Thursday, August 9, 2012

"That Elusive Concept Called Talent"

A wonderful man named Stan Daniels, who co-produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show, called me after reading the first script I had written for the show – which was a kind of audition for me – and pronounced, with mock-English enthusiasm,

“Young man.  You have got it!”

This was gratifying and reassuring to hear.  I thought I might “have it.”  But I needed credible confirmation.  Stan Daniels bestowed that on me with his mock-English pronouncement.

What was the “it” that Stan pronounced I had?  Generically, it’s talent.  As in,

“The kid has talent.”

Which is nice thing to be told.

Then again, what exactly does that mean?

(Did I think about that at the time?  I doubt it.  I was thinking, “Whoa!  A really good writer said I had talent!  I can sign a longer lease on my apartment!”  But I’ve thought a lot about it since, and have concluded that the concept “talent” is not easily corralled.  This is the heart of my blog post today.  Why am I putting it in brackets?)   

(Note:  I am not including “a talent for self-promotion”, wherein “talent” equates with “I’ll do whatever it takes.”  That is not talent, in my view.  It’s desperation.)

Case Number One – “Talent” As Natural Ability

When “talent” involves a measurable activity, it can be easily understood.  An aspiring opera singer has a four-octave range, their ability gauged by their singing up (and back down) the four octaves that tangibly exist on a piano. A prediction can be made that, for them, becoming an opera singer is not entirely out of the question.  Another singer has a range of five notes – mentioning no names, but they are responsible for this post – there is a likelihood that opera singing is not necessarily for them. 

One person has, at least, a potential talent for opera singing; the other person does not.  Done.  And ditto for other measurable abilities. 

Next case:  “Talent” Manifested Through Persistence

A person has a burning desire to become a juggler, but at the start, of the nine balls they are trying to keep in the air, they are continually dropping seven of them.  At this point, you would not assert that this person has a “talent” for juggling.  Unless you define “talent” in terms of how many balls you can drop on the ground, in which context, only people dropping eight or all nine balls on the ground would be better at it.  Although I’m not sure the most accurate description of them would be jugglers. 

In this case, however, an intense passion overcomes early ineptitude, and after countless hours of practice, the fumbler juggler is transformed into a virtuoso.

“Suddenly”, they have talent. 

These examples suggest that “talent” is not necessarily something you are born with.  The natural opera singer was, the determined juggler was not.

Then, there are people who have talent, but their misfortune is having it in the wrong era. 

“I have a gift for the catapult,” brags Harold Wirdlinger, born in 1978.  “Anything within a mile, I ‘eyeball’ it, I place the rock in the “tosser”, I make adjustments in the trajectory, and, ninety-seven times out of a hundred, the rock hits the castle, or you know, whatever I’m pretending is a castle, dead center.  I have no idea how I do it.  I’m just a “catapult savant.”

“A gift for the catapult” would have made Wirdlinger a star in the Middle Ages.  Ballads would have been written in his honor.

With his catapult
He gets results
When they hear “Harold’s here”
Castles cower in fear
He’s a Master rock slinger
That Harold Wirdlinger

You get the idea.  Harold Wirdlinger would have been “big in the business.”  Unfortunately, he was born a number of centuries too late.  He does unleash his talent at the odd Renaissance Fair.  But otherwise, he works for Avis, booking rental cars at the airport.  

Conversely, as it is possible to be “behind your time”, leaving your “talent” entirely unrewarded, you can instead be ahead of your time, and find yourself equally out of luck.

Consider my own line of endeavor.  A “talent” for comedy.  Seth MacFarlane, the comedy mind behind Ted and Family Guy, writes a spec script showcasing his natural comedy abilities…in the 1950’s.   MacFarlane’s submission is universally reviled as “Adolescent Puerility.” 

Not that “Adolescent Puerility” is unacceptable; it’s just that MacFarlane’s is distinctly the wrong kind.  In the fifties, “Adolescent Puerility” is Jerry Lewis walking on his ankles, and shouting, “Laydeeeee!!!”  Not a stuffed animal with a vibrator.

During the fifties, Jerry Lewis is considered a major talent.  Seth MacFarlane, who is currently working under a hundred million dollar contract, would, in that era, have been advised to button his potty mouth and to “Run, Don’t Walk!” to the nearest career counselor.

Okay, so what have we learned today?  Some people have natural ability that evolves into “talent.”  Some people lack natural ability, but, through persistence, it develops into “talent.”  And some people have “talent”, but only if you factor in the time in history they display it – if it’s the “right time” it’s talent; it it’s the wrong time, it’s not. 

(This applies equally to “place.”  Jamaica may have a bobsled team, but Namibia does not, putting you plumb out of luck if you’re Namibian and have an (ironic) God-given talent for the bobsled.)   

Talent is time-sensitive and precariously impermanent.  When I was told, “Young man, you have got it!”, I had it.  And then, sometime in the early 2000’s, according to show biz Conventional Wisdom, I apparently lost it. 

And I cannot honestly tell you where it went.   

Saying someone has “talent” can be a steppingstone to success (or an erroneous career decision); saying they don’t can be a “door slam” to their dreams.  I therefore advise extreme caution when providing such an evaluation. 

In the end, you may be talking less about “talent” than about momentary marketability.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Harold Wirdlinger would probably be really good at Angry Birds.