Talent ≠ Success

tal-ent (/’talǝnt/)
natural aptitude or skill.

Oxford English Dictionary

When I was very young, I was always told by my parents that I was exceptional, talented, and full of potential. There was no doubt that I would go on to be a great musician, or film composer, or physicist, or … something. I would defy the expectations of everyone around me, and I’m fairly certain people saw me as a somewhat precocious, and probably very pretentious, little kid.

You see, I grew up as as child in rural, backwater Switzerland, where the talent pool was small, and I was a big fish in a tiny little pond. My first exposure to the limits of my talent came when we moved to England, and I was suddenly in classes with people who were genuinely as talented, and in some cases far more talented, than I could ever hope to be. Pianists who could play Bach’s C#-minor fugue, and cellists who could play Elgar; English students who could write better than me, and math students who understood differentials better than me.

This was a blow to my young ego, which had unto that point been stroked egregiously by everyone around me. Yet I weathered it, and came to the realization that, in most endeavors, there would always be someone in the world who could do it better. That’s the nature of life.

As a side note, this became a factor in my worsening teenage depression, as I assumed that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t be the best at anything.

And yet, I’ve continued on through decades assuming that my lack of success (and let’s be clear, in this context success means money) was due to a lack of talent – that I really am not very good at very much. I have a low-skill job at mediocre pay, I frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the art I create is not spread wide across the literary or musical worlds.

The funny thing is that, to myself, I really enjoy what I create. I listen to my own songs on repeat; I re-read my own books frequently. My background wallpaper is a photo I took – one of my favorites. In my own mind – from a failed childhood or some other delusion – I am still talented.

And perhaps this isn’t necessarily wrong, per se; if talent is a natural aptitude or skill – key word being ‘natural’ – then I am at least somewhat talented. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a musical upbringing and education, I’ve never been taught anything more than high school English, and yet have written four full-length novels. In my own subjective opinion, at least some of my songs are as good as number one chart hits – within genres, at least.

Maybe it’s okay to be talented; maybe it’s okay to think I’m talented. What I might consider a lack of success doesn’t have to mean a lack of talent.

You see, it’s taken me a long time to realize that talent and success don’t go hand-in-hand. I might be talented; I might write good songs and passable novels. But talent doesn’t guarantee success (and frequently, success doesn’t guarantee talent). In fact, I would go as far as to argue they aren’t even two sides of the same coin, but literally separate coins entirely.

I wrote three fantasy novels. They’ve amassed – in the five years since publication – fewer than 30 reviews and ratings. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s read them, and I certainly haven’t recouped my editing costs through sales. The same is true for my young adult novel, although it’s spread has been somewhat wider than my fantasy.

What I’ve learned is that writing a book is hard, tedious, laborious and and thankless work. It’s the fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, sweat, tears, depressions and other terrible emotional free-falls, and to create a worthy book – one that stands toe to toe with ‘real’ (read: established) authors – is an incredibly difficult and daunting task.

But selling a book is even harder.

Selling a book – that is to say, marketing a book – is a whole different world. A completely different set of skills are required, a different world view and knowledge, different insights and connections, and is often subject to the mercy of individuals who may simply not like your work. Getting significant sales from a book you wrote is a different beast altogether, and one that I most certainly don’t have a talent for.

Yet what I’ve discovered is … that’s okay. Just like I learned as a child that I’m not ever going to be the best at anything, and to focus on the things I am somewhat good at, I’ve learned that marketing and selling is something I’m just not very good at. And that’s okay.

Success – and its definition – is highly subjective. To succeed means to achieve a goal, and in the sense that, when I started writing I had a goal to write a novel, I have succeeded. I’ve succeeded, in fact, four times over. And not only did I write four novels, I wrote four damn good novels – maybe no Harper Lee or Tolkien, but perhaps at least as engaging and well-written as Stephen King (or maybe Jay Asher). I like my books.

Whether they ever lead to a career or not isn’t necessarily what I care about; I didn’t set out to write a best-seller. If I had, I would have written a by-the-numbers thriller or romance novel, and sold it to the first publisher wanting to tack it on to the countless thousands of other books out there exactly like it. No; I’m much happier having written a complex, character-driven young adult novel, or dark, unpredictable fantasy stories, knowing that I’m personally pleased with how they turned out.

If, in some years, someone discovers these books and makes me an offer I can’t refuse, well then that’l be the icing on the cake. Until then, I’ll keep writing, because the satisfaction of finishing a story is in itself a success. The fact that there are people in the world who I know have been touched by my work is all the nicer.

Talent doesn’t equal success, but then again, success doesn’t require talent.

Best to put talent to good use.