Are you talented?

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The jury is out as to whether talent is in-born or whether it can be acquired. We do know, however, that it only shows up in people who have spent thousands of hours honing their craft. This obsessive, focused work often accounts for the teenage years – whether Picasso doing hundreds of small studies in figurative painting, or your stereotypical geek retreating from the difficulties of adolescent social life to write computer programs. But it can also come later: Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was in his twenties, though once he started he went at it in a very intensive and focused way.

So, as Roy Castle used to sing, if you want to be the best, dedication’s what you need. This much is clear.

But talent is also a product of social negotiation and personal narrative. Bourdieu talks about how the ‘habitus’ – the social environment of your upbringing – shapes what kinds of identities and talents are available to you to adopt. You are more likely to emerge as academic, or musical, or physically strong, or devoutly religious if you grow up with those patterns around you.

But we don’t just follow the patterns – we build personal narratives that are defined in relationship to them: ‘oh, I’m the only one in the family who’s hopeless at tennis’, ‘I learned to love mucking about in boats from my grandfather, much to my mother’s chagrin’. And once we have these stories about ourselves, we behave consistently with them: we stay hopeless at tennis because we think there’s no point practising; we get better at sailing because our story of passion and family relationships keeps us keen.

So, whether we are ‘musical’ or not is quite possibly a matter of chance: whether we encountered musical activity in a way we could develop a relationship with it, and what kinds of stories emerged from the encounter. For instance, I had been terrified even to try conducting up until the age of 18, but I had to do a compulsory class in it at university. At my first attempt, the tutor said ‘she’s a natural’ – this was the defining moment that changed my story. Suddenly, if there was something wrong with my technique, it wasn’t because I was incapable, it was just that I needed more practice. I just feel grateful that the story my father likes to tell of my wildly out-of-tune singing at a carol concert at age 3 didn’t become a defining story in the same way – it could so easily have been a way to establish me as tone-deaf, rather than a narrative of how far I’ve come since.

The reason I care about this is because you meet a lot of people who, as adults, say ‘oh I’ve always liked the idea of singing, but I’m not musical’. Well, if they’ve never put the hours in, no they’re not currently skilled, for sure. But the only thing that’s holding them back from trying are the personal stories of once-off failure in their youth that have guided their behaviour ever since.

What I say is: if you fancy the idea, give it a go. Sure, you won’t be very good at it first, but you get better with practice and experience. It’s worth re-writing your personal stories if it lets you have a fun time.

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