All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1981


Mr. Hood, a businessman in Meredith, New Hampshire, formerly served in the State Legislature.

How many times have we stood before a fine painting and heard a viewer say, “That artist certainly has talent. But I can’t even draw a straight line!” Well, there probably was a time when the artist also could not “even draw a straight line.” But between that time and the completion of that fine painting, he drew a great many straight lines, also curved lines, light lines, dark lines, every conceivable kind of line. He exploited his particular interest and aptitudes to the fullest in the attempt to develop his talent. Few days probably passed when he did not devote some time or effort to improving his talent.

Nobody dashes off a masterpiece on a whim between breakfast and an early lunch. To draw even a simple leaf well, a painter will produce more leaves than a tree. He learns to “see” a leaf as the average person cannot. The price of talent is high indeed, a price few of us are willing to pay. I don’t accept the popular, mystical concept with its implication that talent is inborn in the genes of a fortunate few, that it is an innate “seed,” that must inevitably burst forth as excellence in some particular field. I refuse to believe that one either has talent, or one doesn’t, and that there is no use in trying. Talent, as I define it, is the complex of abilities people will develop in a climate of freedom when they are not hampered in pursuing their personal goals. Talent is the outcome of six prerequisites: (1) physical aptitudes, (2) intellectual capacity, (3) environmental influences, (4) perseverance or drive, (5) mental perception or approach and (6) interest. Let us consider each in turn.

Physical aptitude is perhaps the ]east important of the six prerequisites. Let it be sufficient to say that body size, weight, structural detail, and the like can be factors. If one’s voice has all the charm of a rusty wheel on a gravel path, one is ill-advised to pursue a singing career. A person who stands 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 93 pounds, will not likely excel in professional contact sports. Physical limitations exist, though even they may largely be overcome by perseverance in the development of the other five prerequisites.

Intellectual capacity is to some extent “given,” but perhaps not nearly to the extent that people believe. We are obviously not all born with equal intellectual capacity. That is fortunate indeed. If we all aspired to become profound philosophers, we would surely all be very hungry phi losophers. Those of us born without superior intellectual capacity should not try to emulate Einstein. We must realistically recognize our intellectual limitations with regard to brain power, but without stifling the development of our own potential. Much of what is considered limited, innate intellectual ability is merely due to lack of interest, drive or perseverance.

Environmental influences may encourage or discourage the development of talent. Consider two persons of equal intellectual capacity, one raised by illiterate parents in a dismal shack where the only goals in life are minimal survival and leisure, the other raised by educated parents in a well kept home, surrounded by books, music, suitable playthings and an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity. The talents developed as reflections of these environmental influences would seem obvious. But they will not always be precisely those anticipated. Environmental influences may be expressed indirectly or by devious routes. A brief encounter as a child with a particular toy, book or idea may lie dormant only to stimulate an interest many years later. The seeds of interest and perseverance in the pursuit of talent, which are usually planted in our formative years, may even be spurred by opposite examples.

By maturity, our physical aptitudes, intellectual capacity and environmental influences are pretty much established. Concern with them then should be primarily to maintain and upgrade them to the best of our ability. It is here that the fourth prerequisite for “talent”—perseverance or drive—comes into play. In spite of the fact that most people seem to believe one either has talent or one doesn’t, I maintain that the potential for talent abides in most of us. To digress for a moment, I distinguish talent from “genius.” I define genius as that very rare combination of superior physical and intellectual capacity, combined with a profound interest in a specialized, narrow field, which permits some few especially endowed persons to accomplish prodigious amounts, occasionally, at a very early age. They are the innovators and pace setters in their areas of specialization. But even the development or fulfillment of “genius” requires perseverance. As Thomas Edison pointed out, genius is “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Olympic contenders persevere with supreme dedication to a self-imposed regime in order to attain a specific goal. Those of us who are not so one-goal oriented, however, should not let the prodigious accomplishments of a true genius discourage us from persevering to develop whatever potential talents we may have in one or several fields.

