You’re Not Talented and Neither are your Children

I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you. Actually, scratch that. I’m rather glad to be the one to break this to you. Because honestly it’s about time someone did and it’s really for your own good.

I’ll say it again…

You are not talented and neither are your children.

I hope that in some small way me telling you this will help you. It’s possible that it will but it’s far more likely that it will help your children. Here’s why:

When I was a small child I was frequently told how clever I was. I loved being told how clever I was. I was so often praised for my cleverness that, in my mind, being clever became what defined me and my self worth. It went like this:

  • Aran does something clever. Parent or other important person praises Aran for being so clever. Aran is affirmed in his meaningfulness. Aran feels good.

Cleverness is, in most minds, something innate. You’re either clever or you’re not. Certainly for most children cleverness is seen as something you either have or you don’t. It isn’t a choice. It’s what you might call a talent. I was, therefore, praised and loved for what I was, not for what I chose.

As I grew older I found praise harder to come by and cleverness harder to demonstrate. Life gets more complicated. We no longer find ourselves praised for doing little drawings or having a large vocabulary (one of my most reliable sources of “aren’t you clever?!” affirmation). And since I had grown to believe that what I was, not what I chose to be, was the source of my worth, I found my sense of self esteem relentlessly under attack with no positive way to respond.

My wife, on the other hand, was always praised for being hard working. She was a high achiever too, as a child. Maybe less ostentatious than me but she worked hard and succeeded at most of what you chose to do. The difference between us was that while I was praised for being talented, she was praised for putting in the effort. So, for my wife, what she chose to do rather than what she naturally was became her source of pride and self esteem.

Now, later in life, I find that my wife copes far better with setbacks than I do. For me a failure is first a judgement against me. I am not clever enough. I have to work hard to reframe it as information and direction, to assure myself that I can work harder and get better. For my wife a failure is simply an invitation to work harder. She feels directly in control of her fate while I have a deep seated feeling that I am what I am and if that isn’t good enough there’s nothing I can do.

So, let me remind you.

You are not talented and neither are your children.

Talent is bullshit. Telling a kid he or she is talented should be seen as a slap in the face. It’s the same as telling them that what is good about them is down to sheer luck, an accident of genetics and environment.

“Hey kid, that free kick you just took? Wow. You’re lucky you were born with the right parents, eh?”

What sort of arsehole would say that to a child? Yet so many of us do it with the word “talent” believing we are giving a complement. We are not.

I’m trying to remove that word from my vocabulary which is tricky considering so many of my clients work in talent management. Instead I want to talk about hard work, commitment, willingness to sacrifice, overcome fears and go beyond what you believe you can do.

My wife struggles far less with life’s setbacks than I do and I believe a huge part of that is down to the fact that she wasn’t praised as a child for being talented. She never learned that what she was was what mattered. She learned that what mattered was what she chose to do.

Sure, some people are born with genetic “gifts” but I prefer to think of them as gift vouchers. They’re only useful once you trade them in for something and that takes choices and effort no matter who you are.

So please, stop thinking of yourself as talented. It’s a word I use from time to time out of sheer habit and something I will remove from my vocabulary wherever possible because it disempowers and undermines what really matters: effort.

And double please, stop telling your kids they’re clever/talented/pretty or whatever word you use that really only means “lucky”. You think you’re being kind. You’re not.