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Why I’m Proud to Have Been an Unoriginal, Talentless Hack

Handling negative emotions

Here’s a pretty easy way to see me rail against injustice: introduce me to someone who was turned off to music in childhood by some music teacher, “expert,” or know-it-all family member who said that person didn’t have the talent for it. These kinds of judgments drive me a little crazy, because even though music is just a spare time activity for me, I get enormous pleasure out of it, and I think a lot of people who don’t consider themselves musical would probably love to do the same if they had the “talent.” The thing is, they always had all the talent they needed.

If you’ve read my article “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?,”¬†one of my first posts on this site, you already know that there’s an avalanche of scientific evidence that talent as it’s usually thought of simply doesn’t exist. (If you find yourself scoffing at this claim, go read the article and judge for yourself! Better yet, read Geoffrey Colvin’s excellent book Talent is Overrated or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.) When we see someone for whom playing the violin is as natural as drinking water or who can reconstruct entire chess games move by move, we may naturally imagine that their skill is a gift–but this isn’t the case. What we’re seeing is the result of tons and tons of good practice.

So if people are only good at things after a lot of quality practice, then that means that everyone who is really good at something went through a long period when they really weren’t that good at all. Oh sure, they might have been told they were good because they were screeching out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on a 1/4 size violin at the age of 4, but the fact of the matter is that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was being beaten to death, and that just because it was still struggling weakly and hadn’t yet succumbed, that doesn’t mean it was beautifully played.

I mean to say that every current genius or virtuouso was once a talentless hack. If they were clever enough to get through the talentless hack phase while they were still so young that nobody criticized them, they were lucky, but it doesn’t mean they were any less of a talentless hack at the time.

Similarly, the early work of great writers and composers is rarely original or good. Even Mozart’s first works were all just rearranging other composer’s themes. (Pretty clever, actually, since that means that he’d be learning quickly and his music would sound good even though he hadn’t yet learned how to reliably assemble a decent theme of his own.) Certainly my early writing efforts were derivative, painful drivel–although I thought at the time that they were genius, and I undertook them early enough that they at least came across as a little precocious.

If you are an artist of some stripe, you’re probably hoping even at the early stages of your development that you have some originality, and in fact you might: we all have different backgrounds and sensibilities, and possibly yours is different enough from others who have come before you that you start out with something unusual to say or an unusual way to say it. But even if you later find some of your early works weren’t as singular as they seemed, keep in mind that the road to originality and genius is paved, as it were, with hackwork.

Photo by nathanrussell. The kid in the photo might be really good by now for all I know, but you get the idea.

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