On the misuse of talent, the failure of opportunity, and the irrelevance of hard work

So, Scott Cooper and I have launched into this fascinating exploration of the ideas behind Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in a series of private emails. We both hope that at some point we can craft specifically pottery related blog posts from what we’ve learned. But in the meantime let me talk to you about the last two games I saw in the European Championships in soccer!

Perhaps its unfair to critique Gladwell by fitting his ideas to a single event, like a tournament or competition, so lets forget for the time being that these themes have anything to do with his work. And truth be told, I haven’t even read his book. But enough people have discussed its ideas and examples that I am at least partially conversant with its premise and thrust.

So, soccer. Football. Fucci Ball. Voetbal. I haven’t really said it online, but I am a passionate fan of the game, one team in particular, an absorbed neutral, a former captain of the Philadelphia Public League all-stars, whose career flamed out with a whimper in college, and who at the venerable age of 48 still hobbles around the local pick-up game three afternoons a week, rain or shine. And truthfully, the creativity I found so easily expressed with my feet and vision in dealing with a round soccer ball is something very close to the invention and skill I bring to the potter’s wheel. The two are more than closely related. They are an instance of my argument that creativity is a human capacity and a birthright, and that its not just something that professional artists and children do. Its something we can find in all corners of our world. So maybe in talking about soccer for a few moments there will be a lesson hidden somewhere about pottery and art……

A few days ago I wrote Scott to inform him that I had just witnessed justice being done. The hard work, industry, and graft of the England side had just been rebuffed by the far superior talents of the Italian team. As a neutral I saw it as a fitting end to a hardworking side that played remarkably well as a team, but who were exposed through a lack of imagination and ability. They had chances, and occasional luck, but I think only rabid followers would have thought that the wrong team won.

Sometimes hard work doesn’t deserve to win. At least, not when opposed by superior talent. Sometimes talent shows us the best of what is possible. And often its triumph is a testament to the highest standards. Maybe the lesson is to not just try the hardest, but to also try to be good. And the reality behind that statement is that not everyone is going to be good at everything they do, no matter how hard they try, no matter how long they work at it. The England team are world class athletes, but in the crucible of a match against an Italian side with enviable talent it was always asking them a bit much to measure up.

But the further lesson might be “screw talent“. Not everyone can be the best. Maybe there’s a ‘good enough’ that can be acceptable. If the lads enjoy kicking a ball around for a living, then more power to them if they can get people to pay them for it. Not everyone cares only about who is the most talented. Not everyone even always cares who won. Or that its the most important thing. Sometimes the bottom of the heap is as good as it gets. There is plenty of room for folks with lesser gifts. And the truth is that the audience often won’t know the difference. They can still get something decent and entertaining for the price of their ticket. But that doesn’t mean we should take advantage of their open mindedness. We still need to try hard, and we still need to try to make the best work we can. And we need to know the difference between good and bad, whether we shine in its light or are given something to aim for. We can always try to do better. Isn’t that important? Even when we’re only in it for fun? Shouldn’t we always try to be better than bad? (Oops! Was I talking about soccer or pottery…?)

So the second match I saw was yesterday’s meeting between two of the top three most talent laden teams in the tourney. The Spain side had talent more evenly spread throughout its starting line up and the reserves on the bench. The Portugal side boasted the second most talented player on the planet and were no slouches except in the depth of their squad. An intriguing match up!

The game actually failed to live up to the hype, and the magnificent talent that strode the pitch was only visible in small glimpses. Both teams played well in parts, but largely failed to deliver the mouthwatering contest that expectations had hinted at. Still, either side would have been deserving victors. The difference between this and the other match was that quality was in no way lacking.

So the game turned out to be a stand off, both sides having negated the strengths of the other, effectively canceling out the sublime gifts that talent makes possible. And so it came down to a penalty shoot out, possibly the worst idea in modern football (soccer), but a necessary evil for deciding the contest that day and not putting the players in the hospital.

And you could see the strategies of the teams, Spain trotting out its best penalty takers in order, and Portugal wanting the final shot to come down to its hero. It was an attempt by the Portuguese to put the deciding ball in the hands (at the feet) of its greatest star. Only, it backfired. Spain took better penalties. And by the time it came to that last Portuguese player, the game had already been won by Spain.

The second best player in the world had not even had an opportunity to make a difference. Through the arrogance of believing they could script a fairy tale ending the Portuguese removed their most potent weapon to an indifferent position. They squandered the opportunity to put the best talent in the best position to do them any good. Amazing! Not so the Spanish. They delivered what they had to when they had to. And the perhaps marginal difference in penalty taking prowess between the first 4 Portuguese to step up and the first 5 Spanish players was enough to decide the contest.

So what’s the lesson there? Possibly that talent is all very well and good, but that it needs to be utilized to its best advantages. Just what is talent good for if not making a difference? If its not put in a position to make a difference? So how do we put ourselves in a position to take advantage of our talents? How do we give ourselves the opportunity to do this? Just what are we good at? That seems worth knowing.

As we go through life the world has all sorts of interesting things for us to try, and we only know what we will like doing if we give some of them a try. If you never try, how will you know? And if we find something we like, say pottery, we can hope that not only will we continue to like doing it, that it will have longstanding relevance and interest in our lives, but that through training and perseverance we may someday get to be good at it. If we are lucky we will have a talent for it. If we are lucky we will have the opportunity to exercise that talent. If we are lucky we will be able to nurture the seed of that talent so that it grows into a healthy tree with all sorts of fascinating branches and deep roots. If you are a teacher, that is your gift to your students.

