For some reason, there are people in the art world who get offended (faux offended maybe?) if you call them “talented.” They claim that they developed their abilities through hard work, rather than being born with certain aptitudes. I have never understood this. First of all, it’s humble-bragging, which is annoying. More importantly, I sense that these people are avoiding a hard truth. Saying “I am talented” has the subtext “which means others are not” and they don’t want to deliver that message. Teaching art to kids involves an “anyone can make art” message. This is fine for kids, but too many people try to extend this to adults who are facing professional and career decisions. The professional art world is not an “anyone can do it” situation. The art/craft market is not big enough to support everyone who wants to be in it. The ones who will succeed will do so on a multi-faceted combination of factors. And one of those, like it or not, is talent.
I know that my blog has inspired people to start craft businesses. I’m happy about that and I want others to succeed, if this is what they are meant to do. My goal with writing has never been to convey an “anyone can do it” message. I hope I am portraying things realistically, more like “if you are willing to bust your ass year after year, can live with delayed gratification, and have a sufficient amount of talent, then maybe this is for you.”
“It’s not always a great idea to follow your passion, if you’re passionate about something you will never be good at. At some point you’re gonna have to recognize that. But if you feel in your heart, if you know, if you have reason to believe, that you can be awesome at something, that you can do something unique, that will shock and astound and terrify people, and bewitch them … do that.” – Anthony Bourdain
When I was a kid, I did competitive gymnastics. I got into it because my older sister, Jinny, was already an elite-level gymnast. For an 11 year-old Class III gymnast, I was good. I came in second place all-around at the state championships that year, and our team won first place. All of my friends and teammates got promoted to Class II, but I was promoted two levels to Class I. I quit a few months later. Why? Because I ran into the limits of my talent. It turns out that I don’t have a good inner gyroscope. As I adult, I know now that my inner ears are somewhat faulty. I am terribly prone to motion sickness, and have dealt with occasional vertigo. For a gymnast, this means I have no idea where I am when I can’t see the ground. A Class III gymnast can see the ground most of the time. In Class I, I was being asked to do far more complicated things, and I was lost. I crash landed on my head on a regular basis. (which hurts, by the way)
This is why I am comfortable with the “talented/not talented” discussion. I confronted the limits of my gymnastics talent, and it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s not a difficult reckoning, when the alternative involves crash landing on my head. “I’m never going to the Olympics. And you know what? That’s ok.”
I didn’t stop doing gymnastics. I joined my junior high and high school teams, which were not at all pressurized or competitive. In high school, our “coach” was a nice lady who didn’t really know anything about gymnastics, so we coached ourselves. We weren’t slackers, we put forth our best routines, but never worried about scores or winning. We cared about getting a good workout everyday, and having fun. Looking back, this team is where I find my fondest memories of high school.
I do not consider myself a gymnastics failure, even though I never came close to my original goals. I took it as far as I could, and found a place where I was happy and my talent level made sense.
Do I think it’s unfair that my sister had more talent than me? Heck no! I think this is another reason why some artists are afraid to admit they’re talented. Because somehow being “born with it” means “not deserved” or “not earned.” The truth is there is no correlation between your “born with it” attributes and whether you deserve them. If you have talent, you deserve it just as much as anybody else. So if you are having pangs of guilt over this, get over it. Or, if you are doubting yourself, that is an internal battle. The person who called you “talented” probably didn’t mean it that way, so don’t take it out on them.
And here’s the other reason why I don’t envy my sister. I mentioned this above already: her talent was only one factor. The rest was accomplished through years and years of hard work and practice, developing her talent into high level skills. Anyone willing to go through that deserves their success. So for those of you who argue “I’m not talented, I worked for it!” you are getting it wrong. It takes both to make it to the elite level of anything.
What exactly does “talent” mean for a potter? Luckily, it has nothing to do with your inner ears. It starts with the ability to recognize beauty, and to understand the differences between “beautiful” and “pretty” and everything else. It’s the ability to put together elements of beauty into your own complete designs, and to perceive how the various elements relate to each other. It’s about being enough of a science geek to embrace the technical aspects of the ceramics process. And it’s about having enough manual dexterity to execute the ideas in your brain out of a material like clay, which has an independent mind of its own. Manual skill level is learnable to some extent, but a baseline of talent goes a long way.
When it comes to professional pottery, I’d say that talent is about 25% of the equation. The rest comes from education, work ethic, process management, initiative, courage, patience, and more. Talentwise, I don’t see myself as being at the top of the scale. This is not required. In fact, the “most talented” potters are not necessarily going to make it as pros. So it’s not about comparing your talent level against other potters. What matters is whether you have enough, before the other 75% of factors can make any difference.
After I launched a pottery business, it took eight years before the business generated a livable full-time income. During those eight years, I never (figuratively) crash landed on my head. I started out with small successes, which incrementally led to medium successes and then to big successes. But I was having good outcomes and moving upwards the whole time. I see lots of potters, out in the art festival circuit and in online communities, who are crash landing on their heads over and over. Lots of well-intentioned people say “oh that’s normal, keep trying.” But I am saying, “it’s not uncommon, but it’s a clear indicator that something is wrong.” For those potters, it might be time for an honest reckoning with themselves. It won’t be the end of the world.
When people tell me I’m talented at pottery, my reaction is “thanks!” I’ll take it as a compliment at face value. And I consider this separate from my own inner relationship with the word, one that is based on clear-headed honesty. Every professional artist needs to find this understanding with themselves too.
I barely remember wanting to be an Olympian. But I still long for my unfulfilled dream of being one of Lady Gaga’s backup dancers. Alas, I don’t have that kind of talent either. At least I’m talented at pottery.