A couple of weeks ago, John (commenter on Noli Irritare Leones, not to be confused with John E., my co-blogger at Alexandria) left a comment on my post “On staying hungry and staying foolish – or not”
One point that you and many others seem to miss, is that loving and being passionate about an activity doesn’t mean you will be good at it.
I love playing the game of badminton, enough that I play recreationally from 5-6am every day of the week. But I am definitely in the bottom third of the players at the club that I play at, and I have seen lots of rookies start off as much worse players than I am, and within a few months they beat me consistently.
On the other hand, my job as a software engineer is something I merely like, and don’t love. But I am good at it, enough to be in the top ten percent. And that is enough to make me a comfortable living and finance the remaining fun parts of my life.
At the time, I said, “Maybe. I’ve actually never loved, or even strongly liked, anything I wasn’t also above average at.” On reflection, though, I realize that’s not actually true. I love sex, and have no reason to believe I’m inherently more gifted at it than average; indeed, nearly everyone I know loves sex, and, since we don’t live in Lake Wobegon, it’s impossible for all of us to be above average at it. Rather, I think the reason I didn’t consider, in my earlier post, the possibility that someone might love something and not be very good at it is that I’ve never actually seen someone love something and commit to it as a career without also being better than average at it. Not many people are like Florence Foster Jenkins, opera’s greatest awful singer; most people who aspire to something as a profession, even if they’re not (since we don’t live in Lake Wobegon) all in the top of the pack among people who aspire to that profession, still seem to have more talent than all the people who didn’t pick that profession. (If you truly are at the bottom of the pack in natural talent at something, you probably have enough self-knowledge not to pick that as your chosen career. This is why I, who have two left hands (almost literally – years of practice has made my right hand no better at throwing a ball than my untrained left hand), don’t follow a profession that requires much manual dexterity.
Within that pack, though, the importance and value of loving and being passionate about your work depends somewhat on what your ambitions actually are, and there are various meanings to having or lacking talent. Love and passion don’t, after all, in themselves make you good at something; time and effort make you good at something, and passion and enthusiasm give an incentive to keep trying till you’re good. Other things can also give that incentive, and there are even times when enthusiasm doesn’t give all the incentives you want. I’ve known enthusiastic programmers, who probably in some sense loved computers more than John, whom I’d be less willing to hire than someone like John, because they were only enthusiastic about the parts of programming that they liked. If you don’t properly unit test your work; I don’t care how much you loved designing or coding it. When I said in another recent post that I remembered Joel Bion (from my days at Stanford) as someone who both took real joy in computers and had exceptional discipline, and that I thought that was what brought him to later become an executive vice president at Cisco, the discipline part was at least as important as the joy part.
Still, there’s a place for love and passion (I’ll get to talent later).
Part of where I’m coming from is that I knew Andre Braugher back when he was nineteen and in college. At that point, he didn’t have obviously more acting talent than anyone else at Stanford. (I’m pretty sure, if you could find him and ask him now, he’d say the same.) I knew plenty of people who acted in plays at Stanford, and even acted in one play myself (a minor part in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.), and I couldn’t have told you which one was so obviously more talented that he’d later be an Emmy winner. Andre certainly didn’t have “gravitas,” nor did anyone describe him as “masterful.” What he had was a passion and hunger to act that was unequalled by anyone else I knew.
The other place I’m coming from is having known other people at Stanford with “impractical” majors. Will Wilkinson writes
that most of his fellow art majors didn’t make careers in art because they didn’t have the talent.
As an undergrad I was an art major. Frankly, few of my fellow art majors were talented enough to make a living at it, even after four (or more!) years of training. Sure they loved art, but in the immortal words of Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” “Find what you love and never settle for less” is an excellent recipe for frustration and poverty. “Reconcile yourself to the limits of your talent and temperament and find the most satisfactory compromise between what you love to do and what you need to do feed your children” is rather less stirring, but it’s much better advice.
I had a different sense of art majors (and the like) at Stanford. As far as I could see, most Stanford liberal arts majors seemed to be decidedly more talented than the average person at whatever they’d decided to major in. And yet, most people who graduated with a degree in, say, Art or Drama from Stanford did not wind up finding steady employment in the field. In contrast, nearly all of the Stanford computer crowd from my day are in fact working with computers.
