Curing Harry Potter Hidden Talent Syndrome

I'm getting a little tired of hearing my eldest complain that she's not good at piano, singing, drawing, or other talents she wants to master -- because she's not instantly the best. I told her that Harry Potter's eleven-year-old Instant Seeker! and similar "hidden talent" tales of sudden mastery are wish-fulfillment fantasies, and that most people who master skills do so by dedicating themselves, by getting trained, by working really, really hard and not giving up.

Talent is a factor, absolutely. But so is baseline. And when it comes to her current obsession, singing, Iz has the baseline -- she's not tone deaf (first hurdle, ask Cyd Charisse), she has a sweet tone, her voice is clear. If she decided to work on her voice, she could be a singer. But she'd have to get training, and put in the hours. Which makes her balk, as she wants to sing NOW. So here are the three tales I told her about women who sing:
  • Gwen Stefani has natural talent, which I never knew about until one afternoon when our little group of skankers/mods was sitting around singing 2nd wave ska songs, and she piped in with the chorus from The Special AKA's Girlfriend. I told Z that once Gwen decided to be in a band, she worked hard, hard, hard on her singing and performing -- and she never gave up, not for the almost ten years it took No Doubt to hit it big. But she also didn't have proper training, and as a result almost blew her voice out after No Doubt's first big concert tour. Training is important.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer also has natural singing talent. But she doesn't usually sing unless a role calls for it. And when she filmed the updated Hairspray, she had to retrain her voice. She had to work hard, and get professional guidance.
  • Madonna had a serviceable but unremarkable voice for years, which was fine when she was satisfied with being a pop star and personality. But when she got serious about her singing so she could play the lead in the musical Evita -- a very challenging role -- she hired a vocal coach and spent months working on and extending her range. She was then able to showcase her new, stronger vocals on her next pop album, Ray of Light. Because she worked hard, not because she had natural talent.
Iz seemed intrigued. And she does know that hard work pays off, on a certain level. She has been working hard on her drawing, using Lea Hernandez's excellent Manga Secrets guidebook as her bible, and her improvement in one month has been dramatic. She sees that. But hard work is ... hard. And hard sucks.

I may have her listen to the KQED Forum (a fine show) interview with David Shenk, author of "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong." But I'd also appreciate any anecdotes you may have about working your ass off so you could be good, and why it was worth it. Iz is getting to the age where advice-not-from-parents is starting to carry more weight. Thanks.


  1. Personally, I've found that laziness pays off sooner. ;-)

    I have no great personal anecdotes, but there's a recent interview in the NYT with one of the world's great, young opera singers, Joyce DiDonato, outlining the long, hard road to the top, and the rewards of putting in the work. She says:

    “I placed in competitions, but I never won. When we did ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ in college, I got Marcellina, the housekeeper, not Cherubino. I could see people thought I had something. But I wondered, ‘What am I missing?’ I remember thinking in those years: ‘No one is going to hand this career to me. It’s not going to happen easily or overnight.’ That kept me working, and working hard.”

    It's a great interview with a singer who has incredible talent, and works very, very hard to turn it into art.

  2. I also think it's imperative to bring home the message that there's a difference between being talented (and nurturing that talent) and being The Best at something.

    Em is a really good writer. But she seems to think that because there are other writers who are as good or better than her in her grade, it's not something she can/should pursue seriously.

    N is an excellent golfer. The good thing about his ASD is that he's not really aware of the fact that he's not the best out there...he just keeps doing what he's doing, and not paying that much attention to what the other kids are doing. I often point that out to Em, to bring home the point to her. He comes in fourth or so, sometimes lower, in the mini tournaments he plays in, but that doesn't mean he should stop trying. Because he's getting better; he's better than HE was a few months ago. I want her to see that she needs only to measure herself against HERSELF. But sometimes that's hard. And I think it can be the biggest hurdle to our kids living up to their potential.

