Why I hate the word "talent" and why I'm not alone.

I was a sophomore in college when my saxophone professor told me, “Your natural talent has run out. Time to get to work.” Then threw me out of my private lesson. He told me that he wouldn’t admit to anyone that I was his student until I committed to working more.

I’d like to tell you that was a major turning point for me, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Although I knew I needed to “get to work,” I really didn’t have any idea how to do that. Music had come pretty easy to me up until that point and they only hard work I had done was for auditions.

I had no idea how to maintain hard work on a regular basis. I stepped it up enough for my professor to admit I was his student again and make it through a couple more semesters of college, but I eventually dropped out, walking away from a full-ride academic scholarship. Eventually, I learned the intrinsic details of what “getting to work” really meant, and I accomplished all of the goals I had set out for myself.

The word “talented” is thrown around a lot. It’s a catch-all explanation used to explain why someone can do something well - whether it be sports, music, acting, writing, etc. But that word has always rubbed me the wrong way.

What bothers me is that the word implies a lack of effort, a gift that was given - that some people got but others didn’t.

What the world fails to capture is the hard work that goes into achieving that “talented” label. I can guarantee you that there isn’t a professional athlete, musician, actor, teacher, artist, etc that hasn’t worked hard at their craft, no matter how much or how little talent that may have started out with.

Unfortunately, as fans or observers, we rarely get the opportunity to see the behind scenes work, only the final product. That’s where “You’re so talented” can be detrimental to a person’s growth.

When people hear me play, I inevitably get the compliment “You’re so talented” often followed by “I could never do that.” I know they mean well and that in their minds, talented is the right word. I smile and say Thank You, but inside I cringe. Because I work really hard to do this and using the word talented makes it sounds like I didn’t. Some people assume that I woke up one day, picked up a saxophone, and could play at this level. And that they can’t.

Which of these thoughts can you relate to?

  1. If you are “talented,” you are inadvertently told that being talented is enough and that it will get you where you want to go.
  2. If you aren’t “talented,” you are constantly reminded that you weren’t given the gift.
  3. If you worked really hard to do something and someone says “You’re so talented” you feel a bit jilted because it doesn’t account for all the work you have put in.
  4. If you haven’t worked hard and someone says “You’re so talented,” you feel undeserving because you know you didn’t earn it.
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I love saw this Instagram post by Edutopia - it offers alternatives to the saying “You’re so smart” to children. As soon as I saw it, I knew that it would be beneficial to create alternative to “You’re so talented” for parents, teachers, and fans to use when they talk to musicians and music students of all ages.

So what are some saying we can use instead of “You’re so talented”:

  • You sound great, I really enjoyed your playing.
  • You’re so inspiring / enjoyable / exciting.

  • That solo really connected with me.

  • I bet you practice a lot.

  • Thank you for that beautiful performance.

The majority of people who got where they are did so because of interest (which is often facilitated by a little talent), plus hard work and maybe even some luck. But I’ll tell you that talent is never everything. Just like in sports, getting into the NFL doesn’t mean someone has made it, and that he can stop attending practice. It simply means he has just begun.

Because the dark side of talent? Is using it as an excuse for not succeeding, when a big part of what is required for success is hard work.

Talent doesn’t require courage, but work does. Dedicating hours to practice, or being brave enough to improvise with others even when you are just beginning, pushing through a difficult phrasing to master a technique. All of those have nothing to do with talent. And coincidentally, they all have everything to do with dedication and perseverance.

And this affects not only professional musicians, but those starting out. Do you want to learn a new instrument but feel that you are not “talented” enough? Once you replace an intangible concept of talent with something that you can control: dedication, you will see an entire world open up to you. A world of really cool experiences that you would have missed out on, thinking you didn’t have the “talent” for it.

What compliment would you give instead of “you’re so talented?” Share in the comments below.

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Monica Shriver