Talent Matters Not

Kraftig snøfall over Bergen

We often think of talent as an important ingredient in the making of great art. But I think more importantly is work – hard work. What I have been writing about over a couple of posts now – about choosing the hard path and going after you passion – is closely related to effort. I think more imperative than anything else if we want to succeed in art (and probably with everything else in life) is a willingness to work hard. As Albert Einstein put it in his well-known quote: «Genius is one percent talent and ninety-nine percent hard work.»

One remedy – besides passion – encourages creativity more than anything else: Work. It not only encourages, but necessitates. If you don’t put in an effort you will never unfold the full potential of your creativity. You simply cannot sit down and just wait for inspiration or creativity to come upon you. Creativity is not a gift but a duty. A duty to yourself. I strongly believe we all have creativity within us, but most of us need to dig it out. And the only way to really dig it out is by working, by putting time and effort into whatever creative media or expression we are prone to identify ourselves with. What it really means is to work consistently and energetically over a long period of time. For some of us a whole lifetime. Day and day again.

For photographers such as me, work means to photograph. According to Henri Cartier-Bresson «your first 10,000 photographs are your worst». When we take into consideration that he used a film-based camera, inherently much slower than today’s digital cameras, maybe we need to update his quote to your first 100,000 photographs. Or maybe even better; use the so-called 10,000-Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers. The rule basically says that if you do anything for 10,000 hours you will become an expert at that thing. Put in a different, simpler and maybe more obvious way, it comes down to the fact that – as a photographer – the more you shoot, the better you become. As simple as that.

«Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; rewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.» – Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States.

In something that could be called youthful presumption or cockiness, I trusted my talent when I was younger. I thought I had a talent for photography and that was all I needed. I did win some photo competitions and gained some recognition, and I thought the road to heaven was open to me. Only much later did I realize that nothing had happened, I had gone nowhere since my first embryonic recognition, and photographically I had come to a stand still. I suddenly realized I wasn’t the best photographer in the world – as I had planned to become! The one big mistake I did was not working hard – well, hardly working at all. Trusting my talent as being all I needed became my bane as a photographer in my early years. First many years later did I understand that nothing comes out of nothing – even if you have talent.

«We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.» – Aristotle.

I have come to believe that talent is not important. Yes, it may set the boundaries for our potential as creative persons, but the big majority of us never reach the roof of that potential at all. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci did – or Vincent van Gogh. But us mere mortals? No way – not even if you work the butt off yourself. And that is the good news. It means you can reach as far as you want to creatively, all depending how much work you want to put into the process. You know, art is nothing before you have actually made something. Being creative means actually doing something.

«To the critic art is a noun. To the artist, art is a verb.» – David Baules and Ted Orland in Art & Fear.


121 thoughts on “Talent Matters Not

  1. Timely advice indeed. Having just come back from a week of non-stop talking and taking photos and feeling I was just beginning to refine what I love to shoot reality has hit. It is so easy to do the work while away from the normal life stuff and although I have taken shots since I got home it doesn’t feel like I am putting the same amount of work or effort into making the shots. Is this a normal reaction to ‘after the trip’, giving time for things to percolate or am I just kidding myself?

    1. I think this is a very normal reaction. It has to do the intensity of the process when being able to devote so much time to nothing but photographing. Back home you cannot – as you say – be so completely immersed in the whole process, and naturally it affects the result.

      1. Ha! so I’m perfectly normal then. It was lovely while it lasted (the intense photography experience) and I’m sad that I can’t retain that internal momentum so much at home. I guess life just gets in the way unless we make that concerted effort, which was so easy to come by while away. Thank you for the post, you always make me think.

  2. Great post Otto. Nothing replaces hard work and putting the hours in. Love the Gladwell book and the quote about the 10,000 hours it takes to be proficient – or even to begin to be proficient. When I originally read Outliers I did the math – it translates to about 5 years of 8 hour days 5 days a week.

  3. I agree that we have to work at things, but maybe talent does make the work more enjoyable? Sometimes I get mad when people say “you’re so talented!” as if I didn’t put in more than 10,000 hours into my craft. Maybe talent is as simple as this is something I could be good at doing, and then the work proves whether or not we’re right.

