We have belief systems around the ways in which certain abilities and accomplishments are achieved. Some things gain wide-spread acceptance as being the products of psychological strength and deliberate practice, others are so little understood that they might be seen to be summoned through arcane means.

The abilities to finish a marathon versus a piece of art are often attributed differently
Take sport for example; anything from routine exercise to athletic endeavour. We have a good collective knowledge of what this entails. What’s required to improve these skills is widely understood. There’s sweating, cursing, and stumbling. It’s physically tiring. Clearly, hard work.

You probably haven’t heard “Wow, you’re an athlete? You’re so lucky, being athletically talented!”
Yep, sounds silly to me, too. Certainly some people are more energetic, have more willpower, or a driving force behind their continued efforts. Their traits and personalities have an effect on how much they practice, but do not determine their skill level.

What happens when the skill is less widely understood? Artistic ability, for example?
drawing huh? you must be talented
“Wow, you’re an artist? You’re so lucky! I wish I could draw, I don’t have the talent.”
Suddenly doesn’t sound as silly, does it? Because it’s said all the time. I can personally attest to having heard this repeatedly. Although usually well-intentioned it’s not really a compliment since it implies that the art was created through magic rather than labour.

Why is artistic ability seen differently?

The training montage is a cultural trope. We see people exercising all the time. In advertisements, films, in streets and parks. Watching artists at work, on the other hand, is not an everyday occurrence.

If you’re interested in gaining more of an insight, the BBC commissioned a great series called What Do Artists Do All Day? which I highly recommend watching.

Translating the creative process (most of which is internal and invisible) into something tangible is no easy feat. If you consider that this process is also highly varied, you will quickly see why it’s less well understood.

art takes practice

To create something from nothing is a challenging undertaking in any domain. Honing artistic skill and cultivating creativity require dedication and directed practice over time. They are not fixed attributes, but the result of many many hours of hard work.

Further Reading

Mindset – Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential (Carol Dweck)

Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success – but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardise success. 

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives (Maria Popova)

One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.


Kim Engel · 03/03/2018 at 22:21

Great post! While I’ve now lost my excuse for being lousy at art, I will stop marvelling at friends’ natural talent and start appreciating their hard work.

    Constance · 03/03/2018 at 22:42

    Thanks Kim! It helps me to remember that being lousy is the first step towards being good at something. We all start somewhere, and we can keep moving forward with practice and positive mindset. (:

Maia · 04/03/2018 at 17:51

Awesome post Conny 🙂 I think part of my own self-esteem issues (the ones that are preventing me from finishing any creative work!) are actually due to having been told for so much of my childhood that I was ‘talented’ – now if I can’t just magically *do* something creative I feel a total failure! Thanks for the insightful brain shuffling, and the links, they look really helpful.

    Constance · 07/03/2018 at 17:27

    Yes, this is exactly it! I often have to wrestle with feelings of paralysis because taking no action means that although there’s no success, there’s no failure either. I had/have the same hurdle to overcome with ‘intelligence’ also, this perception that if I have to work at understanding something (and don’t instantly, magically, get it) then I must not be intelligent after all, and I’m somehow letting someone down. Those failure feelings are really hard to step outside of, I totally get that! I definitely recommend reading more about fixed/growth mindsets, it really helped me.

Robert Day · 05/03/2018 at 10:43

And it’s that attitude, that having a creative skill is down to “simply” having the talent, that has contributed to creatives finding it increasingly difficult to get paid for their work. Just because so much creative work is available now for pennies, or even for nothing, through the power of the Net, people forget that any creative skill takes time, effort and (sometimes) a serious outlay of money to learn.

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