Talent vs. Skill
I’d like to show y’all a picture of my first-ever hand-forged item. Except, since I burned the first few pieces up from overheating in the forge at various stages of completion, I can only show the first somewhat-completed item: this “J” hook.
I have had some level of interest in blacksmithing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t fire up a forge for the first time until I was 18. I was in the process of building a log home in preparation for getting married, and I wanted to make all of the hardware for the doors and whatnot. One rainy week, I decided to try and make a start. I traveled to a local blacksmith to buy a few corn sacks full of coal, dug out my grandfather’s VERY worn anvil and my Dad’s rusty rivet forge and greasy, handle-less forge blower, enlisted a friend for a day and set it all up. Over the next few hours, I beat around on hot steel trying unsuccessfully to manipulate it into something that resembled pieces of a Suffolk latch. I also burned up piece after piece of steel. I tried making a couple of hooks as well, and ended the day with a bunch of really mangled pieces of metal including the tortured hook above. At this point, I don’t think I had ever seen a blacksmith video (we were still on dial-up internet, for those that remember what that was like) or paid any attention to any demos I’d ever happened across at local festivals and the like. I MIGHT have looked at a book or two I’d found at the library, but I doubt it. It would be another couple of years before I would make a second attempt at forging.
Forging hot iron and steel did not come easy for me.
I ruined a lot of steel, sustained tons of burns, blisters, and cuts, but I kept at it. By the time I finally got a shop and decent forge built three years ago, I could make some OK nails, hooks, hinges, and random custom items, but it was still a struggle to get simple forgings done in a timely manner without burning or cracking them, and to really have quality end results. Progress was slow and painful, and the often long intervals between forging sessions didn’t help any. Since then, I’ve done more and more forging, including a few custom commissions that have taught me new skills and processes. I’ve also gotten lots of practice in the basics of forging from the repetitive work of making small items. While my forging skills have improved drastically over time, I still struggle at times, and have long way to go before I even reach something close to the proficiency of many professional smiths both past and present.
Something I’ve run into though, is that I will fairly often get compliments on social media from folks on my “talent” or “gifting” at working metal, and as I am unsure I have EVER had a natural aptitude towards any of the crafts that I like doing, this has led me to wonder about how we look at those things. In a Google search, one can find that the current generally-accepted meaning of “talent” is a natural ability- as in an ability or at a serious aptitude you were born with. As a Christian, I believe that all people generally have some sort of “gifting” or calling- something that they are particularly disposed to be good at, and that it is part of our makeup as individuals that no two people have the exact same set of skills, knowledge, intellect and etc., and there are definitely rare examples of child prodigies. But, I’ve also come to believe that rarely is our gift to be especially good at something without having to work hard to learn it.
Compliments are almost always a good thing, but problems can arise when we simply chalk up someone’s apparent skill or aptitude at something to “talent”, sometimes even following with “I could never do that”. While I am personally humbled and appreciative whenever someone compliments me in such a way, I think there can be several things that can contribute to this type of attitude being problematic. First, for Christians, we have the biblical promise that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us, and also that we have the Helper in the form of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do anything with enough faith. As a side note, I’m not arguing that this faith isn’t itself a gift, because of course it is- “for what have ye that ye did not receive?”, but the point here is that if we look at at a learned skill, trade, or any other good work and say “I could never”, or assume that we don’t have the ability to learn it, we are not believing the promises of God in their entirety. It could even border on insulting our Maker when we contradict what He has to say about our abilities. There’s a scary thought.
Second is that the person using the word ‘talented’ may not know how hard it was for the person they’re complimenting to learn the skill they have. Most people who are really skilled at anything have learned their skill through countless hours of practice, and many failures and discouragements. Basically telling a highly-skilled person that their skill must have come from natural ability can be insulting- in essence telling them that learning their skill must have been easier for them than it would be for us, inferring that they didn’t have to work THAT hard to get to where they are. This isn’t always untrue, but it is easy to see the unfairness of assuming it.
This is not really meant to be a hard-and-fast on anything, and I’m certainly not judging folks for making nice comments- I just am saddened when I hear people saying things that contribute to a lack of faith and confidence. Nothing is more liberating than believing that you can overcome and learn anything when God is on your side- but how crippling it is to believe that so many things are out of reach because you’ve never found yourself to be “good” at anything. It is my belief that most anybody can become good at most anything- if they put their mind to it, practice enough, and stick to it long enough.
We sometimes don’t think enough about what we’re saying (understatement alert) BUT:
Most folks are just wanting to give you a compliment-don’t overthink it
We ALL have way more natural, God-given ability than we realize
Faith can move mountains- and if you believe you CAN learn something and that it is worth learning, you will.
We all need to know the difference between “I can’t” and “I won’t”.
It seems that the modern definition of “talent” as basically “innate/natural ability” is fairly recent - Webster’s 1828 defines talent simply as an exceptional level of skill- and skill can be learned. I have also heard -but not verified- that famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach defined “art” as basically innate ability, and “craft” as learned skill. He insisted that he was a craftsman, NOT an artist, since he said his composing abilities were something he had to learn, not something he was born with, and that the craft of composing could be learned by others. I don’t know that I’m willing to draw the line he did between craftsman and artist, but it is an interesting definition anyhow. It is also noteworthy that while some artists that draw or paint exceptionally well have at some point exhibited an aptitude for their craft, but most artists I’ve ever talked to had to LEARN and practice in order to actually get good at realistic representations of natural beauty.