    1. I am not sure what talent really is, but surely it looks like some people have a natural affinity or skill that makes them better suited for certain tasks. In the end, though, you still have to work hard – and that’s what a lot of people don’t realize when credit everything to talent

  4. I absolutely agree–dedication hard work coupled with passion. Also mix into the ingredients is curiosity. Creativity is on a continuum and can be inspired by a discovery of a passion. The quote by Aristotle is one of my favorites. Your image is engaging and inviting, even in its reminder of our winter here on the East Coast.

  5. Excellent post, Otto! Nothing comes from nothing…we do need to work at something to get the results, however talented we might be. I agree with Sally that curiosity is another ingredient in the mix…everything from being curious about others’ work, and being curious as in asking what would the result be if I tried x or y….

  6. You always just seem to hit the nail on the head. We are both struggling right now with our art. Where to go with it, what should we do next, It’s a constant work in progress.

    1. As you say, art is indeed a constant struggle and work in progress. But that’s only an indication of development I think. If you want to develop, you will have to accept that it’s going to take some struggle.

  7. I’m not quite sure that I agree with you on the unimportance of talent, but I totally agree when it comes to the importance of working hard at your chosen line of interest. I see from my own and related occupations: If you want to become good at it, you have to do a lot of it. The caveat is of course that one mustn’t become such a specialist that one totally forgets the literally whole picture.

    1. That is a good point. But of course you are right about talent in some ways. I think to become a Leonardo da Vinci you do have to have some special talents. My point here is still that most of us don’t take out the whole potential of our talent anyway.

  8. This is so true and I love how you explained it. It MEANS something and breaks it down for me. I love the way you write by the way…”embryonic recognition”?? Brilliant! I think it’s the way of the world…to see “fame” and then think that we can just wish it so or just “be” that. It does take work. Not that I really think I’ll be famous but to always improve and to get better and to know more. That’s reward and even better when others recognize the improvement. It’s validation that I’ve been doing something worthwhile. Validation I never received previously in my life. So I have another layer as to why it’s important. Thank you Otto for your meaningful posts.

    1. You are very right about validation. Now for fame or becoming successful, I think we have to be aware of what is important for us. For me validation is important, but still the process of being creative and developing my creative outlet is in itself what is most important, not to become famous. Thank you for your thoughtsful comment, Laura.

  9. Cheers to that, couldn’t agree more – hardwork and dedication is the key to so VERY much in one’s life with art being no exception to the rule.

  10. Splendido post caro Otto. Grazie per queste spiegazioni, sono di grande importanza e danno la forza a persone come me, che sono autodidatte, di continuare con la fotografia.
    Un caro saluto, Patrizia

  11. Last Wednesday I’ve tried literally to work my butt off 😉
    And it didn’t work 😀
    I don’t want to become a worldfamous photographer, I just want to learn how to take pictures that don’t need hours in PhotoShop before I can show them to anybody. And I want to do this for myself, because I love looking at beautiful pictures. And even just for me I need to do some more hard work and take some 60.000 pictures more. And “some” more hours. I hope I’ve made it until then 😉 But today’s bubble already makes me a bit happy 😀
    I like that picture above alot, I really have to learn to aim at people also. But I still hesitate doing that.
    Have a fine week

    PS: And I also think that art is a verb 😀

    1. I know the feeling very well. But sometimes we work hard it nothing seems to come out of it. But it still does, it’s just a barrier that needs to be broken. Suddenly things start to flow again. Just keep the spirit up – and do the work, Knipsa. 🙂

  12. I like this post a lot. It reminds me of a Nobel prized physicist. Basically, he did not accept a comment that he was a genius but he was a person who was just passionate about physic/math and he worked hard on it.

    1. Yes, I think that’s the whole point here- Too many people envy those who work hard and think it’s only talent, but don’t want to put in the work themselves. Thank you for the timely comment.

