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Why “Talent”?

by Aaron Chan
Edited by Eunice Tan

I am not sure if this is the case in other English-speaking countries, but here in Singapore, people use the word “talented” a lot. See a young child playing violin? Talented. Nephew can cook? Talented. Friend’s kid paints well? So. Talented.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “talent” as “a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught.” The word itself was used to indicate a measurement of precious metal, as seen when Jesus spoke of it in the Matthew 25 parable of the servants and their master, who gave them each a number of talents of silver to invest. The servants were given talents of silver, and did not do anything directly to earn them–in a similar way, people are born with or without talents, whether it be in art, music or any other skill, solely based on luck, and not on any of their own merit.

So why do we say people we admire are “talented?” Why do we think that is a compliment? If you think about it, saying someone is “talented” is basically saying “you won the genetic lottery by sheer luck”–hardly a nice thing to say about someone. Furthermore, talent is natural aptitude, or greater potential, it in itself does not constitute ability–Mozart was ridiculously talented, but he couldn’t play the piano at birth. He needed years of practice to develop his amazing abilities, to convert his potential into something useful. In a similar way,  behind every talented individual, every young child playing violin, cooking nephew, and friend’s kid who can paint, lies hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hours of practice and constant improvement. Attributing the results of their hard work to talent is not just untrue, but borderline insulting.

In recent years, I’ve started to observe an unsettling trend in my peers and in pop culture–it’s an attitude of casual, light-hearted pessimism about your own prospects. Test coming up? “Haha, I’ll fail for sure.” “Guess I’ll just repeat the grade.” “That lamp is brighter than my future!” “Agh, I’m just dumb.” This isn’t just something limited to my own circle of friends–in China, many young people are steeped in “sang” culture, which revels in ironic defeatism (SCMP). This mindset manifests in memes, pop-culture, and even in popular drinks with names like “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea” “my-ex’s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea,” and “sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die” matcha milk tea. It is so rampant and apparent that even the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, has commented on it, describing sang culture as “an extreme, pessimistic and hopeless attitude that’s worth our concern and discussion.” And in the wider world of the internet, pessimism is everywhere in the form of brutally self-deprecating jokes and memes.

Perhaps this self-defeatism could explain why “talent” is used so often to explain success. When we see someone else’s skill, and our lack thereof, instead of attributing it to hard work, we blame it on the genetic lottery. Instead of looking at someone else’s achievements and being filled with inspiration to work hard, we shrug our shoulders and say, “You’re talented, you were born with skill, I was not, I’m just not cut out for it,” and most worryingly, “there’s nothing I can do about it.” This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people who think talent is the reason for success or skill realise they do not have talent and stop trying or making effort, leading to a lack of success, which they explain with their lack of talent, and so on, ad infinitum.

I’m not saying stopping calling people “talented” will give you success, or that this is a cure for low self-esteem. But if we want to start achieving great things, being mindful of the words we use, and the mindset they foster, isn’t a bad place to start.

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