Design Talent or Design Skill?

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Talent - Skill - Experience

I’ve always wondered this: “Is there such thing as a talented designer? Or is good design a skill? Or maybe to be a great designer, you need a combination of talent, skill, and experience.” Well, I guess it would depend on your definition of what talent and skill is. I looked in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and this is how it defines the two words.

Well, I guess it would depend on your definition of what talent and skill is. I looked in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and this is how it defines the two words.

  • Skill:
    A learned power of doing something competently, a developed aptitude or ability.
  • Talent:
    The natural endowments of a person, a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude.

So based on these definitions, a skill is something that is learned, acquired, mastered through the course of time with enough practice and education. Talent is something that can’t be learned. It comes natural or easier to an individual.

The reason I bring this up is because it just seems to me that there are certain people that I’ve seen who have went to school for design and are smart individuals who work hard, still consistently produce sub-par designs while there are some people (just look on Behance, Dribbble, etc.) who never received formal design education,
just seem to have a knack for great design!

Also, what about experience? What roll does it play in being a good designer?

I’m still not sure what I think about all of this. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Let me know in the comments below.

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Former editor in chief of Designinformer.

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  1. 1

    Interesting question. In regards to web design I feel it has become much more of a science than an art. I believe that a truly great designer is someone who understands (whether through research *skill* or just naturally understands *talent*) both the goal of the website as well as the target audience. I think that there are common patterns that make a *good* design and great designers understand these patterns.

    As for experience, I think it’s a bit tricky. I’ve known a lot of web designers who have been making websites for years and arguably still have a bad design eye. I think as designers it is our job to be constantly learning, adapting and developing a better understanding of our work. This is where I believe web designers differ from artists. An artist should express themselves in their work and nothing more, whereas a designer should really cater their *art* to the intended audience.

    Just my thoughts..

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    • 2

      Great thoughts Jon. There’s so much different viewpoints and angles that can be used to answer this question. It almost goes back to the question about what is the difference between art and design?

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      • 3

        I think the difference between design and art is, designing is a process of problem solving but art is mostly about expressing the problem itself.

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      • 4

        My formally trained Design friends often lament that the pedagogy of Art School robbed them of their most cherished assets – their innate creativity and their passion.

        It often makes me tear up as they reminisce of the days when the art was fun. I often rail against formal education not because of what it gives you, but because of what it takes away…This conversation is a perfect example of that.

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    • 5

      It’s a tricky one – I started as a communication designer at small agencies, moved to spatial designer freelancing and am now a UI designer for a large gaming company: all in 5 years!

      In the last year working on the web I have to agree that this side of design feels more scientific. ‘Best practice’ is thrown around a lot and user testing is key. The skill there is in reading data and making informed decisions based on it.

      When it came to communication and spatial design, though, I think I relied more heavily on instinct and raw creativity – my in-built communication skills. MUCH less use of data informing the routes, layouts and resolved designs I used.

      Overall though, I think a mix of talent, skill and experience all play a part. To me, talent is the most important as I’m one of those people whose gut feeling is usually the right way to go (further rounds of creative are usually to prove the first one made sense!). Skill is required to execute your creative thought well, though your skill level – in a way – only really dictates how quickly you can execute. The same goes for experience in a way, though experience dictates the pace at which you can come up with several ideas, whittle them into the right idea and then execute.

      That’s how I feel about it this morning, anyway, I might change my mind later on today when I’m more awake :-)

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  2. 8

    Good design can come from someone with taught design “skills”. Great design comes from someone with artistic talent. Anyone can learn to use photoshop. But creating fantastic designs cannot be taught.
    Unfortunately I keep hearing…”Well my brother-in-law has photoshop and he said he could make me a logo, website, and brochure. So why would I pay you”. Meanwhile the brother-in-law is an accountant.

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    • 9
    • 10

      Well, I’m not sure about that.

      Creating fantastic designs cannot be taught.

