“Talent” is misused all the time. People use the word as if it’s something divinely bestowed, only graced to a select few. “He’s such a talented director,” people say, as if he came out of the womb giving set instructions.
Yes, some people have a slight innate ability to do something well. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it came from their upbringing. But those built-in advantages are very slight, yet people constantly give them complete credit.
Assuming someone was born with their talent ignores the years of hard work, study, and practice they endure to become good at whatever they do.
There’s no such thing as a writer who woke up one morning and suddenly became J. D. Salinger. There’s no actor who sneezed and turned into Meryl Streep. It’s not like some determined fellow wished really hard and transformed into Martin Scorsese.
All of those people – and anyone who’s good at anything – mastered their craft with practice, repetition, study, and lots of failure. They got there by taking chances, falling down, and getting back up. It happens over years.
So What is Talent?
From my 35 years of experience in this industry, the first part of talent is recognizing good ideas. It’s your ability to filter through all the shitty stuff and find the diamond in the rough that’s worth tinkering with.
They say that Keith Richards once woke in the middle of the night with a tune in his head. He switched on a recorder near his bed, picked out the lick on his guitar, then went back to sleep. In the morning, he sent the tape to Mick Jagger who later turned it into (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Now, obviously there’s a ton of work between a few bars played in the middle of the night and a world-renowned hit song. But it was Keith Richards’ talent that told him his riff was worth remembering.Anyone who’s good at anything mastered their craft with practice, repetition, study, and lots of failure. Click To Tweet
Ideas come fast and furious to creative people. The more creative you become, the faster the ideas pop up. But they’re fleeting. You can lose them. The most talented creative people know how to capture and trap their good ideas the moment they have them. They know how to let all of the bad ideas flow away.
I like to say that good ideas are like purple tennis balls. You don’t see many of them, but they’re obvious when you do because they seem so out of place. Just like you and I can spot a purple tennis ball from a sea of green ones, talented people can spot good ideas from the bad.
What happens if you can’t identify your own good ideas? You fall into the trap of trying to replicate other people’s good ideas. This never works.
You won’t find success replicating someone else’s voice. At least not for long. You need your original voice; your original take. The only way to develop that is through your own idea capture.
Running with a Good Idea
Alright, so let’s say you have the kernel of talent that lets you distinguish good ideas from all the bad ones. Now you’ll be successful, right?
Just because you found a good idea does it mean it’s useful. There are plenty of good ideas that don’t make good film or television. There are lots of good ideas that don’t make any money. (Remember, Hollywood is a business.)
Talented people spend weeks, months, and years refining their good ideas. They do a lot of it in private. You only see the final product, so great work seems instantaneous and divinely-inspired. I’ve worked with a lot of creative people. I’ve seen them holed up in sweaty offices, agonizing over word choices, pacing, and stressing about countless little details that add up to something great.
Comedians are a great example of this. You see a Netflix or Comedy Central special and think “Wow, they’re quite talented!” as if everything on stage was improvisation.
In fact, some comedians spend more than a year refining a routine before they ever let someone record them. They try out new ideas in conversations with their friends and weave whatever sticks into a loose fabric. Then they work the small-room circuit, experimenting with their ideas, optimizing the good stuff, and slicing out the bad.
By the time they get to a big stage, everything about a comedy routine is deliberate and tested. They know where to pause and how long, judge when to skip a joke or tell the long version. And even know where to stand on stage to get the biggest laugh.
Very little improvisation we see is actually genuine. People rarely summon good ideas on the fly.
Take a jazz musician, for instance. They play a kind of music with a lot of improv, right? No, not really. Almost every riff they play on stage has probably been played at some earlier point, maybe in a different context in a different song in a different key, but they tinkered with it before. Jamming on stage is just recognizing and executing the good ideas.
If you want to see a great character do this in film, watch 8 Mile with Eminem. His character constantly writes lyrics on scraps of paper throughout the film. He trapped his ideas when he had them and assembled them into music later. It takes time. Ooh and the resulting music is bloody killer!
Let Creatives Work
As an executive, you need to let creatives do their thing. They have to work through their process. Good creative work comes from the fullness of time.
If you tell a director to edit his picture in two weeks, you’ll just get a mess. You might not get anything at all. A complex movie with emotional moving parts or stunts takes six months at a minimum to edit. And it’s not like they grind for six months. They might take a break or a vacation in that time to refresh and let some new ideas flow back.
By the time you get to an editor’s assembly, the editor has memorized every line by every actor in the film. She knows every door slam, foot step, and pen drop. And that process of getting all the parts into someone’s memory takes weeks (even months). That’s why it takes highly skilled creative people months to cut a film.
Why does it take so long? Because all creative work comes with a failure rate. The big studios have development abandon rates North of 40%. That means they pay to develop some properties that end up yielding garbage and never get made.
If you rob creative people of time, the outcome will be average at best. Most likely, it will be terrible.
That said, I don’t suggest you give people carte blanche. They need a delivery date to hit, but it’s important to make that date realistic with the understanding that they can’t summon good ideas at will. Good creative work takes time.
It’s a little different for investors. Your job is to invest in fleshed out, commercially viable ideas. Not the development of ideas. You should not be paying for creatives to find their own voice. They need to handle that on their own time and their own dime. Or, in some cases, a studio will pay for their failures.
What This Means For You
“I don’t have the talent to be an artist” is bullshit. (Replace artist with anything – actor, director, brain surgeon, race car driver, or whatever.) You can learn to do anything if you study and practice, experiment and optimize, try and fail. You just have to get off your ass and do it.