  13. All you say is true. But it’s also true that work has its own rhythms. There also is a time for receptivity, for lying fallow, for experiencing the world in new ways in order to allow creative impulses to begin flowing again.

    There’s even a time for rest. How many times I’ve stayed at my desk until midnight, trying to push my way through toward the right word, a more gracious phrasing, a better arrangement of paragraphs, only to find that nothing works. When “it” doesn’t work despite all of my work, I’m better off heading to bed. More times than I can count, I wake with the word in mind, or the perfect title, or a phrase that sends me off in a new direction.

    I like to say that such experiences are my mind working the night shift. Allowing our subconscious and unconsious, the full complement of our humanity, to work together, allows for greater creativity, without burnout.

    1. Of course you are right, Linda. Doing the work doesn’t mean working 24/7. We do need rest, we do need to regenerate and we do need to fill our creative well. Thank you for the well formulated comment.

  14. i think that what you call talent, for me is a spark from the heart… whether it’s picture taking, or novel writing, for me, it’s that spark, and it’s true that the work comes later, and before, but if that spark dies, the whole thing falls apart. so my sparks died, so i take bad photos to tickle my fancy, then put some ‘work’ into processing… but it is not the same, aye? as when i took beautiful pictures when i was young. and i got writer’s block because the spark was killed with the pain of rejection… i would like to see you write an article on how to work through pain… we are to do this work because we LOVE it, what happens when the love is replaced with pain?…. i’m very interested in your thoughts on the subject, as the heart is such a fragile thing, the spark so easily put out.

    1. That would be very interesting to look into. But also a very difficult subject. How to work through pain – I am not even sure I have the necessary knowledge to write about it. But I will put my mind to it – and see what comes out of the thought process. Maybe you should write about it yourself – using your own experience as a backdrop?

          1. it’s involves a simple exercise that is frustratingly hard to do at first, and even when it gets easier, you get tempted to just feel the pain instead haha

  15. Yes! Great post. Very well said and to the point but also reflective and important to hear. I am in the midst of doing the work and it feels great to be on the road instead of just the daydreamer…Sharing my art with the world instead of simply saying ‘I’m an artist’ is a powerful discovery.

  16. I think it is really a very good time to tell the world that we have to work hard, if we want to achieve anything at all, in whatever sector. I love your words and the picture which may show that we have to go on a long journey for our goals, but the journey is also the goal. All the best, dear Otto, with what you do and many thanks.

  17. Så sant, så sant…du säger vad jag tänker och som vanligt har jag inget att tillägga…jo, kanske lite, men det tar jag en annan gång:)
    Talang parat med hårt arbete…the Winner takes it all…
    På väg till NYC för några dagars stadspuls…och mer vinter än här hemma?
    Lycka till med kurser och arbetsresor, ha det gott och så önskar jag dig en fin och innehållsrik vårvinter.

  18. Another inspiring and thought provoking post! I too believe hard work is the key..the great violin teacher, Suzuki once advised “Practice only on the days you eat”. 🙂 Now you have me wondering, what exactly is success?

  19. Working hard and taking hundreds and hundreds of photos is key to becoming better, in to finding your creativity that may have been buried. It’s interesting that some people will look at a photo and think “I can do that”, go out and try, and see that they may need to work on it just a bit more and put in the work; and others will think, “I could never do that” and never even try. We humans are an interesting lot.

  20. Another very intersting post Otto! There is absolutely no doubt that one has to put in the hours. But there are hundreds and thousands of excellent photographers in the world. All working very hard at their craft but only a handful will ever be ‘discovered’. I think this particularly is not so much about talent and much more to do with being in the right place at the right time and an awful lot of luck. It’s like all the wonderful singers and actors, dancers.. only a few become famous and they are used over and over again rather than new creative people with just as much to say being sought and showcased. Try and get a book published, publishers aren’t interested in new authors, they like the ones they have, the ones with the huge marketing machine behind them that make them lots of money.turning out the same old formulaic work. It’s a great shame but this is the way of the world. But if we love our craft, none of this matters, that said, I think we all like a certain amount of validation for waht we do.

