Chasing an artistic dream is usually a long, rough road. There are a lot of obstacles along the way and a lot of people who tell you it will never happen.
Maybe your parents want you to be a lawyer instead of a writer, filmmaker, or actor. And you sometimes entertain the thought that maybe they’re right—especially when you have to make a choice between buying groceries and paying rent.
One of the hardest parts of this journey, at least for me, is questioning my talent. I could build a wall by stacking up all the rejection-filled S.A.S.E.s I’ve gotten over the years.
With so many people telling you thanks, but no thanks or nicely written but not what we’re looking for or thanks for submitting, maybe next year, it becomes difficult to keep faith in yourself.
So with all this rejection, on top of the self-doubt you already beat back with a stick on a daily basis, how do you know if you’re truly talented?
How I Discovered the Answer
I’ve been haunted by the question of talent and taunted by those who’ve found success. Yes, I hate to admit it, but I always feel a twinge of envy when I hear of another person who’s “made it.”
I always think to myself, “What have they done that I’m not doing?” or “How did they get there while I’m still here?” So, like a cyber-stalker, I Google my ass off to find out. In other words, I research the path of successful, talented writers and filmmakers. (I look at this as a sort of remote mentorship program—and it’s free!)
Lena Dunham’s success with Tiny Furniture and Girls became a full-fledged obsession for a couple weeks. And there was a time when Ms. Dunham felt a similar yearning for success. (Take a look at the short video below.) So what was the key to unlocking her talent? She studied creative writing at a prestigious liberal arts college, she made tons of short and experimental films to find her voice, and she loved what she was doing.
Steven Spielberg is another great example. He was rejected from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts three times. In fact, he never got in. He didn’t receive his honorary USC degree until after he became THE Steven Spielberg and donated millions to their film program. What’s the story of his talent finally coming to light? He loved making movies and he never stopped, no matter who rejected him.
There are dozens and dozens more success stories just like this. And the common thread I’ve found among them all is that talent doesn’t have to be a gift that you’re born with. It doesn’t have to turn everyone’s head the first time. Talent is something that can be nurtured in the heart and mind, developed by your daily actions, and curated through experience.
The 5 Tests of Talent
So here are the five tests of true talent that I’ve discovered through my research…
1. You love what you do
First and foremost, you love your art. You live to write, or dance, or paint. Money is not your driving force, nor fame, nor having anything to prove. You do what you do because your heart is in it, 100 percent.
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s not occasionally difficult or challenging or a pain in the ass. Sometimes you hate what you do. But you can’t imagine not doing it, because you and your art belong to each other.
And where the heart is invested, talent will follow.
2. You educate yourself and prepare for opportunity
Education is preparation. How can you be talented at something you don’t know how to do? How can you create truly good art if you don’t have the right tools? Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had nine hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening my ax.”
Most brilliant actors train diligently to be as good as they are. Serious writers outline for pages upon pages, go through note cards and treatments, before they ever get to a first draft. The most inspirational composers must learn and study music theory before ever scoring a song.
People learn in different ways. Reading books, taking classes, trial and error, getting an MFA. However you learn best, learn first—then do.
3. You practice
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. But it makes you better. Think of your talent like muscles. If you stop lifting weights those muscles are going to go away. In fact, they’ll probably turn into fat. The more you practice your craft, the more talented you will become.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that a person most devote 10,000 hours to become an expert in any given field. Whether or not this is precisely accurate, the idea of it is an awesome and necessary mantra for honing talent. Get working on those 10,000 hours and your talent will be undeniable.
4. You accept constructive criticism
You’re going to have bad performances, unpolished pieces of writing, poorly directed projects, and so forth. And the feedback you get from people other than friends and family is going to sting.
A lot of artists shut out constructive criticism and get defensive because it hurts too much, or they’re afraid to face failure. But if you can accept constructive criticism, reflect on it, learn from it, and use it…your talent will grow.
5. You take risks
The education, practice, and constructive criticism aren’t put in place to package your art into some cookie cutter mold. They are there to serve as a strong foundation, on which you have the freedom to experiment.
Your talent is what it is: some elusive culmination of the way your mind works, the issues that make your heart tick, whatever moves you and gets you excited.
Any fear of expressing that in a way that is honest with yourself stifles your unique vision. You must take risks not only to find your voice, but also to let your talent reach its greatest potential.