      No one is born knowing how to use the tools (Photoshop, etc.) to design, so they have to learn that. Haha, this whole topic is really confusing me :)

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      • 11

        It is confusing isn’t it? Not everyone has to learn that, though – I have worked with art directors with relatively poor software skills who are able to design ‘through’ people. A fantastic design could begin in one’s head and be transferred to screen/print through a designer. A lot of art directors work this way, barely touching the software that designers use.

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        • 12

          But is that what being a designer is? Isn’t design about know how to create something that serves a purpose and not working on software?
          I mean lets say you don’t know software but can create an image of what would work that someone else can bring into reality isn’t that designing?

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  3. 13

    One of the things not mentioned in here is the ability of a designer to translate what the client wants onto the medium they want it. Communication seems to be a skill more than a talent and this scenario relies alot on communication and patience when client is unsure what he wants or cannot convey it very well to words/paper. Still, I could also see it being a talent. Hmmm…

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  4. 15

    To me, skill is about using the tools effectively to get the job done, talent is about creativity and aesthetics and can’t be taught. Experience is obvious and I feel you need all 3 to be an effective designer but without talent you wont get far. So talent is the most important factor.

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    • 16

      Nice breakdown Daniel, but skill is definitely more than just tools. You can learn all about design theory, best-practices etc. and that doesn’t necessarily involve the learning of your tools. But I definitely think having all three of these qualities is what makes a great designer.

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  5. 17

    IMO,

    I believe skill is something you get from hard working, practicing, doing things over and over again to increase your proficiency.

    Talent are a mindset, an eye for design, being observatory about their own work, other superior work, and improve their skills according to it. This can only be achieve if the person realized the benefit of being observatory. Most people don’t know the reason of the surroundings, they just live with it without doubting why it’s there. Talented people noticed it, take note, and learn.

    Experience seems to both be part of talent and skills. Increasing experience will boost both talent and skill as time goes.

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    • 18

      I somewhat agree with this. Talent is definitely more of an observatory eye, whether it be something we notice, or something that subconsciously happens in our mind.

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      • 19

        ‘somewhat’ agreeing sounds silly. His answer is quite spot on. a designer who has been doing it for years but still suck is her own fault for not being objective to her own work. So it’s a bit of practice and failure.

        Being clever doesn’t hurt either — i could have my 10,000 hours and still suck if i wasn’t as bright as i have had hoped be.

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  6. 20

    I think it’s tough to get into the talent vs. skill question without addressing the fact that a lot of what the majority of our community considers “design” is in fact art, or a very small subset of true design.

    Someone with artistic talent but little to no formal training can go onto some galleries, observe and quickly absorb the common patterns and begin churning out beautiful, original design comps in no time at all. The ability to put together a homepage comp with nice textures, slick typography and illustration reflects artistic talent, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate knowledge of design. Ask that very same “designer”, who is really an artist, to put together a web application, storyboarding all the user interactions, taking into account scalability, performance, balancing business objectives with user experience in mind and he will fail.

    Design is a skill, or an array of skills, that must be acquired through experience. Understanding the nuances of what’s becoming an increasingly complex field just isn’t something that can be given at birth. With that being said, being a good designer requires both empathy and artistic talent, two things which can’t be taught. That explains the people who work their asses off but produce subpar work.

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  7. 22

    Great question and great points on the comments. I do think that talent trumps skill because like you said, someone can be highly skilled and still produce mediocre work. One thing I believe makes a huge difference, though, is what kind of environment these skilled people learned in and began their work in. Design needs great creativity AND disciplined problem-solving and communication skills… if someone is not given freedom in the beginning of their career… if they are used in a “factory” design setting or if they have an ego-maniacle creative director or something, then their talent gets squashed and repressed. I’ve seen it a lot. On the flipside if a talented but rough designer is given freedom and maybe even someone to do the production for them so they don’t get bogged down, then they can soar. So the environment plays a big role, sort of like in child-rearing.

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    • 23

      Your environment does play a role with how creative you can get, but I think you can still produce great designs within the confines of your environment.