    1. This is a good point, Adrian. And you are right, only a handful of hardworking, even talented, people will be discovered. But than, as you indicate at the end of your argument, is that really the point? Of course it’s nice to be recognized, but in the end it’s the work we do and the satisfactions in the work we do, that matters.

  21. I agree with you Otto. Hard work and commitment.
    I just talked to my brother in Indonesia that my 12 years old niece fall in love with photography and she would like to learn it. She is very serious by asking me about certain image and how to take picture. Additionally her school has extra course on photography! Gosh, I was not that young when start to have interest on photography. It will be interesting to see how her commitment to photography in the next coming years will end up..

  22. Great post Otto! I’m too late to add anything new but the more we work, the more opportunities for improvement we can see and the better we become. Personally it’s also helped my own ‘vision’ with what I want to do with my photography.

  23. As somebody else said “talent is 100 meters advantage in a marathon, to win you need hard work.”
    We are lucky when our passion is strong because in this case it is easier to work hard, at least it should be 🙂
    And this applies not only in photography: in life as well…

  24. Beautiful post…..and TRUE words. I wrote the word DILIGENCE on a blank page in my journal the other day and was staring at it. As I started reading this post that was all I could think of. I guess back to work I go 🙂


  25. Simply lovely, Otto. This post was just what I needed right now. Many of your lines and quotes stood out, but perhaps the most was this sentence at the end, “You know, art is nothing before you have actually made something.” I now realize I need to appreciate whatever work I’ve put in on my latest projects. You are right — there was nothing there at all before I started. And though my books are far from done, each piece I can add to them, “actually make something” makes it art. Makes it alive, makes it real. Thank you for the gentle reminder that all the hard work is worth it!

  26. Excellent Post!! So true, so true. Hard work accounts for so much. And how many people are afraid to put in the work because they think they don’t have talent?? Talent is over-rated, and if more people realized that, they would be free to create and enjoy the process of working at it. Thanks again for a terrific post. ~Rita

    1. That is excellent my point. Yes, talent does matter somewhat, but for most people it’s just creating inhibitions. As you say, if more people realized that talent is over-rated, more people would be free to pursue their creative capabilities.

  27. Otto, how right you are, talent is the stepping stone but hard work reveals the path. My son who is an exceptionally talented athlete thinks that his genius lies in his talent. It is a balancing act to encourage his talent but also support his hard work, which will propel him into the stratosphere if and only if he works harder than he thinks he can. I found this quote and posted it on the refrigerator to remind him and frankly me that talent only goes so far.
    “Don’t Quit. Outlast those who are lucky
    and outwork those who are lazy.” Unknown
    Funny how your kids always keep you learning right along with them.

  28. I feel that many’potential’ artists are discouraged because they do not achieve great things/recognition quickly. They expect too much too soon. It is worth recalling Henry Van Dyke’s advise: ‘Use what talent s you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.’

  29. Thank you for another great post, Otto. And a good reminder. I once said to an artist friend, “I wish I could draw like you do, but I don’t have the talent for it.” She replied, “It’s not about talent. It’s about practice. Talent helps, but doesn’t replace years of practice.”

  30. As always Otto, you are very eloquent with your words. Your thoughts are conveyed with such accuracy and clarity, it’s a joy to read. I admit I have to push myself to continue to improve, I have to work harder at this craft. I always come up with some sort of excuse as to why I don’t have enough time but in the end the hard work has to be put in, time has to be served and one has to remember the learning process never ends.

    1. Oh, I have to fight all those excuses myself, so I know exactly what you are talking about. Nevertheless if the learning process ever ends – that would be the end of everything I stand for. Time then, to dig a six foot hole in the ground. 🙂

  31. A lot of wisdom here Otto. Even with all the talent in the world, if you have no clue how to use it..it is wasted. On the flip side, you can create magic with a lot of practice and hard work (and with the passion that comes with it). This is a perfect complement to your earlier post on passion, as there is nothing more frustrating than knowing that at times I have to get out and shoot (to get back into that photography zone) and it feels like the last thing I want to do…and then when I get out, get in a flow, I cannot believe I almost didn’t get out and shoot. Learning is continual that is for sure…for the vast majority of us, talent takes a far back seat to hard work.

