Contrasting views

Via The Passive Voice, I’ve recently encountered two posts that are making me uncomfortable because I agree with them both, but they are pretty contradictory. Here they are. Check them out. What do you think? Are both of these writers correct? Can you come up with a pithy sentence that reconciles both views?

1. Dean Wesley Smith: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Must Be Talented to Be a Professional Writer, in which Smith discusses how utterly untalented a writer he was when he was young and then goes on to say:

Thank heavens for me I came to the realization early on in my life that talent was only a measure of craft at a certain point in time and nothing more.

Yet, frighteningly, parents, teachers, and so many family and friends think that talent is FIXED. If you are talented when you are young in something, you should be for your entire life. Well, sadly, as many have discovered, it doesn’t work that way.

For example, at one point in my life, I was a very talented golfer. Now at the age of 65 I suck at it. But some of the locals I play a round with at times think I am talented because my swing still looks pretty. Ahh, the measures of talent.

Yet parents and teachers early on are determined to saddle kids with the “talented” label or worse yet, push them away from things they don’t do very well at first because they have no “talent” for that.

Just makes me angry every time I hear of it.

If you call a student talented, it’s an excuse for them to not work as hard. “It’s easy for them.” If you say they don’t have talent, you allow them to not try at all, or think something is impossible to do and then quit.

In my opinion, talent is a deadly word to attach or even mention in front of any child.

Now, let’s compare that to this post:

2. Brianna Weist: You’re not meant to do what you love. You’re meant to do what you’re good at.

We’re doing people an incredible disservice by telling them they should seek, and pursue, what they love. People usually can’t differentiate what they really love and what they love the idea of.

But more importantly, you are not meant to do what you love. You are meant to do what you’re skilled at. Imagine an aspiring doctor with a low IQ but a lot of “passion.” They wouldn’t make it through medical school, and you wouldn’t want them to.

If that person didn’t know better, they’d develop an inferiority complex and spend the better part of their life bitter and assuming themselves to be failures. They didn’t get to do what they thought they loved, so they haven’t actualized their lives as they were supposed to.

Premeditating what we think we’d love to do without actually being in the thick of it is the beginning of the problem, and having too much ego to scrap it and start over is the end. When we try to anticipate what we’d love, we’re running on a projection, an assumption. Almost everybody believes they have the talent to succeed at the thing they really love. Needless to say, not everybody is correct.

If everybody did what they thought they loved, the important things wouldn’t get done. To function as a society, there are labors that are necessary. Someone has to do them. Is that person robbed of a life of passion, because they had to choose a life of skill and purpose? No, of course not.

You can choose what you love to do, simply by how you think of it and what you focus on. Everything is work. Everything is work. Everything is work. There are few jobs that are fundamentally “easier” than others, whether by virtue of manual labor or brain-power. There is only finding a job that suits you enough that the work doesn’t feel excruciating. There is only finding what you are skilled at, and then learning to be thankful.

A) Yes, I guess?

B) Yes, for sure?

I do agree that there are many professions where no amount of love and passion can substitute for intrinsic ability. I, for example, could not possibly succeed as a basketball player. Or at any other sport. I have a relatively poor sense of space and position and I’m so unathletic, I can’t even tell you. Plus I’m only five three. I could learn to get better at basketball than I am now (I could hardly get worse), but I could never be actually good at it.

I also frequently work with students who try very very very hard to get into the nursing program (or whatever), but seem unable to learn the necessary prerequisite math or chemistry — or who do get in, but can’t handle the very demanding courseload. I see students fail their classes all the time, often because of their complicated lives, often because of lack of self-discipline, but also sometimes because of what certainly looks like lack of ability.

I once told my vet about an issue I was seeing with a two-day-old puppy. After a pause of about five seconds, she said, “We never see this in puppies, but occasionally in calves …” She had remembered, for twenty years or however long, a random factoid about a rare condition in cows, which are animals she never works with. I was so impressed. (The condition was self-limiting and vanished in another two days or so, btw). My point is, this vet is a good diagnostician because of her amazing memory, and if you’re not above average in this department, then you probably will not be able to be as good a vet as she is, no matter your passion. Is that all just training? I think some of it is intrinsic ability.

Well, well, it was just interesting to encounter these different posts in quick succession.

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6 thoughts on “Contrasting views”

  1. I’m also never going to be a pro athlete. Remedial gym class for the win!

    Regarding the students who get hung up on math, are you familiar with dyscalculia? When my niece got diagnosed & paired with a tutor who knew how to deal with dyscalculia she became a solid B student in math.

  2. Rachel Neumeier

    Yes. Sometimes we see some form of what I guess I will call ordinary dyscalcula, though that varies so much I don’t know if the term applies. Sometimes we see something more subtle. Sometimes we see total disinterest and disengagement. We see a WHOLE LOT of inability arising from apparently never having been taught any math whatsoever in grade school. That’s my go-to assuption for every low-achieving math student, then we see where we can go from there.

    And sometimes, alas, we do see what appears to be generalized low IQ. We’re open enrollment, so we do see everything.

    Our program is too small to have real specialists in learning disabilities, unfortunately.

  3. When I read, “you are not meant to do what you love. You are meant to do what you’re skilled at”, the first question that came to mind was, “meant by whom?”

    (I can think of an answer or two, but without knowing the author I don’t know what she intended.)

    Which amused me, when I remembered the name of the site that had initially led you to the piece.

  4. Rachel Neumeier

    Yeah, I had that Meant by whom? thought as well. But I guess I automatically depersonalized the statement into, You ought to, instead of, You’re meant to.

  5. Starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I’ve come across a bunch of stuff that agrees with the first article, i.e. talent is not fixed; it requires hard work over a long period of time; and you shouldn’t praise children for talent. This blog post has a summary of one such work:

    As for the second article, it’s pretty much what a career counselor would tell you: Find the area where your interests and your skills overlap, and go for that. But you can develop the skills you need to succeed in anything if you’re disciplined and passionate (and have the resources to do so). It might take you much, much, much longer than someone else, but it’s possible. Is it your best choice? Probably not. If you love something, but you’re unwilling to put in the effort to become skilled at it, then maybe that’s a sign that something else is more important to you. Or maybe your circumstances are working against you. Should we tell people to do what they love, regardless of their circumstances? Probably not.

    Have you seen Eddie the Eagle? I haven’t seen it yet, but I believe the protagonist faces a similar dilemma.

    P.s. This site,, is studying the effects of training the brain in areas like speed, attention, and memory.

  6. I don’t think those articles are contradictory at all. I think they both tell us that talent is the intersection of aptitude and passion. Some people are lucky enough to have the aptitude do well at what they love. Because they love it, they put the time into it, and because they have the aptitude, their time bears fruit. I suppose it’s possible for someone to love something, have no aptitude for it, but have the persistence to put in the 10,000 hours (or is it 100,000? I can never remember), and they’ll probably end up at least reasonably competent at it. I think there are a lot of reasonably competent writers out there making a living at it. We don’t all have to be Shakespeare.

    As a parent, I started out thinking I would tell my kids to follow their heart, do what they love, etc. But then there’s the real world where you have to pay rent. When my daughter got very involved in acting, I struggled to know how what career advice to give. In the end, I asked her if she loved it so much that she was willing to put up with the sucky lifestyle of the not-so-famous actor. She decided she didn’t. She doesn’t seem unhappy now, so I don’t feel too guilty for not encouraging her to “follow her dream.”

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