On Talent

I’ve had a few conversations lately about the corrosiveness of emphasizing talent or “giftedness” in a physical instruction context.

Something I’ve encountered a lot is a weird sort of predestination framework: folks born with “natural talent” will be good at a thing, and folks without it will just struggle and flail forever. It’s a really easy way for students to talk themselves out of learning, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone I’m trying to teach say, “Oh, sure, it’s easy for you!” as if I woke up just being able to do these things and didn’t have to learn.

I do pick up new physical skills quickly, in a way that may look like a special talent from the outside. I’ve also been involved in very regular physical training since I was 7 years old, and have changed my area of focus dramatically many times ( from figure skating, to snowboarding, to rock climbing, to skiing, to martial arts), along with dabbling in every fun physical activity that crosses my path (e.g. horseback riding, archery, skimboarding, trapeze, social dance, powerlifting).

In other words, I’ve spent almost 25 years practicing how to learn to do stuff with my body.

I’m good at physical learning. It’s my field of expertise. That doesn’t mean I don’t suck at things, or that I don’t have to learn them like everyone else. I just get through some parts of the process faster by drawing on a couple of decades of experience.

Sucking at a thing is part of getting good at a thing, and I don’t know anyone — even “talented” or “gifted” folks — who hasn’t sucked at some point in their life. As instructors, we can always be more transparent about those times we’ve sucked at our arts, instead of letting the talent narrative poison our students’ learning.

In that spirit, here’s a mini-gallery of my first couple of years of swordfighting. I improved a lot over the period depicted here (late 2010 – early 2012), but even the later photos bear the marks of a beginner still learning how to use her body: the weird angles, the disconnection between hips and shoulders, the awkward weighting of the feet, the questionable tip position and edge alignment. These are all things that I sucked a little less at every year, but they didn’t just go away one day.



Skill isn’t a gift. It’s the product of conscious effort, practice, and a willingness to spend a long time being bad at something, and a longer time still being mediocre at it. Don’t trust anyone who tells you these things should come easily.