The Cost of Talent

"You're so talented!"

I can't tell you the number of times I have heard that in my life. Sometimes, the tone was that of genuine appreciation and edification. More often, that phrase is accompanied by wistful eyes and the phrase (whether stated verbally or not), "I wish I could be as talented as you."

I have often struggled with how to respond to this, especially in the latter case. Since I do not like to see anyone being dissatisfied with their own gifts because of mine, I quickly learned to "hide" what I am capable of. In fact, when I meet new people, I am often embarrassed when they discover some other "talent" that had not come up previously.

"You knit, too? And did you take those pictures? Is there anything you can't do?"

Yes. Yes there is.

Also, just because I claim to know how to do something doesn't mean I enjoy doing it or do it well.

Leaving aside for the moment that every skill that I or any other person possesses has come with work, especially if any proficiency has been achieved, there is another whole conversation that I wish I could have with people from whom I face this "talent envy."

One thing Talena sucks at. But I bet this person didn't tackle this as their first rock climbing lesson. There was some work involved.

I have been thinking about this a fair amount since last week's post about multipotentialites. Just like I have wished I could have had the focus and discipline to achieve mastery of a single skill, there are others who have wished they could claim many abilities at once (apparently regardless of the proficiency achieved therein.)

But when it comes down to it, is either better than the other?

I am a strong believer in being the best person you can be. Not in some humanist, "you-aren't-living-unless-you-achieve-your-full-potential" way. But in an "I'm-grateful-for-the-person-I-am" way.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable (which is a story with a point, kind of like a fable except that the story could be true--so, no talking animals) about a wealthy man who went on a journey and, in his absence, entrusted his wealth to three different servants to look after. The three servants received five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively, "each according to their ability." (A talent was a gold measurement worth about 20 years' wages.)

The first two went and invested the talents they had been given and managed to double the amount by the time their master returned. To each of these two men the master said, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master."

But the third man, who had only been given one talent? He was afraid of what might happen with it, so he buried it in the ground, and returned it to the master a little dustier than he had received it.

This man did not receive praise for safeguarding the money. Instead, he was berated as wicked, slothful, and lazy. The talent was taken from him and given to the one who now had ten. And the servant was thrown out. Verse 29 says, "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

This doesn't seem fair, right? The poor guy was only afraid of what might happen if he did something with the talent. Did he deserve the treatment he got?

I am a strong believer in being the best person you can be. Not in some humanist, “you-aren’t-living-unless-you-achieve-your-full-potential” way. But in an “I’m-grateful-for-the-person-I-am” way.

I have been pondering this in the context of what we refer to as "talent" in English--skills or abilities that are either natural and honed, or gained through study. And I have come up with some lessons that we can take away from this parable in the context of "talent envy."

Talents are given to you to steward, not to possess.

Whether you are given few or many talents, there is a responsibility that comes along with them--to bless others, to hone and expand your abilities, and to make the world a better place. Burying your talents is not good stewardship. It is just plain selfish.

Can you imagine the light that would not be in the world today if Mozart had never written down any of the music in his head? Or if Stephen Hawking had decided that he didn't need to continue his work as a physicist once he became wheelchair-bound? What if Leonardo da Vinci had hidden all his drawings, paintings and designs in a chest and ordered it burned at his death?

Your talents don't just belong to you. They were given to you as a gift, a blessing with which you can then bless others. Shine your light into the world. Use your talents.

By using your talents, you will acquire more.

When I left college with a shiny new diploma and a few dozen songs under my belt, I had almost zero business acumen. (Thankfully, that college has since made business classes a required part of their music degree, but I graduated too early to receive the benefit.)

I didn't know how to treat my music career like a business. But I like to eat, and needed to help earn income for my family. Songwriting being the kind of career that can take years to see income (if ever, but that's a different blog post), I started doing other things to earn my keep. In the process, I learned many, many other valuable skills, which I am now able to apply not only to my music career, but to the other business ventures I have begun over the years.

Did I start off wanting to learn how to do graphic design? Or social media marketing? Or double-entry accounting? No. (I'm not even sure I want to do it now--accounting is another thing that Talena is not good at.)

But, like Emilie Wapnick pointed out in her TED Talk, once you have one skill, it becomes easier to acquire another because you have more confidence, and some of the skills are transferable across disciplines.

The opposite is also true. If you don't work and push yourself in the one or two things in which you show promise, it is most likely you will believe that you are no good at anything and will never bloom in even those areas in which you could have excelled. And you will never acquire the confidence you need to stretch beyond those initial areas of interest to try something completely new.

