The Myth of Talent

I have been teaching and training for forty years. I’ve stood in front of so many people, I cannot count anymore. I’ve met so many different characters, experienced interesting and challenging personalities, across the many military, private security, and civilian schools and training centers over the years, that I probably forgot some. Even still, I know that every person that I trained or trained with left their impact on me on some level, no matter the amount, small or large. Every person, every mark they’ve left, helped me shape my mind, thoughts, and definitely influenced my personal growth. It is like a large dish of life that every person I’ve worked with left their own special spice that influences the flavors of that dish.

It has also given me the opportunity to observe and participate in the individual journeys of tens of thousands of people. I’ve seen a wide range of skills, abilities, and mindsets, and seen how the blend of each influences both the experience and the outcome of their journeys. I’d like to share with you my observations on that innate giftedness that we call talent.

Myth #1: Talent should be revered.

Over twenty years ago, I participated in training with a certain Krav Maga organization that trains the instructors to establish a certain “distance” from the students in order to create a special aura around the instructor. This distance was to encourage the student to admire and follow the instructor no matter what, like the instructor was divine, flawless, unquestionable. The instructor was to be seen as gifted and talented, like their skills were born to them. The instructor must be the sun, and the students on the mat are the little stars. This is a very old system of authoritarian leadership, where the Authority is unquestioned, and it’s simply bad leadership training.

This illusion that the instructor is the talented one that should be revered simply isn’t true. While I might not be able to remember each and every individual I’ve had the opportunity to stand in front of on the mat, I know I have tried to connect with each one. I always try to have some level of conversation with my students outside of training, and I always discover an amazing character with an interesting story. Each and every one has abilities and expertise beyond my reach and abilities, no matter their profession and background. It is an amazing experience to have the privilege to look through windows into thousands upon thousands of different and interesting worlds.

It is also humbling. My 40 years of teaching and training is just one path. There are many paths, and many journeys. Even if the instructor has mastered certain skills more than the students he or she is teaching, the instructor is definitely not the sun, not at this time nor ever. Just because someone has mastered something and appears talented does not make them better.

Myth #2: Having talent is an advantage.

Over the years, I have worked with very physically talented individuals and many that are not. The talented ones have an easy start — they pick things up quickly and often get things right on their first tries, while the others (most) have to struggle, fight through it, experience frustration, disappointment, and more.

Not everyone sticks to the hard and difficult road, but the ones that do create “magic.” When those without the gift of innate talent break past the final obstacle, through their grit and perseverance, they finally meet the talented ones waiting in boredom. The talented ones got to the end, but they are not tired, not challenged, and probably didn’t grow in the process. Those who had to use grit because they lacked talent are now carrying something precious: their own experience. Through that experience, they have built “mental muscles” that will stay with them for the rest of their life. These skills will nourish and support them on every journey they will take going forward. Grit and perseverance, working harder for something that was easier for someone else builds character, it builds a fighter who gets to experience life to its fullest.

What happens to the talented one? From my experience, many of them stay in their own “galaxy”, where the talent they were born with is the sun and they are trapped in its immense gravity. They revere their talent and can’t escape its pull. They often lack the need or will to explore, experience, fail, and grow beyond what their talent already gives them. Staying within the bounds of their innate talent is comfortable and soothing to the ego, but it will not take them anywhere else.

I am not saying talent is bad. What I am saying is that talent can be a big obstacle without guidance, without challenge and the drive to escape from where it’s easy. I am sure many of you heard the quote, “Hard work beats talent.” After forty years of training and experience, I’ve seen a lot and I have learned that this quote is so true. People who have a store of passion, perseverance, grit, drive, resilience — those are the ones whose masteries are deep.

If you have seen the first Matrix movie (I hope it’s not a spoiler since the movie is 20 years old), when Neo was tested to see if he could jump from one building to another in the Matrix universe, they thought if he demonstrated innate skill, it would a sure sign that he was The One. He failed the jump. His failure caused confusion, but his final role as The One was never about innate skill. “No one makes the first jump.” We all had, have, and will have so many “first jumps” and it is okay and natural not to make it on your first or even hundredth try. It does not mean anything about you and who you are—what you do after those failed jumps, will…

Let’s charge forth into this new year, and jump together!

“So that one may walk in peace” – Imi Lichtenfeld


One Response to “The Myth of Talent”

  1. Robert Kinann

    Great narrative about your learned skills


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