So, to put the finishing touches on another interminable ramble, find what you like doing. Then, explore your talents for these things. Put yourself in the position to take advantage of your opportunities. Don’t waste too many of them. Work hard, but not mindlessly. Work with a purpose. Let that purpose be your joy and the dreams it takes to get there. Imagine the possibilities. Dare to dream. Its an open question whether a lazy genius is better off than an industrious drone. Don’t be either. Talent and hard work together are more than the sum of their parts. That’s the alchemy. That’s what each of us can find in our own way.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to On the misuse of talent, the failure of opportunity, and the irrelevance of hard work

  1. peggy koenig says:

    I’ve been reading your essays for a time now and they never fail to intrigue and enlighten. These words on the nature and use of talent come at a propicious time as I delve into the world of clay. I have come late to this world and have no expectations about the importance (or lack thereof) of my role in the greater sceme of things. But the modicum of talent I bring to this medium and the joy I am finding in the making, learning and sharing will, with perserverence and good fortune, be what sustains and enriches my life. Thank you for being a part of that enrichment.

    • Carter says:

      Thank you, Peggy, for saying that! I am honored to be included in your world, and I wish you the best.

      I am always grateful to know that there are other folks out there like me, that I am not alone on this journey. And I have found that if I have things I can share with others, that sharing enriches me even more. I think part of what is important is finding our own joy, but also that joy which isn’t shared has yet to offer its full potential. It is a bud which has yet to flower.

      So in this new path of your life, I strongly encourage you to share your joy. Pass on what you’ve made as humble offerings to friends, talk about what you’ve learned and the new source of wonder that you’ve discovered in this world. Help grow their appreciation for a fellow human being’s imagination. Help them find their own joy in a life lived creatively. We can do that by sharing and we can do that by example. We CAN make a difference in the world.

      Thanks for chiming in, and thanks for the kind words.

      Best of luck!

      Happy potting!

      • Carter says:

        Just ran across this great quote from Martin Seligman on the Brain Pickings blog (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/06/28/learned-optimism-martin-seligman/):

        “‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

  2. John Bauman says:

    My choice of colleges, a choice I made as an incredibly mature 17-year-old {eye-rolling emoticon}, was based solely on this: I was recruited by this college to play soccer. I played my freshman year until I got injured. Back then (early 70s) it was rare for a US-born player to be able to control the ball well. But that was my obsession as a high school player. I set the high school record for most hits “juggling” the ball. I played on the front line and could kick with power with either foot.

    My sophomore year as I returned to the team, I was thoroughly beat out of any playing time by a guy who had never played before, but could run a 10:2 100 meters. (I was clocked at an eye-blurring 45 seconds if you didn’t count my mid-sprint stop for Gatorade).

    The talent I had, in the long run….er, sprint……didn’t matter. The talent to run meant more.

    I loved the Gladwell book. I went through a Gladwell period last year wherein I read all of the books in succession. It seemed to me, after Gladwell grabs our attention with his man-bites-dog angle, he ends up still concluding that, in fact, dog still almost always bites man. In the butt. and that Outliers are really outliers for pretty concrete reasons.

    Making a living from creative endeavors touches that probability tangentially, but not often directly. We can work hard — put in our 10,000 hours with clay spinning through that quarter-inch gap in our fingers……oops. regressing a bit…….

    In the sad and “unfair” long run, though, WHAT we were born (however the nurture/nature puzzle fit together to for us) to create will either have mass appeal, or it won’t.

    Or not. All usual disclaimers and pretense at actual knowledge apply.

    • Carter says:

      Awesome John!

      And I love that you too had your fling as a soccer player! I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the overlap in skills, ability, talent etc that make up the body knowledge so important in these two endeavors. The post you put on your blog today explores that creative state of mind beautifully! (http://baumanstoneware.blogspot.com/2012/06/effortless-custody-of-automatism.html) Although the difference in required attention during a match is its own issue, it is still the “effortless custodianship of automatism” that allows our bodies to achieve that level of performance. In sport, creativity is on demand as needed and relates specifically to the here and now (or a very small window of what else is going on around you at the same time… the killer pass for the perfect run, etc) Sports seems to have this incredible connection to the practice of art. It just seems too related not to make that case.

      Yeah, talent seems to be particularly vulnerable. Its interesting that in American Football they have these special rules to protect the ‘skill’ players. Its as if they recognize that without special rules special talent paints a bullseye on that person and the goons are given incentive to level the playing field…. But talent also suffers (as you say) in how well it communicates. And it may even be the case (in some circumstances at least) that the more talented (e.g. “less common”) an artful expression the more often it will be the case that it DOESN’T speak to a wide audience. Which typically also comes down to how well an audience is educated to make sense of that art form. Talent only speaks to people who can identify it. It isn’t always self evident. Non soccer fans might even look at your juggling and think “how boring”. But those in the know get just how difficult something like that can be (it was never a skill I had) and can appreciate it. Its so predictable to begin an introductory wheel class and have one or two student think that by the end of eight two and a half hour sessions they will be making elegant tea sets, matching dinnerware, etc. It sure looks easy when you and I do it, but hidden is the long hours we spent honing those skills and the talent we have brought to bear on the creative aspects. And in a world that doesn’t understand this it is so readily taken for granted when it could instead quite easily be nurtured….

      I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but there seems to be a post somewhere in all this….

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