  3. Squid,
    Have you heard of what's being referred to as "The 10,000 Hours Rule" in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers? I haven't read the book myself, so can't vouch for it, but I did read and hear several interesting reviews. Here's one write-up on the subject, just for an overview:

    For a more immediate/accessible anecdotal punch, Iz might enjoy listening to Tom Ashbrook's interview with Gladwell on (the superb) On Point: http://www.onpointradio.org/2008/11/malcolm-gladwells-outliers

    Good luck,

  4. I'm currently in grad school to become an SLP in one of the top programs in the country. Since I'm 8-15 years older than most of my class AND the only mom (now partnered, previously single and working), I've had to work ridiculously hard over the last 2.5 years; two years of prerequisites and now the program. I've got over a year to go, and it is HARD, hard to find the time/energy/brain/money/everything. But since this is my dream, I haven't quit, although it's been tempting and more tempting. Because I keep hanging in there, I'm in the top ranks of my class, and will be doing my med practicum in a renowned center working with kids with developmental disabilities. Has the hard work paid off? Hell yeah.

    (Hope that helps at all...been a long-time reader here, rare commenter. While other blogs come and go, yours remains constantly excellent. I also have a Can I Sit With You story, when I have a free moment...)

  5. I started singing in choirs when I was about 8. I loved it, but I was never awesome at it. I learned the theory, worked hard, got a voice coach, and sang every chance I could, including pretty much all day, every day when I wasn't in school. I listened to music on the bus and while I was walking (Walkman back in those days. :P ) and practiced my parts by painstakingly plunking them out on the piano. It was really, really hard work over a lot of years.

    When I was 17 or 18, after many years of being a relatively unremarkable singer who was slowly getting better, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Oakland Youth Chorus' professional group at the time, Vocal Motion. I got to sing songs written for us by amazing artists and got to learn directly from people like Bobby McFerrin (who is as amazing in person as you'd expect him to be!), Linda Tillery, Melanie DeMore, Keith Terry, and a really neat group of Taiko drummers.

    Working hard on something is worth it. You end up meeting and working with people you never expected, and the results are amazing, especially when they know you've had to work to get there.

    I'm a lurker, but I read anytime you post. Hope this helps!

    Oh, and Goapele and LaToya London were both in the Oakland Youth Chorus, too, and they both worked their asses off to get where they are today. They're both good to start with, but to get to their current levels they had to work.

  6. OR, the negative option:

    when i was in 7th grade i expected i would be joan baez when i grew up. i had a nice enough voice for the parts in our school shows, but joan baez didn't have singing lessons did she? neither did i, turned 'em down, i was joan baez. i'd had piano lessons, but since i was "blessed" with the talent of relative pitch and a good ear, i really didn't work at sight reading, just figured out the intellectual part and played from memory. kind of like the guitar, which every kid had in the 60s, and we all learned to play it by listening to records (the round black kind) over and over until we were letter perfect. but even if we knew how to read music, we really didn't apply that stuff to the guitar much--after all, the beatles didn't read music (then.)

    the result? i'm a grownup now and i still have the guitar, and a piano. but i can play neither and somehow haven't found the time to reteach myself what i once "knew" and go from there. and i suppose i can still carry a tune but you'd never know it, because i haven't the vocal power even to sing in the shower.

    heresa thing: if you don't work on it, it doesn't happen. someday...

  7. Oh man.

    No one (well, I guess I should say, hardly anyone) is an instant success at anything, no matter how talented they are. In general, there are too many other people who want the same thing you want, who are willing to work very, very hard to get it. The world is a very big place, and if you want to stand out in it, most of the time you have to be willing to sweat blood for it (so to speak).

    When I was Iz's age, I was a very serious athlete. I loved to work hard, so that motivation wasn't an issue, but what I found along the way is that hard work has the benefit of creating its own accomplishments. If you're in training, you can meet step-by-step goals that are fulfilling in and of themselves. If you don't do the work/get the training, in your mind all you want is the end product, and then you get frustrated because you know you can't have it immediately. But if you're working hard, you can have smaller goals that you can meet more quickly, that can lead to a larger goal. A particular skill accomplished, or a result achieved. That's satisfying in and of itself.

    Of course, the other important thing for her to remember is that she can work as hard as she possibly can, and she may not achieve her ultimate, tip-top goal in the end. If she really loves what she's doing, though, that will recede in importance as time goes on.