Now, it’s possible that part of this might be that Stanford computer geeks really are more exceptional at computer skills than Stanford artists are at art; maybe the high SAT scores that you need to get into Stanford correlate better with the kind of intelligence you need to program computers than with the kind of talent you need to be a really good artists. But I also think there are some other things involved. Becoming, let’s say, a gainfully employed actor (I’ll pick this one because I live in Southern California, and have seen my share of people who tried acting and couldn’t make it pay) is a different kind of hard from becoming a gainfully employed computer programmer.
Megan McArdle writes, of her own road to success as a blogger
I struggle with this problem when I speak to aspiring young journalists. I have an extremely awesome job, one that is just about as close as one can get to a dream job in this vale of tears. (For me, anyway–I realize that “I write about economics for a living” sounds to many people like their own personal version of hell.) While it’s certainly not compensated at Steve Jobs level, and I wouldn’t exactly object if my salary were doubled, we have a very solid income that allows us to do anything we have a right to want.
And I have this job because in 2002 I did something that was objectively rather stupid; I decided to use my MBA to pursue a job in journalism. I decided to do this in part because the MBA job market was kind of thin, and in part because I really, really loved writing about economics. But it was incredibly risky, as my parents pointed out . . . over and over and over. Even when I landed a job at The Economist, my crushing loan burden made this a very long and difficult financial haul for many years.
Still, I was lucky–unbelievably, unrepeatably lucky. To be sure, some other new grads will luck out too. But most won’t.
Acting seems similar to me. Andre Braugher succeeded in doing something very risky, and many, quite possibly most, parents of scholarship students at Stanford (as he was) would have pointed this out … over and over and over. (Hollywood parents might say something different, but I have to think you’re taking less of a risk if you come from a family where you already have some connections and models for how to succeed in the industry, as Andre surely did not.) I’m sure my own father, if consulted, would have said, “It’s a pipe dream.” And Andre won out. He’s not the only one; I have several former classmates, much less famous than he, who are steadily working actors, making a living at what they love (probably in at least some cases a less highly paid living than John or I make in the computer field, since acting pays really well at the top of the field and rather less well if you’re not at the top, but a living). But I’ve also known people who didn’t make the grade. Some of that may be that, as Will Wilkinson says of his fellow art majors, they just weren’t talented enough, but generally, when you start acting, you don’t actually know what your talent may be. So, if I had to advise a prospective Drama major, I’d say go ahead and make the plunge if you love it, but you’d better really love it, because breaking into acting can be brutal, and you won’t know, while you’re getting all those rejections, whether you’ll actually make it. (You will, of course, also need to be willing to put in some time doing things you may not love. An art major friend of mine who now makes a living making jewelry says that she needed business skills that she never learned from her art major. And here are a few celebrities who got into show business by making McDonalds commercials) But if you’ve counted the cost and are sure this is what you want to do, sure, go for it, and give it everything you’ve got. The worst that can happen is that you’ll fail and find out you need, after all, to do something else for a living.
Skilled IT jobs, to my mind (I’ll include skilled SQA, technical support, and system administration jobs along with development here), involve a very different set of challenges. You need to put in a lot of time learning some highly technical skills. Then you need to keep on learning highly technical skills, because the knowledge capital in IT changes rapidly. In my time, between jobs, classes at Stanford, etc., I’ve used the following:
Operating systems: Windows, UNIX, Linux, TOPS-20, VMS, ITS, CP/M.
Programming languages: Java, Visual Basic, C, Perl, Pascal, Fortran, APL, assembly language, UNIX shell.
Other: Test automation, IBM Rational tools, SQL Server, Visual Source Safe, XML, computer security, computer network protocols.
Notice how some of the things on these lists are things for which recruiters would actually do searches on LinkedIn, while others are thoroughly out of date and never used any more.
