The Bends

Careful how rapidly you rise…

I’ve been coaching a writer on what might become a really wonderful book project. A couple of days ago. she shared a great idea with me. I’ll paraphrase, because the words are hers, but in sum, it was about the most dangerous lie we learn in school—that talent will be recognized and rewarded. This is a simple root belief of our culture, and it’s wrong. Here are a few reasons why it’s wrong.

The wrong people tell us that we’re talented. When your third grade teacher says you’re the best student at arithmetic that she’s ever had, that’s just a low bar. When you’re the best gymnast ever to come through Tammy’s Tumblerz, or the best junior bowler in Ravenna, Michigan, you might think you’ve got something, and you’re likely wrong at the larger scale. Talent is always relative, and the less we have daily exposure to the very best in our field, the more we conflate the relative with the absolute.

I like to think of it in orders of magnitude. Let’s use baseball as an example. Every time you rise from T-ball to little league to high school to college to minor league to major league to All Star to Hall of Fame, you’re being run through a filtering device that eliminates more than 90% of the level below you. As the Bard of New Jersey put it:

I had a friend was a big baseball player
back in high school.
He could throw that speedball by you
make you look like a fool, boy.
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out.
We went back inside, sat down, had a few drinks,
But all he kept talking about was...

Talent without effort goes stale. Education writers often talk about the dichotomy between a fixed or a growth mindset. In the fixed mindset, we talk about talent as something that one has or is, that a particular talent is (or is not) a person’s innate component. In the growth mindset, we talk about talent as something that someone manufactures. And it seems to be the case that the growth discourse is better for students. The difference between “you’re really good at that” and “you’ve really put in a lot of work at that” is that the second gives us a stronger sense of agency. I can’t choose my attributes, but I can choose to work more and get better.

We all know those kids who were really good at something but who then left it behind, didn’t push it further… or didn’t have the opportunity to push it further. And we also know lots of kids who were told that they weren’t very good at something, and just stopped trying altogether.

Talent is contextually valued. Our environments are set up to absorb some kinds of talents and not others. Our town of 750 has plenty of opportunities to exercise skill at plowing snow or prepping firewood, plenty of ways to exercise skill at making pies and mittens. There are no opportunities here to exercise skill at literary fiction, or at drag performance, or at papermaking.

Talent has to be recognized and valued in order to grow, and cultural venues differ in what they recognize and value. Talent recognition is gendered; a girl doing something that “girls are supposed to be good at” will get more approval than a girl doing “boy things.” The opposite equally holds. Talent recognition is class-related: a family of mechanics will make fun of the writer, a family of writers will be disappointed by the mechanic. Getting a PhD from a teaching focused school will teach you how to do research and teach undergrads; getting a PhD from an elite research school will teach you how to do research, resent the demands of undergrads, and raise money.

In light of those first three facts, talent is communal. As 1960s chess guru Benny Watts puts it in the new Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, the Russians dominate chess because they understand that it’s a team sport. They confer, they debate, they coach one another and analyze one another’s games. American players never reach that level because of their precious individualism. Our commitment to isolated evaluation of the individual makes us all into competitors rather than collaborators, leaving none of us able to rise as far as we otherwise might.

Talent is also communal in that it needs to be visible to a community. As Chicago Tribune columnist John Warner once wrote, you could eliminate every single writer from The Atlantic tomorrow, replace them with an entirely new roster, and it would continue to be a fine magazine. Different, but fine. The ability to be an excellent magazine writer isn’t limited to the few thousand people who currently do it. But those who are doing it came up, for the most part, through an informally understood but elaborately structured minor league system. The right MFA programs or journalism schools, the right emergent online magazines, the people who know people and make the referral over cocktails. You can have talent and effort out the wazoo, and if nobody sees it, there’s no next step.

And finally, because of all that, talent can be painful. If we’re talented at the things that our ecosystem has a niche for, we’re right at home, and our rewards are commensurate with our skills. But if we’re talented at something that isn’t contextually recognized, then we’re left with a lot of difficult decisions. Do we 1) stay home and 1a) keep doing the thing we’re good at even in the absence of reward and further challenge, or 1b) quit doing it and pick up something else that our families and friends approve of? Or do we 2) leave home and 2a) become traitors to our families and culture while simultaneously 2b) being seen by those we hope to join as an intruder, a grasping, naive climber who’ll never really know which glass to use for the red and which for the white?

As history has proven, once your family connections get to a certain level, you don’t even have to be especially good at anything to win even more. It’s not hard to enter the race when you’re born already inside the stadium. But for the rest of us, ascending too fast can give us the bends, the debilitating ache of being ill-suited to the world we’ve trained so hard for, have reached for too soon.

Maybe our grandkids’ talent will be recognized. Ours, too often, will be squandered, excellent seeds falling onto infertile ground.