  8. I didn't say what the rule of 10,000 hours about. The thesis is: anybody who's ever been super awesome at anything had to put 10,000 hours of practice or practice-equivalent into it first.

    A second element to Gladwell's position is that becoming famous for a thing- whatever the 10,000 hours of practice are for- is equally a matter of being in the right place at the right time. You might not want to make a point of that if you're trying to encourage her to stick with something, but it is a valuable lesson in realism.

  9. I felt a bit discouraged at the thought, when I was around 12 or 13, that my writing was going to automatically suck or sound juvenile. The things I could make weren't as good as the things I loved to read, or as good as the things I could imagine.

    If you have the discernment to know that it could be better, that means you have the vision to work towards. So I would like to point out that having aesthetic judgment and drive to be good is important too, as important as self discipline.

    Working hard when you have a vision of how you want something to be isn't all that hard. You can slip into concentration and time flies by.

    I would think that singing practice could be like that if Iz understood the technical background of whatever voice training entails and the reasons for it. So why not look for some books or dvds or cds that explain it on a higher level than she has available to her right now? If it had some geeking out along with it, that might give more information, interest, and something to measure progress.

    When I was writing as a teenager I found it useful to pick another writer to study and imitate. For months I'd be writing everything in their style. At the same time, I burned to be really original and develop my own voice. Imitating others consciously as a project gave me good technical mastery and a sort of alphabet of tools at my commmand. It's an ongoing project.

    A counter argument to what I said above... there are lots of other interesting things to study about performance if voice training gets too boring. If it isn't satisfying, then why work hard at it? Do something you enjoy actually doing instead!

    Anyway, my sympathies to her as she sees what she wants to create and yet doesn't quite see the path of how to get there. That's hard!

  10. What fantastic, wide-ranging, thought-provoking comments and links. Thank you. Iz is gobbling them all up, with gratitude.

    Liz, she's been checking out the vocal training videos on YouTube, of which there are many.

  11. P.S. Wendryn and Anna, thanks for the kind words. Anna, I hope you're serious about that Can I Sit With You? story.

  12. The valedictorian of my high school is now a math professor. He has a number of wonderful quotes on his website in a section called "Winston's Words of Admonition." I printed my faves out and have on my bulletin board--several highlight the fact that mastery takes effort and discipline:

    "If you do not exert yourself in youth, there will be vain regrets in old age" (Chinese proverb, chiseled into the walls of the library at Princeton)

    "Learning is like rowing upstream; not to advance is to fall back." (Princeton library again)

    "True freedom only comes after great discipline" (Igor Stravinsky)

    "Everyone decided the best way was just to figure you were going to fail and then go ahead and do what you could anyway. Then you start to relax. Otherwise you go out of your mind!" (from Zen and the ARt of Motorcycle Maintenance)

    "Fall down seven time; get up eight" (traditional Japanese proverb)

    "True masters eat bitter ever day, and that's that." (Pan Ch'ing-Fu)

    "An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his OWN TERMS, not anyone else's" (Zooey Glass)

    and my favorite, because I was there when this got said:

    "In the theater of your life, you are the protagonist. You are the director; you are the producer. And in the end, you will be its harshest critic. Play it well." (Jayne Karsten, our senior year English teacher, giving a graduation speech; Ms. Karsten was also a dancer on Broadway and performed in "Our Gang" on TV)

    I agree with TC that it's very hard to get kids to realize they should only compare themselves with themselves--and to show them that a lot of their effort and discipline can result in the best kind of personal satisfaction, whether anyone else notices it or not. I think I personally struggled with this (still do, some), so I am trying to help steer my kids clear of that trap!

    "Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong! Don't worry if it's not good enough, for anyone else to hear. Just sing--sing a song!"

  13. Really interesting thoughts here...I'm going to keep some for myself when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

    I had another story that I should have thought of earlier, since I just blogged about it this month. The short version: my six-year-old son entered his first figure-skating skills competition in February, to take place in March. Because of how he'd tested out of certain levels, however, it turned out he didn't know most of the skills he'd have to be performing (and couldn't perform at a lower level, because he'd "passed" them). This meant he had less than a month to learn turns and stops he'd barely ever tried.