To keep your knowledge current, you may well be taking courses throughout your career, in addition to the skills you learn in the normal course of your work. You also stand a good chance of sometimes needing to work more than 40 hours (how often depends on what you do and what company you work for, but regardless, you won’t get overtime for it, because you’re exempt), if a critical customer problem needs solving, or when it gets near a release.
In return for this effort, you have a job that’s not the highest prestige job you could have (being a doctor or a lawyer would probably win you more prestige), that will rarely bring you fame, and that won’t bring you nearly as much money as you might get in certain finance jobs. It’s not a sure key to employment; IT jobs are subject to booms and busts in the business cycle, and so it’s not all that rare to find unemployed programmers (some, in the current recession, unemployed for a good long time).
Still, for all that, you get to be in a field that nearly always has a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the job market, one where, if you’re reasonably good, you can be in demand. You get a field where, even now, after many years of parts of the industry being outsourced to lower paid workers in India, it’s still possible, based just on technical skills and without having moved into management, to be in the top 25% of family income, with a non-working spouse (obviously, that last doesn’t apply to all IT jobs, but it applies to some). And, for those benefits, you get a job that, if you have the kind of mind that takes pleasure in technical things, provides you lots of opportunities for new challenges and chances to learn new things.
What this adds up to, to my mind, is that you don’t need love to be a computer programmer; liking the job and liking the money it earns you will indeed, as in John’s case, provide plenty of motivation to put in the time needed to be good at it. I suspect you probably would be best off with a higher than average IQ (though perhaps hard work can substitute here – if Frances Crick, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, is said to have had an IQ of only 115, I have to expect someone with that same IQ can program a computer), and it’s good to have the right profile of abilities. You probably want to at least like your work, because it will take a lot of your time. And I suspect it’s not just a brag that famous people who are at the very top of their field (like Steve Jobs or Richard Feynman) often claim to have found what they love; the degree of obsessiveness about your work needed to be in, say, the top 1% of anything is a lot easier to come by if you really like what you do (but you’ll also need the discipline to do the parts of your work that you don’t like, to produce the quality work you need to succeed). Even there, love may not always be involved; I’ve read that one top tennis player doesn’t even particularly like tennis, but had an ambitious father who pushed him to develop his tennis skills when he was young. What matters is that no talent develops without time and training, and something has to motivate that time and training. Sufficient money and benefits can be a pretty darn good motivator, too, and you can be a plenty high performing programmer without programming for the sheer love of it. To be in, say, the top 10% you need to put in the time to build your skills, and do it in a fashion that lets you build your expertise (practicing new skills, challenging yourself to do better, getting accurate feedback, etc., as opposed to just doing the same thing over and over and staying at the same plateau).
None of the above should be taken to mean that getting an engineering degree is the way for everyone to go, and that liberal arts degrees are useless in the job market. While I doubt that you’d find most Stanford majors in Art making a living from selling their art, or most Stanford majors in Drama making a living acting (and suspect that proportion doesn’t improve if you’re looking at less prestigious schools), the Stanford classmates that I’ve been able to track down aren’t, as a group, hurting for jobs, and that includes the liberal arts majors.
With a liberal arts degree, you can take the route taken by my good Alexandria blog master H. M. Stuart, and go into sales. You can go into marketing (copywriting is also writing, and a visual imagination also has its uses here). You can go on to graduate school and wind up on the faculty of some university, or you can, instead, skip the graduate school and wind up tutoring. My college friends have jobs in areas ranging from real estate to translating to counseling with an AIDS information service. Some Stanford liberal arts majors wind up making lots of money, and others wind up at less high paying jobs that they do because they find them meaningful, but, barring disability, they’re generally able to find work (how much mileage varies for other schools, I can’t say).