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  8. 24

    I think talent and experience works hand in hand to make the difference between good and sub par designs. Talent make you keep working at it till it “looks right” when you don’t have any formal training and experience will teach you to know what works.

    Skills on the other hand is useful, but as Christi mentioned, an accountant with Photoshop will most likely do a bad job regardless of his/her skills.

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  9. 25

    Everyone is born with some degree of natural talent. What we do with that talent is up to us, and many people don’t get to do something with an untapped talent until much later in life when they’re no longer working their asses off just to pay the mortgage.

    Skill doesn’t come without other factors such as motivation or the desire to please others (rather than just yourself). It requires experience and discipline (as someone else pointed out). A child prodigy is born with a tremendous talent but they have to learn (through experience and discipline) to use it wisely and skillfully.

    Skill isn’t just about being handy with a Wacom, or knowing your standards inside out; skill is being a good listener, a story teller, and a mentor to others too – all of which come with experience.

    I find Jon’s opening comment interesting. I’ve been in the design/web business since the early 90′s and am in my mid (ok, late) 40s. Much of what happens to a designer over the course of their career depends on a huge range of factors – as we mature, we often become less aggressive, less competitive and (deliberately) shed the urge to be at the bleeding edge.

    In many cases – as it has been the case for me – it has been a conscious decision to focus more on usability and quality for the end user, rather than turning out a relentless showcase of designs.

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  10. 26

    I think, a good web designer or screen designer must combine talent, skill and experience. These are all important parts. If you have talent, skill, some experience and love what you do then you don’t need school education.

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  11. 27

    As a few comments have hinted, I’d throw discipline in that mix. Discipline begets talent, skill, and experience.

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  12. 28

    A classic question and some good points in the comments so far.

    I am a little surprised at the number of people who have (or appear to have) placed a higher value on talent than skill. Like most people here I think in order to achieve success you need a balance of all 3 bits discussed (and probably some more). However, the weight placed on these different pieces varies with me.

    To me talent is about 15% of it. By talent I mean an eye for design, the ability to build layout solutions and suggestions in your head and a native understanding of how people will respond to a visual presentation. Talent may be what gets you onto the path of design but your skill propels you.

    Skill makes up 50% of your success. Skill comes from practice and the only way to really get better at what you do is to practice… a lot. No one at any level of success really gets there without practice, trying and failing.

    The other 35% is experience. Some may consider this to be high but I equate it directly to a persons level of success. The most talented and skilled designer in the world won’t get work without experience. Experience, like so many things in this world, is all about who you know, who you have worked with and what gold stars you can stick next to your name. Building relationships with the right people and working your way into the right market takes time and dedication. This is what builds your experience.

    Keep in mind this “experience” thing doesn’t happen just because you get older. It is a part of an individual striving for a higher plateo

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    • 29

      haha. Plateau* in terms of skill

      (note: submit button is close to bottom of textarea. trying to select the last sentence of your comment MAY result in submitting said comment)

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  13. 30

    Everything I’ve read and experienced suggests that there’s a fourth factor—both, a talent, and a skill that needs to be called out separately—that plays a key role in producing great design. You allude to it in your question, Jad, when you point out that years of experience doesn’t necessarily produce “great design” (the phrase itself defies a single definition, but for the time being I’m assuming a relaxed definition that doesn’t rathole on any single axis).

    The fourth factor is intuition.

    While this word has earned a bad rap in our field, it’s generally what sets apart a great designer from merely a competent one. It’s worth noting that intuition isn’t something you are born with or without. Like most other traits, some folks are more inclined to intuitive problem-solving than others, much like some of us are born with a better aptitude for logical thinking or drawing. But make no mistake, intuition is a skill: it can be developed and honed over time. Certain professions—the military is a case in point—explicitly train folks in developing their intuitive problem-solving skills because they realize that, scientifically and statistically (Amazon search results for “intuition and gut feelings” is a good place to start), intuition has the best chance of solving a certain body of problems.

    I’ve come to believe that good design occurs at the confluence of talent, skill, training (roughly, “experience”, but I think there’s a notable distinction), and intuition. And this while assuming other things—like “opportunity” as described by Gladwell in Outliers—to be equal here.