    Before we signed up to compete I'd told him this: "It's okay with me if you don't want to do this. I won't be upset. There's nothing in it for me if you compete. I don't get anything out of it, Coach J doesn't get anything out of it. It's for you, to see how you can do, to feel what it's like to work for something, and to see what it's like to compete for something. If you decide to do this, I'm willing to do it and put in the time and money for it. But that means you have to respect me and Coach J and Teacher A and anyone else who puts time and effort into your competition, because it's for you, not us." He'd agreed, and then was faced with even more work than he'd expected, what with not knowing the skills.

    But work he did, putting in extra practice time and lesson time. I didn't care if he came in first or anything; I just wanted him to be able to perform the elements at all. And when the time came, he did perform them. He came in last, fourth out of his group, but he was genuinely happy with his result, especially about pulling off a tricky turn that he'd struggled mightily with until just up to the day before. His final statement about the whole thing was "I had it in me all the time." To him, it was more than worth it to work to bring it out. THAT was his take-home feeling. At six years old, I'm still pretty impressed with that.

    Anyway, I'm interested to see what Iz does with her energy and passions. No doubt it will be something exciting to watch. ;)

    (And I think I'm going to write up that Can I Sit With You? story over break next week. Yay for goal-setting!)

  14. Has she seen Karate Kid, or is it a bit 80s for her? I think there's a great lesson in there about patience and practice.

  15. Giddy, I've always wondered what became of that friend of yours. And I've told Z of that Japanese saying ("Fall down seven time; get up eight") with Z, most assuredly.

    Anne, lovely story. He must be a delight, that boy. I'll be sitting by my inbox, waiting for your story.;

    Sheena, she loves that movie! But it's been a couple of years; we should watch it again.

  16. I've been thinking about this and meaning to come back and post on it. For your daughter:

    One of my favorite quotes from a scientist is the famous Pasteur comment, "Chance only favors the prepared mind." What Pasteur meant by that was that some of us might look at a Petri dish full of mold and think, "Damn. That dish is ruined." But others of us--very few of us--would look at that and think, "Something in there has killed the bacteria. Hmmmm." This latter group are the prepared minds. They're the ones who make the breakthroughs, give the bravura performances, manage a stage even when something goes wrong. They're prepared.

    And they don't get that way by accident. They get that way through experience. Tons and tons of experience, come by through hard hard work, a focus, an intense desire coupled with a willingness to sweat the small stuff so you can bring the big stuff.

    Keith Richards didn't become the world's greatest rhythm guitarist by hoping or dreaming or just getting by. He never stopped working on it from the minute he picked up a guitar, heard his first Chuck Berry record, didn't stop working on it even when he'd become among the best. He put countless hours and hours of work into it to the exclusion of most other things, a lifelong labor of love for him. Passion drives ambition, and if the passion is strong enough, the desire to do the work will be there.

    What if you reach for the brass ring and don't get it? I think there's more than one brass ring. There's the "best" title that people are awarded, but unless you're running a timed race, that's a matter of opinion. There's general adulation, but again...that's opinion. So what it comes down to is opinion. Your goal should be for the opinion that matters most to be your own. To achieve that, you must trust yourself. And that means preparing your mind to the best of your ability. Along the way, chance may favor you.

  17. Look.

    My parents didn't pay for a SCRAP of training for me (I found free ballet lessons and worked in studios to pay my tution) and when I became a professional actress, I was given the leading role at a very famous theatre.

    It was a singing role in a rock opera.

    I "acted" like I could sing, and worked hard, and did a great job.

    It always bugged me that I wasn't "legit", though.

    My friend is a vocal coach, and at 44, has convinced me to start training.

    And my voice is changing.

    It is never, EVER, too late.

  18. Thank you guys everyone who posted comments its really nice to hear about your personal experiences and whatever anecdotes you may or may not have had. i really am working hard now t my singing and drawing and i think its getting better. but i dontknow i dont know if "how to sing" videos on youtube really helped me...... thnks again peoples!


Respectful disagreement encouraged.