Why Talent is Way Overrated


So I’m touring Casa Loma recently, the famous castle in downtown Toronto and the largest private residence ever constructed in Canada.

Just the usual touristic wandering of the halls, climbing the turrets, and exploring the never-ending parade of lavishly decorated rooms.

All of a sudden I heard something beautiful drifting through the marble and hardwood hallways. It was the aria Il Dolce Suono from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor opera.  And it sounded like it was being sung live.

(How did I recognise this aria? Well, maybe it’s because I listen to opera every once in a while. Or it could be because this aria was sung by the blue alien diva Plavalaguna in the awesome sci-fi movie The Fifth Element. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.)

Anyway, back to the gothic halls of Casa Loma…

I made my way towards the sound and ended up at the edge of the balcony that overlooked the main hall. There, at another, smaller balcony, not 15 feet from me, was the source of the music – a young woman – delivering an unaccompanied live performance for the visitors to the castle.

It was incredible. Despite the acoustics of the hall (most decidedly NOT designed for opera) she did a great job with several famous arias. To hear that almost-private performance in the home of an industrialist robber baron made me feel like I should be wearing an ivory linen suit in the style of the Great Gatsby.

Finally she concluded with a rendition of Ave Maria, curtsied, waved,  and then disappeared from her balcony.

Afterwards, as I was on my way down the hallways of the castle, I saw the same diva again. Some fan had cornered her and was fawning over her performance.

As I got a little closer I could see her nodding with a polite smile plastered on her face in response to what seemed like a very one-sided conversation.

Then I was able to overhear what the dude was saying…

What a gift,” he sighed, “What an amazing gift.

I couldn’t help myself.

What a lot of work!” I interrupted.

She used the interruption to disengage and get on her way, but not before flashing me what seemed like a giant smile of gratitude.  And I squeezed past her now lonely admirer on my quest to find the castle’s secret passageways and tunnels.

I know the guy meant well, but hearing him give all the credit to her ‘gift’ was fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

Becoming an opera singer isn’t some gift that gets bestowed like a sprinkling of magical fairy dust. It’s a set of skills that have been forged through hard, lonesome labour and a ton of sacrifice.

Vince Lombardi said, “The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.”  And, once again, he was exactly right.

Yes, some people are given a head start. Some people are born with a little extra potential in one department or another. You can call that genetic capacity a gift if you must, but recognise that cultivating that talent to the point where you can actually manifest it requires an unholy amount of work.

Becoming an opera singer is one of those 10,000 hours of training situations. Hours and hours of daily singing practice, acting classes, language study, and God knows what else.

When someone asked Willie Nelson what it felt like to be an overnight success, he said, “Overnight success feels great after playing 10 years in honky-tonks behind chicken wire.

When it comes to jiu-jitsu we often only see an athlete’s highlight reel and his moment of glory on the podium.

What we don’t see is the ‘chicken wire’ part of the story.  The blood, sweat and tears that have been shed over the years to get to that point.  The paths not taken.  The other things he didn’t get to do.

Explaining high level skill in any area of endeavour by saying that person has a ‘gift’ is too easy.  And it minimises and invalidates the work, effort and very real sacrifices that person has had to make to get to that level.

Talent, schmalent.

Gift, schmift.

Talent and gifts are meaningless without work.

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