT to write. A true composer (several of which I have the good fortune to know and work with) hears music all the time, and the skills are merely employed to get it from his head into a form that others can understand and appreciate. I can’t be a composer because I don’t hear the music.

All that being said, I’ve left out one important component, the one I’ll argue is MOST important: passion. Remember that vague sports analogy above? Well, no matter how much talent the one guy has, if the other guy has more passion, he might be a better player, because he cares more. It’s the whole point of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. No matter how talented you are at something, it’s worth nothing if you don’t put your all into it.

I know a few people who I think are ridiculously talented, but they either lack the skills to fully explore their talent, or the passion to bother. It drives me up the wall, because if I had the talent they did, I’d never stop. It’s difficult to be passionate about something, but not have the talent, and see someone with all the talent you wish you had and none of the passion.

On the flip side, even if you have the talent for something, why do it if it’s going to make you miserable? Isn’t it better to do something you may not be the best at, as long as you love it? Here’s where I give the resounding yes. Because you know what? You’ll never be the best at whatever you’re doing. Someone will always be better. You might as well have a reason to get up in the morning.

So between the three, the most important thing to have is passion. Learn all the skills you’ll need, and if you happen to be lucky enough to have talent, too, you’ll rise to the top. And even if not, with the right passion and skills, you can have a long and satisfying career doing what you love.

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