Is Talent Real?

Aren’t questions scary? Oh wait: that’s also a question.

Let me rephrase that.

Questions are scary.

Every peace can be destroyed by just one question. And whether that peace exists between nations, between friends, or within just one person, it is not safe once someone starts to prod at it. Keep digging, and you’ll find the lie that makes peace possible. After that, there’s no going back.

Now, I have a question—a particularly dangerous one. And against all better judgment I am going to release it into the world. Perhaps I’m what you’d call an agitator, a warmonger, or something worse. I tell myself that some fights need to happen, some answers are worth paying a violent price, and that its better to die with the truth than live a lie.

But maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you’re still clinging to the illusion. In which case, I’m sorry. Because I’m about to ruin your life by asking one perplexing question:

Is talent real?

Heresy Detected

In case you’re unaware, talk of “talent” is forbidden in the arts these days.

I realize that may sound ridiculous at first glance. Forbidding talent from the arts feels like forbidding objectivity from science or experience from education. Just how can you have one of these things without the other?

Luckily, the world has divorced itself for the arcane, foolish notions of the ancients to embrace a modern, enlightened perspective on talent. Namely, that it does not exist.

Or, if it does exist, then it is irrelevant.

Or, if it is relevant, then it’s not the most important thing.

Or, if it is the most important thing, then you can still get by without it.

Or, if you can’t get by without it, then you should try anyway. Because trying is what really counts.

Don’t believe me? Well, just ask the authorities on the subject. They’ll set you straight about what’s what.

I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.

GORDON LISH

What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all. You have to stick at it.

DORIS LESSING

The most important thing is insight, that is to be—curiosity—to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is —that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got it or not.

WILLIAM FAULKNER

At the end of the day, the only thing that sets you apart from your favorite bestselling author is the fact that they work harder than you. And if you’re not seeing the same level of success as the bestsellers, why that’s just proof that you’re lazy and entitled. Don’t you realize that if you just write for 21 hours a day you’ll be churning out Shakespeare? For Pete’s sake, don’t you even WANT it?

Honestly, I’m ashamed to even look at you right now, you good-for-nothing freeloader. Why don’t you just try harder, hm? Did you ever think of that?

But Here’s the Thing…

The subject of talent is simply too radioactive to talk about right now. So let’s not talk about it.

Instead, let me ask another question:

Is aptitude real?

See how that changes absolutely nothing about the question, and yet makes the entire thing one million times less volatile?

Aptitude is something your teachers and school counselors liked to talk about when planning your bright future, so it’s good.

Talent is something that club owners and faceless executives who smoke cigars in pinstriped suits like to talk about before exploiting or firing someone, so it’s BAD.

And recently, in my search for great indie books that I could use my platform to advocate for, I ran into the question of whether aptitude exists (because talent absolutely doesn’t, and we’re all confident enough of that belief that no one is allowed to question it).

Global Aptitude Search

I have hardly performed an exhaustive search of the entire indie book space. I have to work with the limited time and data presented to me. I have also tried to keep my search random, and never looked at official book rankings for a shortcut to find the best authors (there’s little point in promoting authors who are already successful, after all).

Still, I can’t bring myself to believe that every disappointment I encountered was caused by insufficiently hard work. A lot of authors have put a lot of hours into books that still turn out…well…like a big portion of indie books do.

A lot of people have pointed out to me that this same problem exists with traditionally published books. And they’re right. If you walk into a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and choose a volume at random off the normal shelves (not the bestsellers rack, and not the recommended or promoted sections), you’ll often strike mediocrity. Which is insane when you consider just how much hard work goes into every traditionally published book.

Every one of these books is a collaboration between an author, multiple editors, typesetters, cover artists, marketers, printers, and a host of other professionals. Knowing this, can we really say that the only reason these books fail (and quite a few do) is because people didn’t work hard enough to produce them? Are we to believe that thousands of hours from dozens of people do not constitute “persistence” or “willpower” or “grit”?

Even among successful authors, there are different levels of success. There are infrequently published strugglers, weak midlisters, strong midlisters, frequent bestsellers, and apex authors. And none of these are strangers to the amount of work it takes to publish a book. Some strong midlisters produce more books than periodic bestsellers (some even make more money that way). And while apex authors are known to work diligently to produce titles on a regular basis, can hard work comprehensively explain their success?

I am convinced there is more at play here.

Something, at Least, Is Real

I don’t know that aptitude can explain the entire disparity between the fates of authors. Luck certainly has something to do with it. Difference of opinion certainly has a role to play, as well.

But haven’t you observed that some authors are a clear “Wow!” while others are a distinct “Meh”? Even among readers of vastly different tastes, there seems to be a mostly clear agreement that some books deserve the hype they get. And while you occasionally find a “Meh” on the bestseller list, have you ever found a “Wow!” in the bargain bin? I haven’t.

Something outside of persistence and hard work is at play here. If that something is not “aptitude”, then we owe it to ourselves to discover what that something actually is.

Because something, at least, is real. Something that explains the different power levels we see going from one hard-working author to the next.

Perhaps naming that something will require us to be a little more honest about people’s innate capabilities. Or perhaps naming that something will require us to make new paradigms about what makes certain books and certain writing great.

But as long as we are trapped in an artificial peace, caused by an inability to ask the right questions, we will forever be denied the truth at the heart of the matter.

And that’s a risk I’m not willing to take.

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