    My 2c.

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  14. 31

    Let’s face it people in the world are different. Look at the question in another context – take 2 basketball players both play for the same practice the same amount but 1 is named Michael Jordan and the other is Steve Kerr. Now Steve is a great player in his own right and great at doing what he does best (hitting the 3) but he is no Mike. What makes the difference? Experience – you can argue they have the same amount. Skill? In a straight skills competition I think it might be fairly equal. Talent? This is where I think the difference is – Mike has a god given (if you believe in that sort of thing) talent that makes him that much better.

    I have worked on a Mac since illustrator version 1, photoshop 1, etc etc etc. My design has gotten better, through experience and learning but I am in awe of one of the designers I work with who can look at some of my stuff and instantly add a little flair and it makes it 200% better. Now my job description is more technical (I am a finishing artist / photoshop / nerd) and when the designer doesn’t know how to technically do something he calls me – that is my talent.

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  15. 32

    This reminds me of a post on hongkiat last week called Should Designers Start from Design School? I basically commented that the aspiring singer can spend a fortune on learning music theory, but if they can’t sing they’re screwed.

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  16. 33

    Talent is what counts.
    One can at any given moment learn a skill.
    Experience is giving talent a chance to mature.

    And the most important talent is *sarcasm*.

    -1
  17. 34

    I am 90% skills, 10% talent. Colleagues who are my opposite skill/talent level can create an equal quality piece in less time. However, I feel I can design closer to the clients style preference where as my colleagues always add more of their own personal taste.

    -1
  18. 35

    A big factor is hard work. People who take pride in their craft, work hard and are constantly trying to better educate themselves are the ones who are great.

    The next obvious question would be, what defines that I’m great? That I’m popular in the design community? That I appear on panels at design conferences? Or that I’m able to work on exciting projects and provide for my family?

    Someone talked of the analogy between Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr. Yes, Michael Jordan is, in my opinion, the best basketball player ever but, at the end of the day, Steve Kerr got a ring too.

    -1
  19. 37

    I think talent as you mentioned is the knack or natural ability to do something well, it comes easy. I think to truly become a great designer while you can have talent, I think that talent must be reinforced with constant practice. There are way too many disciplines within the design field for one person to be great at all of them. I think with practice you can become a great designer. Your talent may dictate in how quickly it takes.

    -1
  20. 38

    I think it take both skill and talent to create great designs. But above all else, it takes PRACTICE. No one creates their best designs right out of the gate- whether learning through conventional means or teaching themselves.

    -1
  21. 40

    I think the level of talent and skill we have is on a sliding scale (percentage wise) which is determined by experience which is exponential.

    Many of us start out with a talent, or a knack for design and as we become more experienced, or skill level builds and becomes a higher percentage of our overall input into a task.

    We often refer to young designers as having ‘raw talent’ which I see as someone with more talent than skill. Over time that person will develop their skills through experience and the talent/skill ratio will even out. Further down the line, the talent/skill level may bias towards skill as they become highly proficient with the physical, emotional and mental tools used in the design profession.

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  22. 41

    Lawal J.O. Leader

    November 2, 2011 7:02 pm

    Skill means: an ability that has been acquired by training or ability to produce solutions in some problem domain such as “the skill of a well-trained boxer”, “well trained software developer”, “articulate lawyers” or “experince and ability of a surgeon”

    We would all appreciate the fact that these type of aforementioned skills can never come as a talent until we improve on some natural endowment that would make us rely so much on our given strength discorvered in such a direction. Until such takes place, then we have good and excellent chance of becoming these titles such as an accomplished acquisition in the directions or field one choose

    As for talent, this means: A natural ability or quality, of a person who possesses unusual innate ability in a field or activity. This may refer us to the type of experience genius may possess in their fields which may be powerfully impressive at all time.

    The question is somehow complex but we would never shy away from the fact that, being a professional requires more than raw talent. Because professionalism requires some principles and procedures and which people still need to learn in their various field.