Given that you can wind up unemployed with an engineering degree or do just fine with a liberal arts degree, I think my Alexandria co-blogger wiredsisters was at least partly right when she commented on my earlier post that you might as well do what you love. (I’m inclined to amend that to say that liking your work and loving the things you do when work is over can also be an OK life. Indeed, in a pinch, you don’t need to even like your work. I knew a man once, who had been a medical student in Cambodia, until the Khmer Rouge came to power. He fled the killing fields and came to the US, where he found work, if I remember right, as a truck driver. I don’t know whether or not he ever liked driving trucks, but I’m sure he liked very much being able to support his family someplace very far away from the Khmer Rouge. Still, if you’re lucky enough to be at college deciding a major, hoping to like your work isn’t too much to aim for. It will, after all, take a lot of your time.) Rather, I’d just say that there are some specific jobs where the entry bar to actually making money is high, and where you may need to go through a long period where you keep your day job, and may or may not choose to persist through that period. And there are other jobs where the entry bar to learning the skills is high, but the entry bar to being gainfully employed once you have the skills is rather less arduous.
But what about talent? Aren’t people also limited by their natural talent? People who write about what makes for top performance often tend to downplay talent.
Many people believe that it takes a special, inborn talent to become highly skilled in a particular area. There is evidence that IQ is often a reasonable predictor of job performance, and physical attributes (e.g. height, eyesight) influence some skills. Yet efforts to identify individuals with specific ‘talents’ prior to instruction and practice have not been very successful. There is evidence that top performance universally requires extensive practice, and research has shown that individuals specifically identified as ‘ordinary’ rather than talented can become exceptionally skilled in many fields with the right training. The bottom line is that you will attain more success by focusing on what you can improve, rather than worrying about whether you are talented enough.
Meanwhile, a lot of ordinary people take a look at things at which they know they suck, and wonder whether talent can really be all that small a factor. A while back, I had an email conversation with science fiction writer Steve Barnes, who leans toward the “what we see as talent is mostly practice and effort” school of thought, so I’ll simply insert here what I wrote to him, and the various meanings of lack of talent. I used the careers of several people I’d known at Stanford as examples. Since I’ve already named them as examples in my blog posts, I’ll say that “Joel” here is Joel Bion, and “Dre” is Andre Braugher (who went by Dre in college), and I picked them because I wanted to look at the people I’d known who went on to the most visible career success. The third man is neither famous nor an executive at a major corporation, so I’m going to give him the pseudonym of “Adam,” and hope he doesn’t mind being described under that pseudonym. I’ll also give a pseudonym to one woman who was part of the Facebook conversation with Steve Barnes that inspired the email.
These are some of the different meanings I see to the phrase, “lack of talent”:
Lack of talent, type one: There are a few cases where we have a hard built in limit. For instance, two of my brothers are red/green color blind. Sometimes it may be possible to work around even those built in limits; for instance, Oliver Sachs tells the story of a painter who suffered a brain injury that caused him to completely lose his color vision, and so, rather than give up his career, he switched to drawing exclusively in black and white. But few people pursue careers at odds with this kind of “lack of talent.”
For me, an example would be the fact that the bones in my legs are congenitally unusually twisted, putting more stress on the joints. This can be worked around with physical therapy, and I still hike, etc., but I’ve been advised by doctors that it makes running not my best bet as a sport. My sister, on the other hand, runs marathons. I perhaps could run a marathon as well, with enough training (it’s a relatively mild built in limit in my case), but my risk of injury would be higher, for structural reasons, so I’m better off hiking and swimming.
Lack of talent, type two: We all have some variation in natural abilities, and start off, prior to training, more toward the high end of the Bell Curve on some, and more toward the low end of the Bell Curve on others. So, I’m the opposite of Sarah, who says she has a natural bent for calligraphy and is bad at singing; I’ve always had a good voice and lousy handwriting. I’m below average at most things involving manual dexterity. But I’m not so below average as to be completely incapable of learning. I got a good grade in a calligraphy class once, simply by putting in enough time to learn to do the lessons properly.
The thing about being below average in natural aptitude for something is that, on the one hand, hard work will kick natural talent’s butt every time, once you’ve put in enough time and focus and effort. But on the other hand, in the early stages, natural gifts will kick hard work’s butt every time, because you haven’t yet put in enough time and work to get the rewards. I once had a job where we were expected to solder our own computer cables. A coworker and I were set to soldering. She was way less patient than I, threatening to quit soldering several times while I calmly kept working. But she had manual dexterity I didn’t, and so, in the absence of either of us really having training at the task, her manual dexterity won out over my patience, and she beat me handily at soldering cables.
