Being Referred to as ‘Talented’ is Demeaning

I find it offensive whenever someone refers to an individual as talented or gifted. Doing so is dismissive of all the hard work they put into developing whatever skill or skills they possess. Nearly every culture on the planet is filled with stories of people who were born with “God-given talents,” to the point that over time, these mythic stories became accepted as bedrock truths.

As we can observe in our daily lives, what is considered fact or conventional wisdom today, is often later proven to be a fallacy. While some of these discoveries are readily accepted, for example you would be hard pressed to find anyone who still thinks the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth, even when things have been proven wrong, the belief in them often does not change within society. That is why despite being fallacies, a majority of people still think George Washington had wooden teeth and that the United States Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.

People are naturally resistant to change and especially so when it comes in the form of a paradigm shift. Many scientists’ discoveries have turned former beliefs on their head, only to find that rather than welcoming their new, and often life-saving discoveries, they were met with antagonism. The people who dispelled the Mozart genius myth (part of which was the belief that he composed music in his head) were denounced when they presented their solid evidence that Mozart attained his greatness the same way everyone else does, through furiously hard work.

The notion of talent or giftedness made sense in the dark ages, where the only explanation for people who performed amazing feats seemed to be that the Gods breathed it into them. But despite mounds of evidence to counter the notion of talent/giftedness being the reason for exceptional performance, a majority of humans still steadfastly believe in it. I tell my clients that, ‘Talent is like magic, it’s all based on illusions.’

There is a saying in sports that is so universally accepted that you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to make a counter argument. The saying is: “You can’t teach speed.” The implication being that you are either born with foot-speed or you are not. Fortunately there has been a lot of research in this area and what they found was that speed seems to be developed the same way that other skills are, through years of deliberate practice.

It appears that the single most important thing that correlates to how fast people run is their birth order. The average birth order of the past 10 world record holders in the 100- meter dash was 4.0 out 4.6 children in their families. Similarly, the top ten all-time NFL running backs in yardage have an average birth rank of 3.2 out of families that averaged 4.4 children. You see when you are the younger child you are always trying to keep up with your older siblings, and since you are generally smaller and less physically mature, this requires you to put in more effort and intensity to develop skills that increase your speed.

Remember, just because things appear to be based on a “special talent” or “gift” does not make it so. Speed certainly looks like a gift, yet the evidence suggests that speed is not a gift but a skill that grows the same way in which other skills do, through deep practice. In this case ignited by the primal cue, ‘keep up with your older siblings.’

I teach my clients to take offense when someone calls them talented and urge them to point out how hard they worked to appear talented. I suggest you take this approach too.

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Sam Obitz

Sam Obitz

A leader in the use and development of mental skills that help you (or your team) achieve peak performance. His work with teams and businesses has not only increased their productivity, but also enhanced team members enjoyment of the process. He is currently focused on his work with professional athletes, as well as working as a consultant with sports teams, businesses and individuals.