Different view of aspen forest

Not everyone can do everything. When your parents told you you can be anything you want to be, they weren’t being entirely honest. Each of us is suited for some things and not for others. We each have certain gifts and talents. It is wired in to us.

I could never have been an NBA basketball player or an NFL football player. I don’t have the strength or physical traits or athletic skill – or the killer drive to succeed in sports – that is required. No amount of work on my part would have overcome the deficiencies i have.

Some things come easy

How do you know what your talents are? One way is to look around at your peers. You will probably find that some people struggle with things that seem easy to you. Many of us have trouble recognizing this. We think if we can do it then everybody else can, too.

Let me give one example. I am OK with math. I don’t love it, but I do it comfortably. A career in Engineering helped a lot, but there was also a natural inclination. They are related. You wouldn’t succeed in Engineering without being comfortable with math. It is frustrating to me to see people struggling to figure out simple things when it should be easy for them to calculate or even estimate an answer. I have trouble understanding that inability because I don’t have it.

But this is supposed to be about art. I find that composition and exposure come easy to me. Yes, I have studied for a very long time, but it always felt like it wasn’t a problem. I still enjoy reading about principles of perception, and leading lines, and contrast and using the frame, and exposing to the right and all the other “theory”. It is comfortable and familiar and valuable. I do not struggle a lot with this. When I see someone who seems unable to get it together, and who worries way too much about what camera settings to use, I’m afraid I just have to walk away. I can’t relate to their mystery.

Some things come hard

Being easy is not the measure of your talents, though. Some things we are capable of doing come hard. It can take a lot of work to develop the ability. I would go so far as saying that if it took hard work to develop that talent, that is better. You will appreciate it and value it more when you succeed. You will probably know it better because you had to work at it. Things that are easy are not very personally rewarding.

If you feel you have a talent for something, don’t give up. Not until you have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. Sometimes talent isn’t recognized until we reach a certain stage of life. Perhaps it has to build on other things or we have to get to a point of maturity to appreciate it.

One thing that came hard for me is giving myself permission to really experiment. To play far outside the norms and the conventional rules. I am getting better now. Hopefully I will continue to grow in that creative direction. I feel a pull that makes me think I should.

My background was very literal and hyper realistic. It was a struggle to break out of that. But I discovered I like the other side as well. Maybe more. Now I am comfortable with intentionally blurring things. I can composite images and play with more extreme colors. It seems the further I go off the normal path of photography the more I like it. Is this a talent? Hard to say. Maybe it is just a preference. I’m not sure where the line it.

At some point, though, we sometimes have to decide we were wishing for a talent we don’t really have. If we have done an honest job of trying and it is just not working, time to change direction. In the process we have learned something new about ourselves. I’ll mention this later, but I found that I have very little talent for drawing or painting. I had to abandon that.

Do you need talent?

Do you need talent to be an artist? A sensitive topic, and I will probably offend someone. My feeling is yes, you do. The mechanics, the rules and patterns can be learned by almost anyone. What is the difference between someone who can barely take a usable selfie and another person who makes what people recognize as very good art? I don’t know. It could be creativity, or knowing how to use the tools better, or natural skill. For lack of a better term I will call it talent. Something separates the very good from the rest.

But, and this is significant, I believe most people can learn to do a lot. You don’t have to be the best in the world to enjoy doing something. Get over thinking everything is a competition with 1 winner and everyone else a loser. Do what you can. Relax. Enjoy what you can do.

Study yourself

To grow, it is necessary to curate our talents like we would our art. We should evaluate and refine and seek to understand. It is a life-long process.

I see it as a past/present/future sequence. We must honestly evaluate where we have been and what talents we have discovered. We also need to realistically assess where we are now. Are we content with what we are doing? Do we feel we are making the most of what we have? And looking to the future helps us plan a path forward. Where do we want to go? What talents will it require? This obviously is wider in scope than just art. We are evaluating our life.

To be realistic, I’m not talking about forcing myself into a lotus position and doing navel-gazing for days. I would probably need the rescue services to pry me out if I ever got folded up that way. The idea is that we need to be self-aware. We are the only one who really understands what we feel and like and what our goals actually are. I believe we should be intentional about our life.

