On Talent, or Embracing the Flow

May 19, 2009

There is a belief out there that you've gotta have maximum talent to make it to the top. Hogwash. What you really need is the flow. What is talent, and how does one determine who has how much of it?  Talent, in my view, exists as a suggestion, a shady suspicion that vocation and avocation are in some kind of cosmic alignment. We've all been blown away at one time or another by examples of what we might call talent, and usually when this happens we say, "Oooh, did you hear/see/read that? What a talented musician/dancer/actor/writer!" There’s that ol' Talent lurking around in the shadows of our experience. So we can experience talent, but we can't grasp it exactly and we can't exactly diagnose how much of it anyone has. In my humble opinion, the most successful people are those who continually and with complete intention allow themselves to tap into that great wave of energy psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "the flow."  In my view, the flow is the life force of all creative enterprise, and the mother’s milk of talent. Though talent, in my view, cannot be killed, it can certainly be blocked when one decides not to trust that the flow knows better than the cerebral cortex what one can achieve.  When one releases into the flow, one is in "the zone" and one's talent is in full bloom.  When one tries to rein in the flow, one gets creatively blocked and one's talent withers on the vine.  The flow is a lady: once she knows you distrust her, she won't appear again until you invite her back. I came across a recording of some of Monteverdi's music by the early music ensemble L'Arpeggiata. Certainly the performers and their leader, theorbist Christina Pluhar, have talent (whatever that really is), but listen to the freedom, the laissez faire quality of this performance on their 2009 recording Teatro d’amore.  Can you feel the flow?

I've had a number of experiences performing and writing in the flow.  They all felt like very pleasant out-of-body experiences, as though some great, great mind is working through my modest self.  I've also had experiences in which my deep distrust—fear, really—of the flow and where it might lead me has led to utter heartache and despair. Which is why I now try to live in the flow at all times.  So that thing we call talent—sure, it's out there.  There's no other explanation for why I’ll never be a mathematician, and why Michael Jordan wasn't exactly a hit in pro baseball.  But in the end, we can't know how talented anyone is, and I'm not sure it really matters. What we can know by feeling—and this is what, I believe, we experience when we think we're experiencing talent—is how well one goes with the flow.