The Talent Trap

At a recent regional burn, a friend watched me as I practiced poi one afternoon and lamented that she believed she had no natural talent for the tool. I chuckled and replied that I didn't either, which I didn't think at the time would be such a controversial position, but it lead to a very heated debate over what constituted talent and how one might be judged to have it.

My assertion then is the same as it is now: when it comes to talent there is no such thing.

What? But aren't there individuals whose ability to pick up a given skill seems somewhat miraculous and frequently outpaces the potential of the people they tend to pick up said skill with? Yes, absolutely, but I believe it has little to do with our traditional concept of talent and vastly more to do with the unique blends of experiences that have led someone to that very moment.

First, I should really define how I'm framing talent, because I think of it in a very specific way that might not strike a chord with everyone. To me, talent denotes an innate ability to acquire a given skill. When a person demonstrates a high level of acumen, accomplishment, or precocity for their skill, they are thus said to have started their work in said skill with some kind of inherent advantage that their peers lacked--thus explaining their accomplishments and the lack of said accomplishments in their peers.

Don't get me wrong--there are absolutely certain physical skills that require characteristics that are genetically governed and therefore limited to a specific set of humanity: if you're only five feet tall you're not likely to ever play for the NBA and if you're over six feet tall you're not very likely to make the Olympic gymnastics team, but there's a whole lot of middle ground between extremes such as this. Specifically, when it comes to poi there are no real physical boundaries that hinder the acquisition of the skill save the inability to hold onto the poi and arguably the inability to stand or walk without aid (I welcome the chance to eat my words on this latter point, btw). But beyond that, there are very few innate qualities a person can have that would prevent them from being able to learn to use poi in a myriad of ways. Yet some people pick it up faster than others--why is that?

To arrive at an accurate answer for this question, it's necessary to compare people in ways that control not just for possible innate physical differences, but also experiential differences. For example, when comparing oneself to another individual who has taken up poi or any other object manipulation art (especially when it involves judging oneself to be less accomplished in said art), it's necessary to evaluate what it is about that person's spinning that you find most admirable. Is it the panache with which they pull off a given series of movements? Is it the precision of their technique? The originality of their style? The difficulty of their tricks?

Once one decides what it is about this talented person they admire, the next question that must be addressed is what did this person do before they spun poi? Did they have a childhood of dance training? Years as a computer programmer? Did they play an instrument? The reason these questions matter is that they have a huge impact on how a person learns a new but related skill. I've long believed that much of my own skill in spinning more technical styles of poi is directly related to my first two artistic careers: 7 years training as a comic book artist and 8 as a guitarist--both of which require a great deal of fine motor control in the wrists and hands. Likewise, if one encounters an individual who seems to have great talent as a flow spinner, there's probably a decent chance this person has a background in dance or another movement art and that their poi spinning is informed by this. Those of us when a computer programming, science, or math background have been trained to view situations with an eye for isolating and editing variables. I've asked many of the tech spinners I know whether they were programmers or had an interest in science before they spun poi and nearly all have responded that they did.

If one truly wants to compare a level playing field, it's necessary to look at other individuals who have a similar background to oneself, have been spinning roughly an equivalent amount of time, and most importantly of all have similar practice habits. Once one isolates those variables, I think the results will be pretty shocking: those individuals in your peer group will almost invariably wind up being in a very similar place to you in all these critical areas.

This is helpful for two reasons: first it gives one more confidence to realize you're working roughly par for the course. The other and more important point is that it prevents what I call the talent trap. By ascribing a person's level of skill to an innate quality that one does not have, it removes the potential for you to achieve the level of achievement you see in others. There are no scientific studies that show this to be the case. Recent studies have shown that the brain doesn't ever seem to lose its potential for learning new skills--even very difficult and kinesthetically challenging ones like juggling.

My biggest source of skepticism for the concept of having innate talent (especially in the poi world) is that I know that I do not have any. One of my favorite stories to tell new students is that of my own first poi lesson, where a friend spent a solid hour and a half trying to teach me to reel turn to seemingly no benefit. The three-beat weave took more more than three months to learn when I was first starting out--I've taught it to people in as little as five minutes since. The skills that I have with poi haven't come out of some genetic proclivity I have for it (which I can assure you I do not have), but honestly from practicing often and challenging myself constantly as I do so. One of the chief reasons I began video blogging my work with poi was that I wanted to have an incentive to practice new moves and new theory constantly so I would always be expanding my vocabulary. By setting a goal for myself of recording one or more videos every week, it forced me into a daily practice routine that has had an immeasurably positive effect not just on my spinning but also my discipline in general. Put simply: I work way too hard at spinning to believe I have any innate capacity for it.

After spinning for two years, I noted that many of the poi spinners whose performance styles I found very engaging had devoted a large amount of time to dance and other movement arts and in an effort to make my own style more engaging I undertook regular lessons in Tai Chi and modern dance--both of which I've found to be incredibly rewarding though possibly the most difficult undertaking I've ever done in my life. But it's through working through those challenges that I've found the greatest rewards, at least for me. If the obstacle between a person and the skill they want is this esoteric idea of "talent," it robs from them the ability to reach outside their comfort zone, to acquire new and exciting experiences, and most of all for them to reach their full potential in a skill they admire. I'd encourage anyone who judges themselves to be lacking in skill when they see another spinner to have a conversation with that person and try to determine what in their experience has informed the characteristic you find most appealing and attempt to learn it yourself. Do away with the concept of talent and see these skills as a buffet that you can pick and choose from.

I truly believe we all have the potential to excel at whatever skill we want--it is purely a question of the amount of practice we can devote to said skill. The only barrier between you and they way you want to spin, move, paint, dance, design, or any other skill is the time it will take to practice it.

For further reading on the topic, I highly recommend this book:

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