ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.

WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TALENTED OR CREATIVE?

In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 


Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

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6 thoughts on “ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

  1. I’m glad you reinforced my theory that talent is a myth. When I studied psychology of music, that theory was advocated, that talent is highly overrated and probably much less important than learning is for artistic achievement. Later on when I was a music teacher we had music teacher meetings where we all took turns making presentations that other music teachers could learn from. I put forward the idea that talent was a myth and that musical achievement was a product of learning. Almost every other music teacher attacked my theory and didn’t believe it. I’m so glad that you vindicated my idea. I’m almost positive that most music teachers judge their students on talent. And if they feel that a student lacks talent, it will somehow come through to the student. One problem is that the word “talent” is used so often in the media to rate performers. Most people believe that you either have it or you don’t. Somebody should do a survey to find out what percentage believe in talent as opposed to learned skill. It’s only my opinion, but I’ll bet it’s nearly 95% believe that talent determines success. Whatever happened to “practice makes perfect” which is the opposite of the talent theory?

  2. Thanks Charlie, It’s always a pleasure to have you weigh in with your expertise. Do you remember our Jr. High guidance counselor “Shorty” Cochran? He told me in the 8th grade that I didn’t have what it took to go to college. Even if they don’t outright say “you’ve got no talent”, I think many teachers, in all subjects, communicate something like that to certain students through their non-verbal communication. This seems especially common in the arts. It is sad how many people go through life holding on to the “no talent” myth.

  3. Thanks, I came out of the school systems with the idea that I had no artistic talent and maybe that is not true.

  4. Peter, somehow you were discouraged and there could be many reasons for that. Find something you like and give it another go. If it’s fun it will be self motivating. Try, try again.

  5. Steve, I can’t believe that Shorty Cochran said you wouldn’t make it in college. That’s absurd. You were a better student in high school than I was and you went on to teach at Temple. Can you believe anyone would discourage a person from going to college?

  6. As an “artist” I agree with Langer. I love the hunt, the going out to see what’s there and bringing it back home. It took me time to realize I didn’t care how other people judged my “work” because I enjoy the process so much, I do it for myself. If you like it, that’s cool, but you’re not going to stop my fun.
    I tell students who are deeply involved in their art that from a Zen perspective they need to probe into the whys and hows of their work. This is done to help the person deal with the almost always tendency of the artist to think they need to have the approval of the people around them. This become most insidious when the “outsiders” fault the “value” of the work and the artist’s “time” it took to do the work when there are so many other necessary things that need to be done.
    I’m writing this before I read to the end of Manoj’s blog because I think we’re in the same “thought process” and I want to see if I’m right. More importantly, I believe I’m in the process of changing my mind about the Zen center, the students, and my role as a teacher.
    In the role of the artist and the Zen teacher I find myself wanting to let the Center, and the students, unfold as it and they will. They are are the canvas, the paints, and the painters. Let’s let it roll and see what comes out on the other side without being worried what that might look like.
    This is really the only way to do it for me because we are having to create American Zen. I’m excited about the process and have no idea where it’s going, just as I have no idea when I start to create a digital image suitable for sharing with others.
    In Zen and in Art I encourage students (and myself) to be mindful about the process in order to actually become more spontaneous in the pursuit of your goals. To help in this process every Sunday (or Tuesday evening) at the Center might look different from any previous meeting. Come any Sunday and see what’s different and discuss this process with us.