Mental perception or approach is perhaps the most indefinite of the prerequisites for developing talent. But it is no less important. What William James said of genius, that it was “little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way,” might also be said of talent. As a matter of fact, it is “the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way” which sets those persons, who best succeed in developing their talents, apart from almost anyone else. Most of us are creatures of tradition and habit, victims of a self-imposed lethargic state of mind. We tend to accept the obvious or the plausible without asking “Why.”

Few of us question the reasons for our actions. We all know, or are capable of knowing, much more than we realize. We tend to be blinded, to our own disadvantage, by the obvious, by “what is seen.” Few of us recognize “what is not seen.” The nineteenth century French economist and philosopher, Frederic Bastiat, illustrated this point in a short piece, “The Broken Window.” He described a young hoodlum who broke a window. All observers, with one accord, considered the financial boon this would mean to the glass industry. Blinded by “what is seen,” they failed to consider “what is not seen,” the owner’s forgone purchase of a new pair of shoes because he must pay the glazier. The mental perception which enables one to think things through, to consider more than “what is seen,” to integrate available knowledge, to approach problems in new and different ways, is an attribute of talent that is derived from the combination of inborn, innate characteristics plus application and perseverance.

We all perceive things with the same sense organs. But many of us fail to integrate our observations. We are like cameras or tape recorders, absorbing and reproducing visual and verbal images, precisely as observed, but failing to integrate, analyze or interpret them. The development of talent requires an approach of mental awareness or intellectual curiosity, so as to integrate perceptions and concepts. It calls for trying to analyze “what is not seen,” for looking at things “in an unhabitual way.”

The talented painter perceives a landscape far differently than most of us. The novice who is seeking to develop his talent must not only perfect his physical aptitude, expand his intellectual capacity, but also develop the “unhabitual” perception of an artist. The talented musician listens to a symphony and perceives nuances and subtleties of composition, while most of us just hear a melody. The talented actor perceives in the performances of his comrades every movement, facial expression and voice inflection, integrating them into his own store of knowledge, while the rest of us just enjoy the play. A talented writer has spent years reading, writing, studying and practicing that skill, with that same intense quality of specialized perception and integration.

Mark Twain once observed, “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” One of the finest pieces of American writing is the Declaration of Independence. One has only to view a copy of Jefferson’s original manuscript, with its corrections and alterations, to know that even in most inspired moments a well written essay is the result of perseverance. Words seldom flow in an uninterrupted stream of perfection. The writer must call on his store of knowledge, gleaned previously from all he has read, written, thought, judged and assimilated into his total consciousness. His talent rests on the quality of his mental warehouse, his faculty of perception, his ability to create with it, and his willingness to persevere. None of these remains static for any individual.

The sixth prerequisite for talent is interest. Interest is at the same time both a prerequisite of the other five and a product of the other five. It is in one sense “given” and it is also the outcome of innate aptitudes, environment, concentration and perseverance. Interest, whatever its source, is what helps spur us on to persevere, and to concentrate with a sort of tunnel vision on a special field. It is interest that makes us want to keep on expanding ability, perception, and talent.

The foundation of talent in any field is the sum of past accomplishments and of all of today’s knowledge and wisdom. In each generation those who develop their talents add a few more bricks to this structure of intellectual, artistic and technological heritage. But unlike a building, this construct is never finished. The potential of free men for the development of talent would seem almost infinite. The higher we build, the wider the view. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. True though this may be, it by no means implies futility in the learning process, for the more we learn, the more we find we are capable of learning. The more we persevere in trying to develop our talents, the more perceptive we become and the broader are the horizons we see.

We all have interests. We all have a certain amount of intellectual curiosity. We are all capable of putting forth some physical and mental effort. Hence we all have the potential for talent in something—be it the trades, sales, teaching, science, art, and so on, or some combination of these. Talent is most emphatically not a gift; it is an achievement!

Joy and satisfaction are to be found in expanding knowledge, developing talent and accomplishing more. By cultivating a free society in which ambition is encouraged and this mental attitude can flourish we will find that, with the application of effort and perseverance, talent will be within our grasp. If we are free to pursue our own peaceful interests, we may expect to contribute something to posterity by adding a brick or two to the structure of intellectual, artistic and technical heritage that will be available to those who follow.