I suspect that more people in the “tone deaf and can’t sing a note” set fall in this category, and got discouraged by not picking up singing as fast as their peers, than have an actual hard limit comparable to colorblindness.
Lack of talent, type three: Training/coaching mismatches. When I was in college, I started a martial arts class, and quit on about the second class, because I was asked to hold a position that went way above a 3 on the pain scale, and, when I explained what was wrong, not given any alternatives that wouldn’t involve my being in intolerable pain. It’s easy to imagine an alternate timeline Lynn who took a different martial arts class, with a different instructor, and got to be quite good at it. (On the other hand, if I’d really felt strongly about martial arts, rather than being only mildly interested, I wouldn’t have quit after trying just the one class.)
Lack of talent, type four: Being just average. I have no reason to believe I have any special natural gift for acting. I have no reason to believe I have any special natural incompetence at acting. If I had chosen to put the impressive amount of effort Dre has put into becoming a really good actor, would I have his talent, and be just as good an actor as he is?
Part of any honest answer would have to be, possibly yes. If you haven’t put in the effort, you can’t know it wouldn’t have paid off. And the impressive skill you see in Dre’s acting now is the result of years of serious focus and effort; it’s not something that just sprang up right away the first time he started acting.
Once, and only once, in my life I got praise for my acting ability. It went like this. In my freshman high school English class, I got picked, more or less at random, to play the part of Lady MacBeth in the hand washing scene. I had just two advantages, here, a good memory, and the fact that I came from a house filled with Shakespeare plays, that I’d been reading for fun before we’d ever studied them in school. Other than that, nothing. But this one time, I practiced the part over and over with my sisters at home, and I memorized every line in that scene, not just my lines but everyone else’s, and somehow that effort was enough to impress a high school English teacher, so that it was the one thing he remembered as most impressive about me, that year, when it came time to sign my yearbook. Maybe “all” that goes into making the skill and talent of someone like Dre is something like the effort and focus I put into Lady MacBeth, but done over and over, repeatedly, for the long haul.
On the other hand, the other half of any honest answer I’d have to give would be, maybe not. Since we do vary at least some in our natural starting abilities, maybe the very best actors, like Dre, are at the top of the curve both in natural gifts and in focus and hard work. Probably focus and hard work make up more of the differential, but I don’t know that if I put in that level of effort, I’d actually be that level of good. At which point, the question becomes, do you actually need to be that level of good, to reach the goal of making a living at something you love? Maybe whatever level of skill you can get from hard work and focus is enough to get you a career worth having, even if it doesn’t bring you to the top of the crowd. But are all careers that open? This brings me to …
Lack of talent, type five: This is the case where you actually are better than average, maybe even significantly better than average, at some skill or talent, through whatever combination of natural gifts and hard won practice. But you still think you lack talent to pursue that as a career, because you think the career window is just that narrow.
Every once in a while, when my work with computers isn’t all that challenging, and I’m not learning anything new, I think of chucking it all, and becoming a writer or a singer. I’m not too serious in these thoughts; there are a lot of things I like about being a computer professional. But earlier in my career, when all I’d managed to swing was a particularly boring computer operator job, I thought more about singing. I had a friend who offered to give me voice lessons, and I went as far as to talk to Joan Baez about what was involved in becoming a singer.
Joan Baez, though, was too high a role model to set my sights on. I have a better than average voice; her voice soars over mine. I could think of professional singers whose voices weren’t nearly as good as hers, but most of them seemed to have other talents, such as a gift for writing lyrics, or dancing, or showmanship. If singing was the only thing I could do well, could I make it with a less than absolutely fantastic voice? I wasn’t so sure.
Sometime later, after I’d gotten my break in the computer industry and singing was no longer a live career option, I told this story to my mother, and she talked about having similar thoughts about whether she could be a mathematician. Mom majored in math at Stanford, in the 1950s when fewer women than now take such majors; she clearly has better than average skill at math. Mom also, ultimately, went back to Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology after the youngest of her seven kids reached school age; she is clearly better than average at focus. But, when she was young and making this decision, she had the sense that she’d have to be a Mozart level prodigy to consider being a mathematician. Or at least, that’s how I remember her telling the story.
