So, I stumbled across a revived thread the other day on Absolute Write where the folks had gotten into a pretty heated discussion about whether you need any sort of talent to be a writer or whether you can ultimately become a successful writer through sheer hard work and drive. (It’s titled “making a living at writing” in case I screwed up the link. Also, I had bookmarked to post #54 there, so it seems I liked what that one said in particular. It’s an interesting discussion, but I think some of the hard work advocates missed the point the talent advocates were actually making.)
Combine that with John Scalzi’s post on Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is and I decided maybe it was time to write a post to flesh out my thoughts on hard work, talent, and our starting point in life.
I think each of us are born with a certain set of innate abilities or potential. Take any child born today and give them to any parent anywhere in the world and that child will have a certain range of potential across any number of attributes that has nothing to do with the environment in which they’re raised.
It’s more than simply IQ, but that’s part of it — that ability to interact with and analyze the environment. There’s also physical motor skills — that ability to physically navigate the environment. There are other inherent attributes that can affect success in life, like immunity to certain diseases. (I know that’s a weird one to throw in there, but since both of my parents dealt with serious health issues due to strep infections as children, I can’t deny that their individual ability to handle disease impacted their lives.) And, of course, there’s physical appearance — sex, skin color, eye color, hair color, general attractiveness, etc.
The next layer that gets added onto that child is their home environment. Who raises them, what they value, how they model behaviors that lead to success, etc. (I think of this as the classic movie example of a poor inner city child who has no one at home who can help with homework as opposed to the child who goes home to a roomful of books and parents willing to read them. It can also be the family that values a college education over athletic ability, so encourages a child who is physically gifted to consider sports as an outlet or hobby, but not a legitimate future career, assuming they support it at all.) This also includes adequate nutrition, health care, and access to development opportunities.
After the child’s innate ability and a home environment that focuses on or values different attributes then you have society. Society rewards certain behaviors more than others and makes it possible or impossible for individuals to achieve various goals. (That’s where I think Scalzi’s post comes in. In the United States, in most areas, a white, straight, male will have an easier time at most anything he tries to do.)
And, either as part of the society layer or perhaps as part of another layer, you have the physical environment. This may require different skills and either supports or negatively affects all of the inherent attributes. Success in modern-day America requires a very different set of skills than success in 1800s America. A modern urban environment rewards different attributes than a rural farming community.
So, there we are. We each have certain innate traits. Our family/immediate environment either develops those traits or sometimes actively discourages those traits. And then we deal with the larger world that values certain attributes over others. And we have to fit all of this into a physical environment.
If you combine it all I think you end up with a range of potential outcomes for any given person. The person who has the most potential for success is the person whose personal attributes were nourished by their family and were aligned with what society values and fit with their physical environment. Narrow down any one of those four and you limit the person’s potential.
So, to illustrate this, let’s take me as a baby.
I was raised in America in a household that valued reading with parents who spoke English and were literate themselves. My parents valued education, but I also went to a school that had a gifted program that nurtured that. And I was allowed to self-study pretty much all of first and fifth grade when the existing programs weren’t enough. I ultimately received a scholarship to an even better school and eventually received federally funded and private loans to pay for a college education.
I had the innate ability to achieve a college education, but it required a family that supported that goal and a society that provided that opportunity through the school system, private philanthropy, and federally funded loans.
Which is not to say that I didn’t work my ass off for the degrees I have. Student loans and the educational opportunities I was provided made it possible, but they didn’t make it easy. I still worked forty to sixty hours a week the last two years of college. I had the talent, but only a serious amount of effort made it actually happen.
Now, take me as a baby and hand me off to a family on the banks of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala or in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I would have the same inherent abilities, but my family would likely not value a college education and society would probably not place any value on giving me that education.
I chose those two places because I’ve been to both. In each place I saw children of maybe ten years of age whose sole occupation for the day seemed to be selling trinkets to tourists. Now, perhaps, behind the scenes they were being well-educated and this was just what they did on the weekend and they, too, will one day go to college and work in fancy schmancy careers, but I suspect that’s not true.
Those children have been encouraged to focus their efforts on activities that their family, society, and environment reward. Even if their family for some reason believed in a college education, finding the funding to make that happen has to be nearly impossible. And having the background education to succeed once they reach college has to be almost impossible as well. And if they want to stay there in a small town in a poor country, a college education is probably not the most advantageous way to expend their efforts.
So, how do I bring this back to the hard work and talent discussion?
Like I said above, I think we all have a range of potential outcomes and that depending on where we’re born and when, the constraint on those outcomes is our own personal ability, our family, our society, or our environment. While those limits change over time (just look at how minority and women’s rights have evolved in the last fifty years), the biggest single factor impacting our own personal outcome is our ability to work hard enough to achieve the top end of our own personal potential.
To me, this argument works best in terms of a sporting analogy.
My dad told a story of a guy he went to high school with who went on to play professional basketball. Freshman year of high school the guy didn’t even make the team. He spent the entire summer wearing ankle weights everywhere he went and shooting hoops every day for hours. He came back the next year and started on varsity. It was within his range to achieve that, but it wasn’t easily within his range. He worked hard to get where he was.
Anyone who has played sports can attest to that one person who just seemed to have the natural ability to play. And sometimes that person just showed up, relying on their innate abilities to get them through. Sure, they started on the varsity team, but never took it further. That person was operating at a level well within their range, that may well have been beyond the range of someone else, but they were not even close to the top of their potential.
And then there’s the guy who would love to play basketball, but maybe he has a heart condition that won’t let him engage in physical activity or he’s a quadriplegic. It’s not within that guy’s range, no matter how hard he works at it or wants it, to play basketball.
Bringing this back to writing. Most people have the ability to learn to write. (I would argue not all.) Some of the people who can learn to write will never have the luxury of developing that ability due to family, society, or environment. Of those that do, it will come easier for some than others. Who ultimately succeeds is anyone’s guess.
There will be people who succeed through sheer stubbornness, because they refuse to ever give up and no matter how long it takes them to reach that top end of their potential, they’ll stick with it until they do.
There will be people who succeed with seemingly no effort. They’re just gifted natural story tellers who happen to meet the right person at the right moment and get noticed early on and make it.
There will be people who are brilliant, who see the world in a way that no one else can, and who describe it in a way that leaves others in awe, who will never succeed. Maybe their own demons conquer them before they get noticed. Maybe they never try for fear of rejection. Maybe they stop before they connect with that one person who can help them along. Whatever it is, they never make it.
And there will be people who never succeed after a lifetime of stubborn effort. People who write millions of words, who believe passionately in what they’re doing, but who just don’t have “it,” whatever it is that makes someone a successful author. They can try for a hundred years, they can go to every workshop under the sun, they can write and study and do everything in their power, and they just aren’t going to succeed. It’s simply not within their range.
So, bottom line. It takes the right personal attributes, family support, society, and environment to have the potential to succeed. And then it takes effort. Whether it takes a lot of effort or not all depends on where you are when you start.