Why we fail when we talk about talent

Using the word 'talented' as praise and encouragement devalues hard work, skill and learned ability. We need to use better language, says arts educator Drew Downing.
scrabble letters spelling out the word 'talent' on a wooden background.

It’s the word I shudder to hear at school concerts and read in reports: “talent/talented”.

“Our talented students…” or “They are such a talented guitarist…” or “Her talent will take her far…”

To preface this piece, I don’t consider myself an authority on talent or the nurturing of talent. I also acknowledge that talent is somewhat subjective. But I do believe in (what I consider to be) talent – that unfiltered, intrinsic brilliance, which pops up from time to time.

Some may even argue that, by its mere nature, creativity is talent.

I spent a solid two years removing the “T” word from my go-to education vocabulary. Why? Because I was misusing it. My interest is in how and when it became used so casually to describe a student’s interest.

So what is “talent”?

‘A superior, apparently natural ability in the arts or sciences or in the learning or doing of anything’ is one of the definitions.

Another explanation: ‘Talent is often thought of as the kind of ability that comes without training – something that you’re born with.’

I notice the power – and poison – this word can wield through conversations with my Gen X and Baby Boomer mates and colleagues. When talking about music lessons or performing, many of them comment on how they wish they’d had the talent to learn and play an instrument, or even wish they were talented enough to join a community choir.

They believe learning an instrument and general music-making is exclusively a representation of talent. Which, of course, it is not. It represents skills gained through an interest. The misuse of this word, perhaps underpinned by a lack of encouragement, has stopped them from experiencing the joy of creating music – and that is heartbreaking.

In turn, this further suggests that the arts are for a select few – and that boils my blood.

I happen to be interested in baking. I do it weekly and find a lot of joy in it. But I wouldn’t consider my cupcakes a showcase of culinary talent.

I soon figured out that when Gen X and Baby Boomers praise young performers with the “Oh, you’re so talented” line, that’s not what they mean at all. They mean they were inspired. Inspired by their enthusiasm, the opportunities these young performers have to perform and the skills they showcase. Inspired by the encouragement they are given to participate in music.

Perhaps they also mean they were impressed. Impressed with their confidence and a willingness to present their achievements so publicly.

Read: This primary school’s a circus … and it’s no joke

How magnificent would it be to replace, “You’re so talented” with “That was so impressive”?

The language matters.

Telling a student they are “talented” can be damaging

Telling a student they are talented as a tool for encouragement can be damaging.

A few years ago, I attended a large concert that showcased most of the performing arts students in the school. One of the coordinators opened the evening with a warm welcome and hoped we enjoyed this showcase of ‘our very talented students’.

Apparently this coordinator believed all 140 students were talented. There was no mention of discipline, commitment, hours of rehearsals and practice, just “talented”.

This really stuck with me. Maybe because I felt it devalued the work of the teachers and students. Maybe because it suggested an education leader believed skill and talent were the same thing.

The concert was excellent, but I wouldn’t consider all of these students to be “talented”. They were skilled – each student a product of personal interest partnered with a commitment to learning and self-betterment. And they got to showcase it. Isn’t that just the best?

These students were skilled, enthusiastic, engaging, proficient, inspiring, committed and organised. Most importantly, they were doing something that brought them joy. Why should that be considered any less than being “talented”?

This rather leads to this old chestnut: lessons are for the development of skill. Not the development of talent.

Oh, how this divides us!

When I was reading up on the history of “talent”, I regularly came across an interesting phrase: ‘Being gifted is not the same as being high-achieving.’

I often think about a friend of mine who had completed her AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) piano exams by the time she started university. She commenced learning piano around eight years of age, attended a weekly lesson and practised most nights for at least half an hour, always motivated by development.

We’ve joked about it for years, but she loathes being referred to as “talented”. She believes it not only undercuts her hard work and diligence, but the investment and commitment of her parents.

Hard work, diligence and practice are more important to praise than “talent”. Photo: Michel Catalisano, Unsplash.

‘Talent’ tells students they’ve either ‘got it’ or they don’t

Whether hearing it from their parents, friends or the horrifyingly toxic culture birthed from reality TV, students eventually start considering their own “talent”. Students absolutely know when teachers and departments favour talent.

So how do we navigate this? How do we talk about this with students? I’m definitely still figuring this out myself. One action I take is emphasising and rewarding commitment. It’s a way of making the playing field equitable where every student can learn and hone skill sets at a personalised level.

Talented or gifted or not, a commitment to up-skilling is important. It explores potential.

The language used to track the progress of a student is important

Every year I will meet with a handful of students and their parents/guardians to discuss future pathways in performing arts, be it universities, arts schools or simply wanting to know how they can keep music in their lives beyond secondary school. Sometimes (and innocently) the conversation reaches the dreaded question: ‘Do you think they’ve got the talent to succeed?’

‘I don’t know if this is about talent,’ is my usual reply. ‘I believe this is about acquired skills – the skills they have earned.’

And they totally have – they’ve been earned. These results can be attributed to commitment, self-belief and support.

Again, I do believe in talent. I believe it should be encouraged, developed and celebrated. I just hope we can remove it from its prime position when validating a young person’s interest in music.

I hope this piece encourages you to consider (or reconsider) the concept of “talent” in your schools and vocabulary.


This is an edited version of Drew Downing’s blog piece Do we mean “Talent”, first published January 2022 and updated October 2023.

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Drew Downing is an educator, performer and creative based in Naarm. An instrumental and music teacher of twenty years, he is the founder and director of Arts in Schools, supporting students and teachers with industry-grade workshops, professional learning programs and advisories. Drew is a proud member of ANATS, Arts Schools Network and VMTA.