Optimize your strengths

One of the big disservices of the corporate world is the annual review. We and our manager and maybe our peers are supposed to review what we have accomplished and assess our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of focus is on coming up with a plan to improve our weaknesses.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like the self-evaluation I recommended. What I finally figured out over the years is that it is a normalization process. The corporation is trying to make us interchangeable parts they can move around at will. This optimizes their goals, not mine.

It finally was clear that, if you are a top performer, you get rewarded for what you do excellently. You very seldom get down graded for your weaknesses. It became my goal to optimize my strengths. When my weaknesses were pointed out I could say, yep, that is a weakness, and be confident that it will not hold me back.

Relating this to art, it became clear to me early on that I had so little talent for drawing or painting that I would never be happy pursuing that. Also, I have a relatively short attention span for working on an image. I want to see results quickly. I did not want to spend weeks working on a single painting. But I was compelled to create art. Finding photography worked for me as the outlet that I needed . That became a whole world that was creatively satisfying and challenging. By following my strengths I can honestly consider myself an artist.

Our talents are our strengths. They make us unique. We should try to be very aware of them. We should cultivate them and be looking to develop new ones. I believe we all have a lot of potential. No one but you can really know you. Keep pushing yourself. Learn new things. Try new directions. Find those buried talents and bring them out. Be all you can be.

Nature vs. Nurture

It’s a long-standing debate and it has been studied for a long time. Can we do the things we do because it is our natural ability (nature) or is it things we have learned (nurture)? The nature vs. nurture question comes up with anyone who sets out to call himself an artist.

Would you expect to sit down at drums, like in this image, pick up the sticks, and be a master immediately? Of course not. If you take lessons and practice for a long time will you become a famous drummer? Probably not. You may be a good one, but not necessarily great.

So what should natural ability do for us? I think it makes it easier for some people to learn to do some things. We say they “take to” things naturally. Whether it is playing tennis, or doing math, or playing the drums, there is no doubt that it is less of a struggle for some. Note, though, that it is “less” of a struggle. It’s still a struggle. I’ve never met anyone with natural talent who did not have to also work very hard to excel.

On the nurture side, should we expect that anyone can master anything if they are determined enough? Yes, but. Sorry to break it to you, but you probably can’t become a world class ballerina just because you practice enough. Most people can learn to be good at almost anything if they apply themselves diligently. Some things take certain inherent physical characteristics that cannot be learned. E.g., don’t expect to be the next Michael Jackson unless you are about 7 feet tall.

If I decide I want to play tennis well, I can take lessons and practice hard. I might get to the point where I can beat most of the people in my area, but I won’t be competing at Wimbledon. There is a huge gap between good and great.

10,000 Hours

It is often quoted that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master something. That may be correct, but what does it mean? That study is documenting that it takes those 10,000 hours of great practice to get to the level of a Tiger Woods in golf or a Yo-Yo Ma on the cello.

The number gets thrown around a lot to prove how hard it is to learn things, but it is not as daunting as that. Most of us rightly get discouraged at he prospect of taking 10,000 hours to get good at something, so we don’t do it. Remember, though, that this is the investment to get to be the best in the world. Other studies, and common sense. show that it takes a much lower level of investment to get to proficiency or a level of expertise. Common numbers I hear are 20 to 40 hours.

Try it yourself. Pick out something you think you are interested in but know nothing about. Take knife throwing as a weird example. Get a simple throwing knife at your local sporting goods store, watch some You-tube videos and practice for 40 hours. Good practice where you evaluate your mistakes and learn to correct them. You will probably be the most expert knife thrower in your area.


I asked the question of nature vs. nurture in the context of an artist. Do you have to have natural talent or else you should give up? If you have natural talent do you need training?

What I have observed is that “making it” – whatever that means to you – takes work. Lots of work. If you have a natural talent you may get there with less pain. If it takes pain, you will probably learn more deeply because of it. Either way you have to put in the work. If you want to be an artist, put in the time. Artists don’t have to suffer, but they do have to work long and hard at their craft.

So, nature or nurture? For me, it’s a don’t care. If you put in the time and keep developing yourself you will not need to ask the question. Some luck doesn’t hurt, too.