Is talent a thing?

It’s probably not an answerable question, but I have to wonder: is talent a thing? I’ve read some interesting articles about whether talent actually exists as an independent attribute or if it’s just a consequence of really loving an activity and doing it a whole lot.

I have to say the idea that talent doesn’t exist and that people who are described as talented just really love that thing and did it so much they got really good at it makes sense and seems more likely to me, but I every so often I still take the idea of talent out and poke at it.

The reason I do that is because I’m a really good programmer. In college where other students struggled, things were just easy for me. At work where coworkers struggled, things were just easy for me. It seems like a bit of a dick move to say talent isn’t a thing because, particularly in college, there were people who worked much harder than I did for lower grades. I’ve worked with a lot of perfectly lovely human beings who work really hard but are still mediocre programmers. What is it that makes me so special?

It’s funny, but this finally occurred to me just the other day: I am literally the kid who was programming when she was 12. Of course I’m good at this, I’ve been doing it for a long fucking time and because I started so young those years of practice probably shaped my brain.

Some of my skill is luck, of course. If I hadn’t happened to go to a small school run by a principal who believed computer skills were really important, I wouldn’t have had such good teachers, wouldn’t have gotten excited about programming, and wouldn’t have gotten so much practice in. Without those years of practice, I wouldn’t have gone to college with such an advantage over all the students who were completely new to programming and wouldn’t have immediately had my confidence boosted when the first programming exercise we did was easy for me.

Another piece of luck is that thanks to a history of less than ideal family finances, I had a serious fear of going into debt for a degree only to find out I didn’t want to do that for a living or couldn’t get a job in that field. I worked a couple of shitty part-time customer service jobs for a while after highschool, then switched to full-time graveyard shifts (11pm to 7am in my case) because I couldn’t fucking deal with never having a full day off. Having a stable schedule and actual days off was amazing at first, but after a while I started really struggling to sleep during the day, and started thinking about whether I really wanted to spend the rest of my life doing a job a monkey could do if only there weren’t animal cruelty laws.

The idea of going back to school terrified me, but thanks to the misery of graveyard shifts it was a lot less terrifying than the idea of drinking myself to death while doing a completely unfulfilling job and living with total assholes (if you think it’s okay to wake up a person who works nights for any reason aside from the house literally being on fire, put yourself in the garbage where you belong). Compared to a slow death doing a job I hated, moving to a new city (because if I was going to go into debt for an education, damned if I was going to waste it on the local community college), going into debt, and doing something I was really scared I wasn’t smart enough for didn’t seem so bad.

All of which is an extraordinarily long winded way of saying I was very, very motivated when I went back to school. There’s nothing like the fear of going into debt only to end up back in the miserable pit where you started to motivate a person to do her homework and study her ass off.

And now I’m back at my original thesis that talent is much less likely to exist than hard work and love of a subject. Funny how writing works out that way. Maybe I just had more practice and wanted it more than my classmates, and maybe it’s only imposter syndrome that makes me think I didn’t earn it.

I will, however, freely admit that things were easier for me than they could have been. Sure, it sucks always being the only woman in the room, and it sucks when people assume I’m an idiot because I’m a woman, but it would suck a lot more if I were a person of colour (quick, how many black nerds have you ever seen in any media at any time ever?) or disabled, or mentally ill or trans or not straight or non-neurotypical. That’s a separate issue from whether talent exists, though.

Humility is all well and good, but I think in the long run it hurts people to hold up the myth of talent as if it matters. There’s nothing talent can do for you that hard work and trying not to be an asshole can’t do just as well.

13 thoughts on “Is talent a thing?

  1. Both.

    If you have an aptitude for something, you will feel competent at it, and so will likely be more interested in it, and therefore do more of it, and get better at it, so on and so forth.