    So any man with raw talent that has no valuable principles that could make him or her stand out in his or her chosen field may be refered to sometimes as situation may proof in such a profession and which may disqualify such a person with some little, little ignorance discorvered on his or her part as a chartalan.

    It may also seem like the person is a flamboyant deceiver; who attracts customers with tricks or jokes but having some little, little skills in such a field but only has defficincies in some major or minor part of such discipline.

    However, we always appreciate to see a talented personality with enough skills that are attractive and impressing to the extent that we give them the title genius, because such person would have mastered all necessary skills required of him or her to a point of notion.

    All talent that may bring about or need teacher’s attention is not sufficient for a man to call himself or herself an expert or a professional.

    So, as we may think that some graphic/web designers are talented, it may be correct, based on the assumption that they have it all, but should not leave any trace for inexperince in their business.

    Thanks for reading, if there is anything good read from this, please give it to God, it His grace, but if you read anything otherwise, please pray that God should increase my wisdom to write better.

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  23. 42

    My comment is very basic. Most people can learn how to use design software. That is a skill. However, design talent is being able to visually communicate information in an aesthetic and understandable manner. It’s like research scientists bringing me large-format posters that they created in Illustrator….one big mess!

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  24. 43

    Skill is the basement, talent is the ability to extend your skills and use your skills in a right and/or creative way. Experience is some sort of distiller and compass to get talent and skills focused and in a good shape.

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  25. 44

    @Nishant Kothary , I just feel that intuition is a part of talent. A talented designer’s edge lies with their intuition to know what is good, and what is great.

    Skill-set is tools. Can’t do anything without knowing how to use the tools to get the job done. One can learn design principles, and master them. But unless you have talent, you won’t have true intuition. MANY years of experience can produce a certain type of intuition, but natural intuition is what talent is all about.

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  26. 45

    Talent is intuition like mason mentioned, along with creativity/imagination.
    Skill is the tool usage, from pencil and paper to some cpu software.
    If you don’t have a bit of natural talent its pointless to go on as a designer. If you have only skills with software and no talent, or vice versa, you either an artist or a skilled guy on the X software. A designer works with both.
    Experience is what makes you take the best of them both, the more you have the problem solving becomes faster and better.

    It’s like the theory and the practice, they have to live along side each other. If you don’t know the principles, any Photoshop, Illustrator and friends, will be just tools to make some digital art, not design.

    I look what i did in college and on first years working and i wonder “what the hell was i thinking?” or “man that website looked so complicated back then”, etc.

    With experience and years you get some habits (good and bad), always try to break those by, for example, working and/or discussing work with different people, designers or not.

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  27. 46

    Talent is natural but can only go so far. Skill is built upon talent as an extension to the natural ability. You can perfect skill, but you cannot perfect talent and with this comes a couple caveats. Best and most well known example is Michael Jordan who lacked talent but built his skill level above anyone with just talent alone.

    Not to say talent can come in handy and get you ahead in the game early, but alone raw talent can only take you part way before you have to start building skill to achieve the next level.

    Skill and talent my be the method, but desire is the key to achieving greatness.

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  28. 47

    What the heck, I’ll throw my $0.02 in here.
    Talent corresponds to creativity. Skill, to a very large degree, is the ability to utilize talent.
    Talent requires ability to generate an idea vision. Skill is the ability to bring the vision into reality so that other people can sense it. Songwriters use their talent to generate emotions and then use skills to illustrate them in sounds and lyrics. When I do digital design, I get a general vision of what I want to create (using my limited talent), then through an iterative process I use skills to generate images and animations and sounds that accurately express my original vision. I virtually always have to use more creativity (talent) during iterations when I am not satisfied with what my skill first produces.
    This is a very interesting topic! Thanks, all for sharing your thoughts.

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  29. 48

    Looks like the editor needs another editor to check his work! You repeated “Well, I guess it would depend on your definition of what talent and skill is. I looked in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and this is how it defines the two words.” twice!