    1. That spur of the moment; that we try to prevent ourselves to get into flow again – as if it would be painful – is quite strange. It takes a lot of effort to overcome, doesn’t it – and then the reward is all the more fulfilling. This is exactly what Steven Presfield writes about in his excellent book The War of Art.

      1. I will have to check out that book, because I am sometimes really fascinated when I do (or don’t do) something when I do not feel up to it even though I know the reward will more than make up for it. Thanks!

  32. “We are what we repeatedly do.” So important to learn and remember! I think you are right about hard work and persistence, and perhaps some of us (me) need to remember that it is important to acknowledge hard work as a very important means to honing an art or to feeling the success of artful achievement. That readily rings true to me. You really encourage me towards working harder, Otto. 🙂

  33. I love how your posts inspire me, no matter what I’m doing. They certainly apply to my writing and photography, but they even apply to my real estate career. Thank you!

  34. I love the Albert Einstein saying and the other “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. I consider myself a budding photographer. I look back on photos I took several years ago and am shocked at how bad they were which at the time I though were incredible. Always taking courses to try and improve my technique etc. I think when we stop learning we stop growing. I don’t know that if you love something you do that you ever stop evolving!

    1. It’s actually good that when you look back at photos you took some time ago, you see they are quite bad. The opposite would have been disastrous. As long as we keep developing we are alive!

  35. The only qualifier I would add to that is” intent “. There are many people with cameras out in the wide world whose only intent is to take a quick snapshot. They are “very good” at this and have many snapshots, just not photographs. They have never learned how to look through the lens and compose a shot, just point and shoot. A shotgun approach to” taking pictures”. 🙂

    1. I generally agree with you. Intent is important – but I also believe intuition can be and is important. Many of the best photographs through history could easily be regarded as snapshots. 🙂

  36. Excellent post and thanks for sharing your powerful insights… I love the photograph and the quote by Calvin Coolidge as well!… . All the best to you. Aquileana 😀

  37. Totally agree with you. The more work you put into something creative, the more creative you become. How else can you explore new ways of doing things?
    I love the Coolidge quote: it sums up your point nicely.

  38. It sounds very simple, the more you shoot, the better… but even in my own limited experience this is very true, Otto. I read your next post, silently applauding, and then your beautiful image on her caught my eye. I love it! 🙂 Have a happy and productive week!

  39. Your words are as true as Einsteins 99% quote.
    My daily job is a gardener, I love to work outside with plants, use my body and create green and living things with my hands – a job I would not swap with something else. Well, maybe – photographer!
    But I do not need to do that, because I love just as much to work with photos when I have finished my gardener job 🙂

  40. Hej igen, jag läser dina inlägg med stort intresse och har lite svårt att kommetera direkt, vill gärna ha tid att fundera och ta till mig av allt intressant som du delar med dig av. Ofta dyker något upp som jag vill fördjupa mig i och nu håller på att läsa boken du tipsade om “The Element”.
    Att jobba kreativt med kameran känns oftast lustfyllt trots otaliga försök på samma motiv men bildbehandlandet efteråt det kan ta död på all min skaparlust. Har hittat en väg där jag försöker roa mig med att skapa i det digitala efterarbetet. Kanske jag kan förstå och lära mig det bättre på ett lustfyllt sätt.
    Stort TACK för dina intressanta och läsvärda inlägg,

    1. Det er jo ikke gitt at en som fotograf skal gjøre alt som er mulig. Før den digitale verden overtok fotografi, jobbet jeg mest med slides eller dias, og da fantes ingen redigeringsmuligheter etterpå. Egentlig handler det derfor om å bli best på det en føler for. 🙂 Og selvsagt finne en balanse mot nytteverdien av for eksempel digital etterbehandling. Ha en fin uke med masse spennende bilder, Monica.

  41. So I have to go through about 4,000 photos before I’m done with the 10,000 worst 🙂
    I can be lazy sometimes with my photography. I needed to read this, thank you Otto 🙂

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