    I never had to work very hard to write well. I’m not some ‘great writer *grand music*‘, but the truth is that I never had to ‘try’. I was just good at it. So when I had to choose subjects at school or a direction to go in, I leaned towards English and humanities because I was good at it and because I’m lazy and if I knew I wouldn’t have to work as hard. So then I did it more, and etc.

    Chicken, egg, dunno :).


    • That’s what I forgot to mention! There’s definitely a feedback loop where you feel good at a thing, people tell you you’re good at it, and both of those things feed back into getting more practice and becoming even better at it. It might not even take that much talent to start that loop.

  2. I believe talent is a thing. Just as intelligence is a thing.

    But having said that, I think within certain limits, hard work is more important than talent or for that matter intelligence.

    I am glad you are in school, in a lucrative field.

    You are far too intelligent to be working in dead-end jobs.

    • Oh I graduated college ages ago, I could’ve been clearer in my post.

      Hard work is indeed hugely important – I’ve heard a lot of stories about how the really exceptional kids, the ones who didn’t have to try at all in highschool, crashed and burned when they went on to university because they never learned to work hard or how to take notes or study.

      Just like talent, I’m not sure how much intelligence really matters. There’s this myth that you have to be super smart to be a programmer which is just not true. All you really need is stubbornness and a bit of common sense.

  3. There are two subjects I have great passion for and have spent a lot of time on. When I work hard at subject A I get impressive, head-turning results. I cannot take classes in subject A because I sprint ahead of the class so easily that it drives me mad with boredom; I have to study it with private tutors. If I work hard at subject B I get respectable but unimpressive results. When I take a class in subject B, I do pretty well but am in no danger of pulling away from the other students. In subject B I enjoy studying with private tutors because I find the personal attention valuable, but studying in a class still challenges me (not true for subject A).

    I think it’s very reasonable to say that I have different degrees of talent in those fields.

    That said, talent is not in itself destiny. The concept of talent is massively overrated and hard work underrated in a lot of US/UK/Australian circles. I’ve heard British artist Greyson Perry talk about this phenomenon in art; I think he said that art circles overrate inspiration and underrate craft.

    Many East Asian, Confucian, cultures rate hard work extremely highly, which often results in culturally East Asian people being more likely to work to a higher degree of their potential than culturally Western European people (though that focus of East Asian culture has disadvantages as well — much less space for people who are struggling with learning disabilities or mental health problems, for instance).

    Still, though, a group of people who work extremely diligently at something will have different results. Look at world-class athletes, and how even a group of hard workers with the same high level of coaching and guidance will all be impressive athletes but some will have that extra something that brings them greater results. It’s overrated in my culture, yes, but I think talent exists.

    • You make a good point 🙂

      I agree that there are problems with valuing hard work above all – like you say, no amount of hard work magically fixes disabilities or mental health problems – but it would nice to see western culture back away from this idea that you’re either effortlessly brilliant or you suck and there’s no point trying.

  4. I think that talent is more prevalent in physical activities and that what people think of as mental talent is just intelligence. Not always but usually. For example, athletics and singing definitely invovle talent. That’s not to say that practice doesn’t make you better, but you can only polish what you have. I ran my ass off for years in the army and at some point I hit a plateau. Others blew past me without getting winded.

    I think programming is overrated. I stopped calling myself one. Just like with writing, form is nothing if you don’t have something to SAY. Problem solving generally requires math and computer science. I have a degree in computer science and I’m finishing one in math now. If you don’t have a new algorithm or improved algorithm to contribute (which is the equivalent of having nothing to say in writing) then what are you really doing? The vast majority of the heavy lifting is done by libraries that are/were written and maintained by an extreme minority. Everything else is Legos. Putting together prefabricated components in a novel way to meet a specific need. Code monkeys.

    Becoming a good programmer takes intelligence and hard work, just like writing and editing clear and elegant prose, but ultimately it’s a workman’s skill–a means to and end.

