Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Myth of Talent

Maybe One of the Most Deadly of All Myths…

Talent is a measure of skill at a certain moment in time.

So many writers use talent as an excuse to not do something. That excuse comes in a ton of different forms.

“I already know that, so I don’t have to learn more.”

“I’m not talented at doing (blank), so not going to try that.”

“Dean and Kris can do this, but I can’t.”

And on and on and on. Basically this talent myth grows out of fear, out of laziness, out of a person’s past.

Using the talent myth in either direction will stop you, hold you back, and make things difficult, if not impossible. Believing you can’t do something (like design covers, for instance) because you are not talented, is a self-fulfilling thing. It becomes true.

Talent is a measure of skill at a certain moment in time. Nothing more. You can become more skillful, thus more talented at something.

So this is the new myth that is posted in the Myth Series of Lectures on Teachable. It is in the Roadblocks part, myth eight. I will do all twenty of these over the next three or four weeks, so no worries. Best way to get all twenty of them, plus all the other thirty-plus lectures, is with a lifetime subscription. Best deal by far.



  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I still remember how I felt in 2007, when I started writing my first novel: I don’t know how to do this.

    I handled it by choosing to ignore that feeling—which could have stopped me, if I’d paid attention to it—and went ahead anyway. I battened down in the head of my point-of-view character and wrote what they saw and felt and did and thought, the things that fascinated me and thrilled me and horrified me.

    And whaddya know! I finished that book, ran it by a first reader, made some changes, and published it in 2011.

    To date, it’s the book I’ve sold the most copies of. Is it my best book? I doubt it, but as the writer I’m obviously going to be the worst judge of that question. 😉 And it doesn’t really matter. The book is out there, and some of its readers have really loved it.

    I suspect that the main reason it’s sold the most is simply because it’s been on the market the longest. But the reason the book exists at all is because I didn’t let myself worry about my skill level. I went ahead anyway because I wanted to tell that story.

    Since that novel, I’ve written 6 more novels, 6 novellas, and a bunch of shorts. I believe I have more skill now than I did then. I’ve learned a lot. But when I sit down to write a new story, I usually feel like I don’t know how to tell this story, this new story. And just like that first time, I choose to ignore that feeling and dive in anyway, because I’m excited about the story even though I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to go about telling it.

  • Jason M

    100%, Dean.
    Persistence trumps everything. It’s far, far, far, far more important than natural talent.
    I’m trying to think of a single person who skated successfully thru life based solely on talent, and who never needed to work on his/her own skills. I can’t think of anybody.

    • dwsmith

      Jason, and that’s because there is no such thing as natural talent. Talent is only a measure of a skill at a certain point in time (and usually compared in some form or another.) So no one has “natural talent” as you said. Thus you were pushing the myth I am trying to fight, even though you agreed with me. Natural talent is a complete myth.

      • Jason M

        That redefinition makes sense. Someone born with an aptitude for ice skating is blessed by the universe to have been placed further along the skills continuum than the rest of us.

        • dwsmith

          I don’t think so. Someone born next to a skating rink maybe, but aptitude?? Nope.

          Not saying there are not physical limitations that come into play. But again, Jason, you are just looking for an excuse. I was born with a father who loved golf. And parents who thought reading and writing stupid. Not sure under your thinking what went wrong with me.

          • Jason M

            Dean, some people have a greater natural aptitude for some pursuits than others. I don’t know why you can’t see that.

            Gymnasts, for example, are born with an aptitude for that sport, mostly due to body composition. Genetic luck.

            It’s kind of weird to maintain that people don’t show aptitude for certain pursuits, but hey whatever floats your boat. Case in point: me. I was reading at 3 and wrote my first “book” at age 5, and now I’m a professional writer. So clearly there is a correlation.

            My original point — which we AGREE on — is that natural aptitude by itself doesn’t equal success. Success is weighted more towards persistence.

          • dwsmith

            Lucky for me I wasn’t born then with a genetic disposition to write. I had no or few books growing up, didn’t read, hated to write anything, never learned to spell or type. Parents didn’t read at all, no one in my family did. No money, nothing. Just imagine where I could have gone if I was considered talented at reading and writing when I was young? Wow.

            So keep believing in excuses all you want. There is no such thing as natural talent. You have worked for where you are as a writer. Stop giving credit where it isn’t due.

            This topic annoys me beyond words. I have worked my ass off to get where I am. Now I am called “talented” and “lucky” by people looking for reasons to not work on something they claim to want. And there was nothing lucky at all with me being born into a dead poor, abusive family that thought reading was a waste of time at any age. Talent or “aptitude” or whatever you call it is bunk. An excuse to not work at something. Nothing more. Sorry.

