Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Talents

By. A. Michael Shumate

Everybody has some talents. You have talents. Maybe more than you think.

But first, what is a talent?

It’s common to connect talents with the arts: singing, dancing, drawing, painting, writing or playing a musical instrument. Some art snobs would even go farther and say that “true talents” are only found in the arts. Don’t believe it. Talents exist in every area of human activity, from teaching to tightrope walking, from childrearing to charting, from agriculture to advertising.

But that doesn’t answer our question: what is talent?

There’s lots of ethereal verbiage about what talent is but most of it does little to shed much light on the subject. A more “de-myth-tefied” definition would be that a talent is a developed ability to do something—anything, artistic or not. For instance, people with a talent for numbers tend to be good accountants. People with a talent for knowing how things work tend to make good mechanics or engineers. People with a talent for comforting tend to make good nurses or counselors.

Talents are very enriching, both for the individual with the talent and for those people with whom that talent is shared. Talents enrich the world.

There are three terms that we need to understand in order to better grasp the nature of talent. Those terms are: inclination, aptitude and skill.

Inclination is a desire to do something or desire to gain a certain talent.

Aptitude is a natural ability to learn to do something.

And skill is what is acquired when an aptitude has been transformed into reality by work and practice. Skill is when we have actually achieved talent.

There are some talents that I don’t have an inclination for. I wouldn’t like to be a banker or a policeman or a psychiatric nurse. Even though I respect those professions and genuinely acknowledge their worth, I have no interest in doing them. I may actually have an aptitude for those professions—who knows?—but they don’t interest me. I don’t even care to find out.

However, sometimes discovering an aptitude in ourselves for a certain activity actually increases our inclination for it. As an example, I was in my mid 40s when I discovered a real aptitude for shooting. I was not only better than the group of newbies I was chaperoning, but better than the instructors who were supervising us. Since then, my inclination towards marksmanship has grown.

But neither an inclination nor an aptitude are the same things as a skill or a talent in the same way that a seed is not the same thing as a flower or a tree. The thing that separates them is time and growth. Potential is not the same thing as accomplishment.

I think we do people a disservice by telling them that they are talented in a given area, when what would be more accurate is to say that the have great potential in a given area.

People will manifest differing reactions to being told that they have an aptitude in something. Some folks will kick back and figure that they don’t have to work in those areas. Doesn’t it remind you of Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare? The much faster hare figured he could afford to nap while the much slower, but steady working tortoise won the race.

A complacent attitude will have the effect of robbing us of our talents unless we shed those attitudes.

On the other hand, other people will increase their efforts when told that they have an aptitude.

Of course, people have varying aptitudes for any talent. Some are capable of average accomplishment. Others are gifted with the potential for superior achievement. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have a great aptitude for a certain talent. If we have an inclination for a talent, we can improve our performance by effort and practice.

There are also different reactions to being told that you don’t have a certain aptitude. Many people believe those kinds of pronouncements and never attempt that activity again. Many have been told at a tender age, “You can’t sing;” “You couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket;” “You couldn’t carry a note if it were duct-taped to your back.”

How many poor souls subjected to that kind of criticism refuse to sing ever afterward. Maybe they won’t even sing in the shower.

I remember a woman who I will call Betty. She was quite tone-deaf. And yet at church she would sing merrily even though it was altogether off key. But rather than detracting from the hymns, she added something wonderful, because she was so honestly joyful that her singing was a positive addition to the other voices.

Unfortunately, there are others, who may have been told the same things about their singing, who sit through the hymns in utter silence. What a loss!

We need to consider our sources when we are told we don’t have a given aptitude.

I had a friend and colleague who had his office right next to mine for many years. He never played music in his office, while I always did: classical, country, blues, opera, soundtracks, pop, oldies—a wide variety. Every year he and I attended a function where we stood side by side and sang the national anthem. I noticed that he could carry a tune well enough. One day, I mentioned to him about a recent experience of singing backup bass vocals on a record album and that I also sang bass in the church choir. He asked, “How can that be? You can’t carry a tune!”

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Well, every year when we stand and sing the national anthem, and you don’t sing a single note right.”

I explained to him that I was singing the bass harmony for the national anthem. Clearly he knew enough about music to sing the melody, but didn’t recognize the bass harmony when it was sung. I would have done myself a great disservice if I had believed his assessment of my singing. If I had been younger or less experienced, I might have believed his assessment of my singing. And so it is with any of us who have been told we can’t sing.

I feel that if you have an inclination towards any talent, you should pursue it. You may not have a great aptitude for it, but if you have an inclination and follow it, work at it and learn from your mistakes, you will improve.

Don’t let anyone steal your inclinations—and indirectly, steal your potential talents. Follow your inclinations. Your life will be richer for it. The world will be richer for it.

You may never sing in public, but you’ll have a lot more fun in the shower.

This article may be freely reprinted as long as the copyright notice and credit block below remains intact.

©2006 A. Michael Shumate

Author of “Success In The Arts: What It Takes to Make It in Creative Fields”

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