You are responsible for the talents you are given--but not the ones you aren't

Notice the master didn't compare the lazy servant to the others? He never said, "Why didn't you look at your fellow servants and do what they did?"

He was aware of their abilities when he handed the money out. That was why that last guy got only one. The master knew that this guy could only handle one.

However, when the master found out that the one talent had been buried, hidden, and not used at all, he was seriously annoyed. The one talent had been given with certain expectations that the servant would handle it responsibly.

"Why didn't you at least put it in the bank so you could give it back with interest?" the master demanded. He wasn't comparing the man to his fellows, but he wanted to know why the servant didn't at least do the bare minimum with what he had been given.

We shouldn't look at others with more (or less, but "better") talents than us and wish for what they have. We are only responsible to make the most of the talents we are given. Sitting and stewing about what we don't have only ensures that what we do have will not reach its full potential.

Since this kind of comparison is inwardly-focused and prevents sharing our gifts well, it is actually another way of being selfish. Not only that, we are robbed of the "joy of the master" because we spent our entire lives wishing for something that was not entrusted to us instead of nurturing what was.

I know of a man who is a greeter at Walmart. He loves his job. He is good at it. He makes people feel so welcome, and brightens the day of anyone who comes in with his hearty "hello" and wide smile.

As a result, he feels fulfillment and purpose in his work. He helps make his community a brighter place. And he doesn't sit and fuss that the disability that keeps him in a wheelchair robbed him of many things he could have done. He's nurturing his one talent with gratitude.

To me, this is a much better success story than the brilliant musician who dies of a drug overdose because he is so depressed by the meaninglessness of his life. Or the inventor who never shares a single one of his ideas with anyone for fear of rejection. Or the seamstress who discredits the beauty of the items she makes because they are "not as good as so-and-so's."

Gratitude gives meaning and fulfillment. Fear and envy destroy it.

Nurture what you are given. Don't envy what you aren't.

Accept the reward you earn with your talents

How sad would it have been if, when the second faithful servant was rewarded by his master, he had said, "Oh, well. It was nothing, really. No, I can't accept that. I don't deserve it. After all, I only earned two talents, and Joe over there earned five, so I'm not worthy of receiving the same accolades as him."

Dumb, right? The master may have thrown him out in the street with the third guy for being ungrateful!

I can't tell you the number of times I have complimented someone for their skill and they have given me almost that response. "Well, I can't do all the things you do, so I'm really not that great."

This morning, I read this quote by Dan Allender (The Wounded Heart, NavPress):

"It is difficult to enjoy giving to a person who undermines her own beauty, kindness, and abilities because she is always faster than the eye in pulling the rug out from under your compliment. She may appear to be humble; there is, however, a profound arrogance in never receiving another's kindness."

When you shut down a compliment or a reward, you are in essence saying several things:

  1. The person is either deceived about your virtues or lying about them. (Thus, you are calling them a dupe or a liar.)
  2. The person does not deserve the pleasure of enjoying your talents. (They are undeserving of receiving your gifts.)
  3. The person does not deserve the pleasure of giving you gratitude for sharing your talents. (They are not worthy to show you gratitude.)

Jesus was our example of humility. Never once did he disown responsibility for anything he had done, whether people liked it or not. When someone was grateful at being healed, he didn't tell them they should not be grateful. But he did point them toward the Father, from whence the true source of his power came.

"Humility" isn't insisting we cannot do or be anything worthwhile, or that the things we have done or achieved are of little to no value. That is false humility that robs others of blessing. True humility is in being grateful for what we have been able to achieve, grateful that others have enjoyed our gifts, and giving that gratitude to the One who enables us to use our talents for his and others' benefit.

Remember, your talents were given to you to steward, not possess. They should be used to help other people, not be selfishly buried in the ground. And all the glory of them will eventually return to him who gave the talents in the first place.

So, let us not make more or less of the talents we have than we should. Nurture what you have, enjoy those given to others, and be grateful for the many skilled and talented people that surround you.

Whether you are a Leonardo da Vinci, whose name will be remembered through the ages, or the greeter at Walmart, be grateful for your gifts. Lovingly share yourself and your abilities with others. Live with joy as you contribute beauty to the world.

After that? Claim your rewards with gratitude. And I will do the same.

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.
— Romans 12:6 (ESV)
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me...
— Romans 15: 18 (ESV)