            So I am not letting your excuse stand here for people to not work at something because they don’t have an “aptitude” for it. So no more on this, I am fed up and just never expected such excuses from someone who works as hard as you do.

            I get the last word here. My blog, I win.

  • Glen Sprigg

    I have to say, this website has inspired me so much in my writing. I made a goal to reach 500,000 words by the end of this year, and by following Heinlein’s rules (three of them so far; I’m still working on setting up my indie publishing company), I’ve already passed 100,000 words since mid-July. I’ve completed two novellas and nine short stories, and my wife says that she’s never seen me this energetic and passionate.

    The series on myths opened my eyes like nothing else ever has, and I’m really feeling the freedom to just create. And the series on Thinking like a Publisher has me moving to get that going, as well.

    I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Dean, thank you so much for what you’re doing here; you’re making it possible to dream again.

    • dwsmith

      More than welcome, Glen, but what I find wonderful is that you are doing it, pushing the myths aside and firing forward. And that’s all on you. All I do is stand off to one side and say, “Might want to go that way and here’s why.” You make the choice to do it, and for that, congratulations. That’s the difficult part. So keep fighting the myths and having fun.

      • Glen Sprigg

        Oh, it’s fun, alright. I finished August a mere 500 words short of my 100,000 goal for the month. Celebration! I know that I’m the one actually doing the typing, but there were barriers to be broken that I didn’t even know existed until this site opened my eyes.

        Thank you again, Dean. Thank you for teaching me to give myself permission to believe again.

    • dwsmith

      Shannon, agents are thieves and crooks and scam artists who take advantage of writer’s dreams. You are on the wrong site if you think I will say anything nice at all about getting or working with an agent.

      And agents couldn’t spot a good manuscript if they had a gun to their head. Or a good story. The idea that your have to be a good writer or a poor writer to get an agent is just stupidity at the top level. And these days I just feel sorry for writers who chase the myth of agents to take care of them. Agents will take care of them, just not in the way the writer dreamed.

      • SB

        I totally disagreed with the article. It just makes me sad that so much advice is still get an agent and go the traditional route and if you couldn’t get an agent it’s because you are a bad writer. I very casually look at the reddit writing advice section. Most of the time it’s one person asking a question and getting 1 or 2 replies. So when I saw an active thread there I had to check it out, only to see it was outdated advice.

    • Kristi N.

      I took a look at the subreddit and eventually had to stop reading, simply because the myths were very strong there. While the topic of self-publishing (at least in the parts I read) was treated with some respect by some of the respondents, the aim of the thread was traditional publishing and how to jump through the hoops (and slither under the obstacles) to land an agent and a trad publishing contract. The saddest part (for me) was the belief that you aren’t any good until you’ve been anointed with the seal of approval by an agent and a publisher. Any other route was considered a consolation prize and the people who chose it (self-publishing) were sad, deluded creatures with an unrealistic grasp of the real world.

      • dwsmith

        But remember, we may be deluded and sad, but we still own our copyrights and we have readers. Real readers. Oh, wait, we also get to write what we want and love without someone telling us what to do. Oh, wait. And… And… And… (grin)

  • Kate Pavelle

    Few things piss my artist daughter more than when people look at her work and say, “Wow, no wonder. You’re so talented!” Nobody sees the thousands of hours of practice and new techniques and trashed failed efforts. It’s a lot like that with our stories that don’t quite work out, or are a 1st chapter instead of a short, or lack depth, or whatever. It’s all practice and nothing will EVER happen without practice. Spontaneous Best-seller Generation (SBG) is a sad, rank-smelling pipe dream.
    Fact: My younger daughter is in college now, so I started taking voice lessons from her teacher. I crackle through my passagio like a teen boy and when I hit the top notes, our dog gets all concerned and starts jumping around. We both have the right build, the right genetics, a similar power and range. But she’s the one who had put in years of practice. Me? I’m just having fun doing writing research 😉

  • Maree

    You’ve got me thinking about the intersection of ‘naturally talented’ and other writing myths. It seems to me that so many of the other myths spring from this one.

    If you’ve always been praised for your natural talent then creating something less than perfect is horrifying. Thus the whole culture of the terrible first draft and it’s attendant rules is a coping system to avoid confronting that you may not in fact be just able to naturally talent your way through writing a novel. Because you know.

    No we’re not all born equal, some of us have longer legs and higher IQ’s and rich parents and whatever other advantage. But more often than not people fritter away those advantages because they’re mistaken for talent. Other people who did not have that ‘talent’ end up far more sucessful.

    I wish someone in school had told me that talent was really just a way of denigrating skill. And skill is the result of taking an interest and applying effort and persistent focus. It makes everything much clearer and less emotionally charged.

    As my husband always says ‘I can learn anything if I want to badly enough.’