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Is Talent Subjective
May 14, 2022
Is talent subjective? How can you measure something like talent? It’s a tricky question, and it can be especially challenging in the business world. Employers want talented employees, but how exactly are they supposed to go about evaluating that? If talent is something objective, there should be clear, easy ways to measure a person’s talent.
Since there aren’t, a lot of people assume that talent must be subjective, and therefore it can’t be all that valuable. But is that true? Let’s find out!
Is Talent Subjective: Why does it matter?
People are evaluated by their talents. Let’s say you have a talent for bookkeeping. If you’re working as a bookkeeper, that talent is a critical part of your job performance, and it will be a factor in whether or not you get promotions, pay raises, etc.
If you’re applying for a job, your level of talent might be the deciding factor between you and another candidate. So how can you demonstrate how talented you are if talent is subjective?
Talent vs skill
One important distinction needs to be made, because there’s a lot of confusion on this point. Inevitably, when people debate whether talent is subjective or objective, they’ll confuse talent with skill.
You’ll encounter people saying things like “talent is subjective because it depends on how much time you put into learning a talent.” But that’s really a misunderstanding of the words “talent,” “skill,” and “subjective.”
We’ll deal with subjective vs objective in the next segment. For now, let’s focus on talent vs skill. A talent is something innate. It’s a natural ability that you have. A talent can be developed, refined, and improved, but it can’t be learned.
A skill can be learned. Most skills are learned. Your talents can contribute to your skills, but they are not one and the same. Some students in school have a natural talent for some things. They’re just better at reading or math than the other students, and they can excel in those subjects without putting in much effort.
It’s true in sports, too. Some athletes have an incredible degree of natural talent, and their sport just seems to come naturally to them. They can excel at basketball or football or baseball without having to put much effort into it.
Which is better?
Many people assume that talent is better. After all, you’d rather have an innate ability to be good at something without having to try very hard, right? But don’t assume that talent is always better than skill.
The students or athletes who rely on their natural talent aren’t necessarily going to have a better career than the ones who have to work harder on developing their skills. That’s because talents have limits. A person who gets used to relying on their talents without putting in much effort is going to have a poor work ethic.
Sports fans have all seen this happen. Your favorite team drafts a freakishly good athlete. They have an unbelievable level of talent. They’ve always succeeded effortlessly. But then they get to the pros and they fail hard. They can’t keep up. For the first time they’re up against people who can match their abilities, and they don’t know what to do.
The same is true in any field. Some talented people recognize that their talents have limits and they need to develop additional skills to improve their talents. Others rely far too much on their talents and never learn how to improve themselves.
Subjective vs objective
If something is objective, it’s quality is evident to everyone. It’s not subject to individual tastes and preferences. It just is. The sky is blue- you may not like it. You might prefer a purple sky. Maybe blue is your least favorite color. That doesn’t matter- the sky’s still blue.
Subjectively, you don’t like blue. That’s a personal preference. It can affect the choice of clothes you buy, and what color you paint your house. But the sky is objectively blue, and it doesn’t matter what you think.
So, which of these describes talent? Is talent subjective, or objective?
Is Talent Subjective: No
There are lots of good reasons to say that talent is objective. There are plenty of cases where a person’s talent is clear and obvious, and it doesn’t matter what you think.
Tom Brady is a good example. His talent is undeniable. You may not like him- and plenty of people don’t- but you can’t say he’s not talented. Even if you don’t like or understand football, his talent is evident.
Now, it’s well known that he works extremely hard. His work ethic is second-to-none, so, isn’t this actually a case of skills, not talent? Well, it’s not that simple. Skills can be learned by anybody. So, surely, any quarterback who can match Tom Brady’s work ethic would be every bit as good a quarterback as he is.
But there hasn’t been a single quarterback in the last 20 years who’s even close to that good. So, either all of those guys were lazy and never worked as hard, or he’s got an innate talent that they don’t have.
We know that a lot of those quarterbacks had the same incredible work ethic that Tom Brady does. In fact, that work ethic is pretty common among professional athletes- you just can’t succeed at that level otherwise. So if his (or any other NFL player’s) abilities are purely a matter of skill, then there would have been other athletes just as good.
The fact that there haven’t been any others as good as him tells us that it’s not just a matter of skill. Sure, skill matters and work ethic matters. Clearly, he was never content to rely on his innate talent and not put in the work. But equally clearly, he has a lot of talent. And that’s true whether you like him or not. It’s true whether you like football or not. It’s true whether you understand football or not. And it’s true even if you wish it wasn’t true.
That means his talent is an objective fact. It can’t be denied. But that actually gives us another problem- how can something be objective if you can’t measure it?
Objectivity- does it have to be measurable?
Usually, when something is objective, it can be quantified and measured. That’s one of the most reliable means of determining if something is objective or subjective, in fact. But it’s hard to quantify talent.
That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. To return to our football example, this is exactly what NFL scouts are paid to do: quantify and measure an athlete’s talent. And, every fan knows that they have mixed results. Ironically, it seems that accurately evaluating talent is, itself, a talent.
Just because something can’t be accurately measured or quantified doesn’t mean that it’s not objective. That’s a common misconception, but there are some things that are objectively true even if we can’t necessarily measure it with precision.