Possibly part of the reason “lack of talent” comes up so often as a reason for not pursuing creative careers is that people think the talent bar there is particularly high. Is it? Well, many more people want to be writers and singers and poets and actors than actually make a living at these things, so, maybe so. On the other hand, maybe the number of people who actually put the relevant focus into being able to have a career at these things isn’t nearly so far beyond the number of available openings as the number of people who like the idea of themselves as writer, singer, poet, or actor, and focus really is all you need.
But then, what is focus? I think, in the case of creative careers, it’s not just practice, and classes, and workshops, and listening to feedback; it’s also marketing and selling yourself and taking that feedback. You may treat all of that as part of “focus,” so that the person who writes 50 short stories and doesn’t try to sell any of them hasn’t displayed the necessary focus. But I work in an industry where you don’t need that level of ability to market yourself and keep dealing with rejection to get ahead. Now, we all need some ability to sell ourselves, and some ability to face rejection, to get where we want in our careers. My job could be shipped to India at any time, so part of keeping my career going is to keep up a network, and to be ready, if I’m ever laid off, to jump right in and keep looking. But in practice, I’ve only been laid off once in my life (knock on wood), and got a job, that time, before my severance ran out. A job like acting, even if you are really good at it, requires way more ability to face rejection and periods of unemployment with equanimity. Which brings me to …
Lack of talent, type six: People are emotionally suited for different jobs. Could “lack of talent” sometimes be less about what skills people acquire, than what they’re emotionally prepared to face?
Dre’s an excellent actor. Joel is an excellent programmer, who’s worked his way up to executive vice president at a company anyone would have heard of. The difference between these two isn’t focus; they both have it, for the things they’re actually good at. But it’s really hard for me to imagine Joel ever achieving what Dre has as an actor, because Joel has a naturally cautious disposition, that wouldn’t take well to an actor’s job market. He’s taken one chance in his entire professional career, personally speaking, and that was to join a promising start up before it was an absolutely sure thing. And since then, he’s stuck with the same company for something like 25 years, so that, of all the company executives, he’s the one who’s been there the longest. This is not a guy who would take well to a job like acting, where you need a higher tolerance for rejection and spells of unemployment. Dre, on the other hand, wouldn’t make nearly as good an engineer as an actor, not because he lacks some innate ability for engineering, but because he doesn’t love engineering the way he loves acting, and it’s would be for him hard to give the same level of focus to something he doesn’t love as he can give to something he loves.
When people say they lack talent, are they sometimes really saying they need more security than a particular “talent” seems likely to give them? That, to me, seems a perfectly reasonable choice; it’s in fact the choice I’m inclined to make. I like computers, I like the pay they give me, and I doubt whatever “talent” I have is going to earn me better money in another field than I’m making with my computer skills. But in that case there’s no reason to put away the short stories or the music; that which you’re not prepared to risk as a career may be a perfectly good hobby. That’s what Adam does, with his singing. He works at a computer job, like me, and in his free time sings in a chorus that performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And, though that life may not involve the same focus and stellar professional success as Dre’s or Joel’s, it’s a perfectly good one in its own right. He’s been married to the same woman for 25 years and is still happy with her, he works out regularly, he has a job doing something that holds his interest and that pays good money, and he has a hobby he loves. Who could ask for more?
So, my thought is, if you really love something, and really, really doubt you have talent, you join the local community choir, or sing karaoke, or try out for your local community theater, or you write poetry and read it aloud at a poetry slam, or you join the Society for Creative Anachronism and put some medieval art in competition at some tourney, or write a mystery play to perform with other members of your barony, and you practice to become the best amateur whatever that you can be. Then maybe eventually, when you put enough time into it, you find that you really do have enough talent, after all, to consider going pro, or maybe you don’t, but either way, you’re doing what you love, and it isn’t wasted time. I don’t think there’s such a thing, barring actual physical damage, as being so lacking in talent that you can’t sing good karaoke if you put enough time and practice into training your voice.