    Anyways. As with most things in life I think you need a combination of things to become good at what you do. Yes talent is all well and good, so is creativity but trying to put that down onto paper or a computer or screen or whatever it is takes skill. Skills can be developed, talent cannot.

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  30. 49

    I think talent will only take one so far when it comes to problem solving, when designing one has to think about the functionality of the visual or tangible design rather than the artistic aspect alone. This entails the whos, wheres, hows, whens, and whys of a design concept then making sure that it functions to its optimum. After taking all this into consideration the delivery of the concept becomes paramount. This is more the science and problem solving and might i say cornerstone of designing.

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  31. 50

    One more thing like our fellow problem solver so nicely put it Leonardo Davinci “experience is the best teacher”

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  32. 51

    If you were to rank, say, three designers – and they happen to be:

    1. extremely good, influential
    2. solid designer
    3. mediocre

    And they all work very hard, went to good design schools and have similar experience (which I’m sure you could find 3 people of the like), then what separates them cannot be acquired skill or experience, but ‘the natural endowments of a person, a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude’ – TALENT

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  33. 52

    What I’d like to know is, can you develop talent? I know the dictionary definition says you’re born with it, but dictionaries are not experts on talent.

    I’m a very skilled, but nearly talentless designer. I love the world of design and want to do stellar work, but I suck at it. It kills me because I don’t know how to do anything else and don’t really want to, but at the same time I’m starting to feel like I don’t have a future in it. How can I develop a talent for it?

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  34. 53

    I don’t personally believe in talent as an inate quality or property of a person they are born with, what we recognise as talent is almost exclusively the result of hard work and long hours – famously, 10000 long hours (literally). What we call ‘talent’ is really what we ought to call ‘skill’. The word talent IMO is actually dismissive of a person’s accomplishments in this regard, as it denies the connection between what a person has done, and what they have accomplished – and that’s very unfair.

    If you wish to examine whether creativity can be taught, the answer is yes, absolutely. I suspect though, not least based on personal experience, that few courses in the traditional creative disciplines teach creativity itself, rather they just provide a lot of opportunity for it which is not the same thing at all. Being creative is a bit like being an entrepreneur – it’s being willing to try and try again, without fear of failure, until you are satisfied with your success. That is a psychological challenge for many, who would naturally assume failure implied a lack of inate ability (the curse of the idea of ‘talent’ strikes again!) and give up, whereas the creative or entrepreneurial spirit simply recognises that early efforts are a necessary path to later, better ones, informing and shaping them if only in providing a provenance of ideas…

    If we were to attempt to define the creative mindset, we might start by recognising a desire – inherent or imposed – to connect initial conditions (the problem, if you like) with a desired outcome (the solution…) by sheer force of will. We would recognise that failure along the way is inherent and even beneficial, for even ‘failure’ is a lesson to be learned. And we would recognise that the creative spirit is fearless, recognising only the certainty that success will (eventually) be arrived at or – if truly impossible – nonetheless valuable lessons and experiences gained along the way. In the mind of the creative person then, we can say that effort is never wasted, even if it doesn’t get them where they expected. Even more simply, one might say that “everything is an asset”.

    Can that be taught? learned? Yes, sure – learning is shaping and programming the neural pathways that let us do what we want to, efficiently and freely. Pretty much everything we do is learned, often passively or accidentally ‘along the way’ but that does not mean that directed, goal-oriented instruction cannot achieve the same happy results, or more, and probably in a much shorter space of time.

    The real solution to your quandary is to not see it as a quandary. Drop the bogus notion of talent as something you have at the start of an effort or path, and see it instead as the end result, and you will see that skill and talent – as you might expect as they are so often used synonymously – are in fact interchangeable concepts. They are the same.

    I hope this didn’t come to late :)

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  35. 54

    For anyone really interested in the question of “talent”, I would recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’, as well as Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’ – excellent and quite accessible books that shed real light, in a very interesting way, on the traditiional notion of ‘talent’.

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  36. 55

    “Hard work beats talent, if talent doesn’t work hard”

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