These are things that can’t be quantified, but that are obviously true regardless of perspective. “I am an American” is an objectively true statement, but you can’t measure how American a person is. That doesn’t make it a subjective truth, though.
So, that’s it then, right? Talent is objective, end of discussion. Or is it?
Is Talent Subjective: Yes
Imagine that you’re listening to music with a friend. You love what you’re hearing- it’s the best song you’ve ever heard, and you’re marveling at how talented the singer is. When you comment on this to your friend, they’re shocked. They think this song is terrible, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to them. They’re amazed by how untalented the singer is!
What gives? It seems pretty clear from what we’ve already said that talent is objective. You can acknowledge and recognize talent even if it’s a talent you don’t find impressive, so how can it be subjective?
But we routinely disagree on whether or not some people are talented. Musicians and actors are great examples. We all have our favorites and the ones we think are incredibly talented, but there are plenty of people out there who’ll disagree with us. And it’s not just that they don’t like tha musician, it’s that they don’t think they have musical talent.
You might on occasion hear a musician whose music you don’t like, but who’s talent you can still recognize. Maybe they just play a style of music that you don’t prefer, but you can still tell that they’re playing it well. But you’ve also undoubtedly heard a singer or seen an actor you genuinely felt had no talent, and whom others think is magnificently talented.
So is talent subjective? In this case, yeah, it seems that way. But it’s not just a matter of whether someone has talent or not, it’s a matter of degree.
Talent: how much do they have?
Let’s stick with musicians for a minute. Even if we can all agree that a musician is talented, we can still have huge disagreements about just how talented they are compared to other musicians.
Think about Taylor Swift. She has a huge following of fans, and she’s wildly popular. Of course, not everybody likes her music. But even the people who don’t like her style of music can recognize that she’s got musical talent. But how much does she have? Is she more or less talented than, say, Adele?
Plenty of people would say that Adele is a far more talented singer than Taylor Swift. But…how do you measure that? How do you even determine that?
Admittedly, there are some objective measurements in music. You can measure the accuracy of their pitch, the volume of their voice, etc, but that’s not really sufficient for evaluating talent.
In the end, when you are comparing these two singers, your opinion of which one is more talented is just that- your opinion. It’s subjective. You think Adele is more talented, your friend thinks Taylor Swift is more talented. There’s no way to determine which of you is right. That means talent is subjective.
So, is talent subjective? Well, it sounds like it. But it also sounds like it’s objective.
Is Talent Subjective: Can it be both?
There are really strong, convincing arguments for both sides. And yes, it seems possible that talent can be both objective and subjective. We’ve already gone into these arguments in detail, and both of them seem pretty compelling.
This is probably a bit of a simplification, but in general, the existence of talent is objective. The degree or quality of talent is subjective. Those aren’t hard and fast rules. We’ve already pointed out that there are times when people don’t just disagree on the degree of an artist’s talent, but on whether or not they have talent at all.
But in general, that’s a good rule of thumb. The existence of talent is usually objective, while the degree or quality of talent is usually subjective.
Is Talent Subjective: It depends on how you measure success
A better way of understanding this is that the answer depends on how you measure success. Let’s go back to sports and music to explain what we mean.
Tom Brady’s talent is an objective truth. It would be hard to quantify his talent, but because his talent has objective measurables, it’s objectively recognizable. Here’s what we mean: anybody can tell what success looks like for an NFL quarterback.
It involves throwing the ball accurately, leading the offense well, scoring touchdowns, winning games, winning Super Bowls, and not throwing interceptions. Tom Brady does those things better than anyone else, so his talent is clear and obvious.
Music is a bit different. You can measure success in terms of album sales, concert attendances, and overall popularity, but that’s actually still subjective. It’s all subject to what people like, which is subjective.
If you’re comparing two popular singers and asking which one is more talented, you’re never going to get a unanimous answer. Each person’s answer is going to depend on their personal musical preferences.
Talent is objective in cases where the measurement for success is objective. And talent is subjective when the measurement for success is subjective. So the answer to is talent subjective really depends on what kind of talent we’re talking about. Sometimes talent is subjective, and sometimes it’s objective.
Is Talent Subjective: What Should I Do?
So, let’s say you’re trying to evaluate talents. Whether it’s your own talent or the talents of your employees or applicants, you can’t evaluate talents until you first figure out what it is you want to achieve.
Are you trying to become a better guitar player? That’s great, but any evaluation of your talent is subjective. You can still see how you’ve improved as a guitar player, and you can determine if you think you’re more talented than someone else, but others may disagree and you won’t really be able to prove them wrong.
Are you trying to hire the most talented bookkeeper for your company? You’ll probably be able to make objective evaluations there. It can be determined by how quickly they can do their work, how many mistakes they make or don’t make, etc. There are clear, objective measurements of the quality of their work that let you assess their talent objectively.
Is talent subjective? Yes and now. Talent can be both subjective and objective, depending on the situation. It can also be a mix of both. In some situations you can determine objectively whether or not talent exists. In other situations, it’s all a matter of personal preference.
In most cases, the existence or not of talent is objective. Anybody can recognize that there is talent there, no matter their personal preference. But the degree or quality of that talent is subjective. We might all agree that a musician is talented, but disagree on how talented they are.