    I suspect you believe something similar, but a lot of people say they are programmers whether they are good at it or not, and whether they can solve problems or not. I think it has become a meaningless term that represents a swamp full of people I generally don’t identify with anymore. I stopped caring about language and API fads. I hate people who call themselves ninjas and all other manner of nonsense, who probably write broken code without realizing it.

    • Oh god, I could do so much yelling about programming and programmers. The ninja/rockstar/douchebag thing in particular drives me up a wall. You’re not a fucking ninja, you’re an office worker and you’re just making yourself look like a complete tool by calling yourself that.

      I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a new or better algorithm to share with the world (unless you’re releasing a library, in that case for the love of god please have something to say. The world does not need yet another ever so slightly different javascript library). I think of programming as a craft like woodworking. You don’t have to be brilliant or have some grand artistic vision, just make an effort and take some pride in your work. There’s a lot of software in the world that needs to be maintained and a frightening amount of it is unmaintainable bullshit.

  5. FWIW programming can be quite a good place to be trans, as it meets the requirements of good income, tolerance for difference and able to take chunks of time off. Or it did, not sure how true that is any more. I know a number of trans programmers, is what I’m saying.

    If you said aptitude rather than talent I think it’s more likely that there is such a thing. Stuff is just easier for some than others, and for some people pretty much everything is easier (or harder). I have met a few people who are good at physical stuff as well as being very bright (one friend has PhD and 3rd Dan), but you get that stuff by focus and investment on top of talent, not just by going “I’m talented, hand it over”.

    One way to look at it is that talent gives you choices that other people don’t have. If you pick stuff up easier you can go further, faster, in that area. And most “talent” is multidimensional rather than just “natural C++08 programmer”, more likely to be “good with computers”. Again, one friend decided that money mattered more so is a “build manager” rather than programmer because building and deploying big systems pays more, more reliably than clinging onto the programming language du jour treadmill.

    Once you layer social resources on that it matters much less how talented a poor black woman in the US has. The converse is that having the social and financial capital of someone like Bill Gates II or Mark Zuckerburg doesn’t matter a heap if your talents are more in whatever it is that Paris Hilton has talents for, albeit she’s unlikely to ever be financially bereft.

    • True, there are definitely worse places to be trans. We do have a certain amount of tolerance for difference, but I am so fucking tired of hearing brogrammers whine about how women just aren’t good at programming. I get that they’re scared of losing their masculinity, but guys, you lost that when you started crying like toddlers who need a nap about the vaguest possibility of the field changing.

      I like your point about focus and investment on top of talent – talent is all well and good (to the extent that it exists 🙂 ) but it doesn’t get you very far without focus and investment.

      It really frustrates me when people say they’re not smart enough to be programmers. If you don’t want to be one that’s totally cool (honestly programming is really fucking irritating sometimes), but don’t write yourself off because you’re not some sort of genius. I’d rather work with someone who isn’t super smart but works hard than a brilliant douchebag who thinks he’s too smart for code reviews.

      You’re completely right, next to social resources talent just doesn’t count for much. Just because a few people manage to claw their way out of the pit doesn’t mean we have anything like a meritocracy.

      • I had an experience when I was tutoring computer science at a community college with a woman who needed help. I worked for the school and there was a tutoring lab and set hours. She came in every day for the full period and monopolized my time. I tried to teach her Java for her 101 class for hours and hours and hours. I tried every approach and alagory imaginable. She would make a small amount of progress and it would be wiped out the next day.

        I felt really bad for her because she really wanted to do it and put in a lot of effort but ultimately I advised her to switch majors even though she eeked out a passing grade (I did everything short of cheating to prep her for the tests).

        The reality is that if she is having that much trouble with an intro class she will make it through the harder classes.

        I don’t know if you want to call it takent or aptitude or intelligence, but whatever it was she didn’t have it, at least when it came to that kind of activity.

  6. I believe in talent.

    I have known way too many people who absolutely hated something, never wanted to do it (and so only did it when made to do it), and were simply amazing at it.

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