The Myth of the Gift

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A person exhibiting talent in the arts is often said to possess a “gift.” Though usually said with kind or neutral intentions, this phrase can have a negative impact on both the “gifted” and the less impressive majority. For the owner of artistic talent, the term “gift” is, at best, a reminder of the role of heredity in creative excellence. Darwin set the framework for this now-obvious observation, surmising that his daughter Annie’s aptitude for the piano was passed on from her musical mother. True, inborn capacities and innate dispositions can pre-condition people for imaginative exploration. But this is a relatively small ingredient. As any prodigious artist will attest, time, energy, passion and practice play a far greater role than mere genes. To overlook all of that work (10,000 hours worth by one popular estimation) and reduce it to a “gift” is tantamount to an insult. The impact is compounded when aptitude is identified as “God-given”—a label that erases human agency, hereditary or otherwise, from the equation.

This (mis)conception can also be discouraging for those who admire the über talented and don’t feel particularly talented themselves. If they have not been blessed, then why bother with artistic pursuits? Again, this places too much focus on native talent, which is, in the strictest sense, an impossible concept. Whatever influence genetic factors have in determining one’s artistic aptitude, artistry is not something one can excel at without having to learn it. Finely honed skills and effortless performances are the product of copious study, instruction, refinement and repetition. This is equally true for the highly educated and informally seasoned, whose learning process is called, perhaps overstatedly, “self-teaching.”

Recent studies in psychology show that even “super-skills,” like perfect pitch and lightening-fast manual dexterity, are not inherited advantages, but the result of training. The myth of the gift crumbles further. According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, author of landmark papers on this topic, people thought of as “gifted” share three distinguishing traits: They balance practice and rest over long periods of time; their practicing is driven by deep passion and interest; they redirect adversity into success.

The last point is easy to overlook. A finished product does not reveal what took place behind the scenes. For every masterful painting, virtuosic performance or architectural marvel, there are countless failed visions and discarded projects. But, rather than insignificant inevitabilities, these failures, false starts and dashed ideas are the foundation upon which great creations arise. Quality comes from quantity.

Master author Ray Bradbury, no stranger to trial and error, put it thus: “A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count—with a living creature under the knife. An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration” (“Zen in the Art of Writing,” 1973).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Gift

  1. John Morton

    I was pleasantly surprised to hear you put God-given ideas into perspective. Of course, we’re only scratching the surface in our study of the inheritance of mental characteristics so the nurture/nature debate will take a while yet to settle down. I have identical twin daughters which has given me an opportunity to study these ideas.

    We all know that we can assemble the best musicians we can find and not produce a great orchestra but the strangest musician I ever met could busk any tune in any key. He once played his difficult band parts from memory, note perfect, on a gig because he left his band parts at home and yet he had the most awful sound on saxophone I ever heard.

    Strange folk, musicians.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Good stuff. Prodigies and the like are certainly a curious bread. They are outliers worthy of the research they’ve attracted and will continue to attract. In general, though, wherever the nature/nurture debate leads us, nature is something that needs to be nurtured.


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