Talent v. Opportunity: The Truth We Already Know
By Daryl McSweeney
I want to be a good writer. I want to be a successful comedian. I want to live off of only doing creative things.
We all dream of better things. Some of us even want things that make others question our sense of “reality.” “That’s not a job!” they shout at you in your mind when you dare to say that you want to be a comedian. “You’ll see!” you imagine saying as you edit your creative resume for the seventh time that day.
The thing that we all know, in our heart of hearts, is that being good at something and working hard at it is not enough. No matter how good you are, no matter how much you want that dreaded floating concept of success and acceptance, there are gatekeepers to judge you and deem whether you are worthy of joining such brotherhoods of fame and happiness and fulfillment.
This isn’t anyone’s fault by the way. I mean, a good writer should recognize a good writer, right? A good musician should recognize good music. Game recognizes game. We all just want a system where the thing that defines whether we are “good enough” is based on our abilities.
Unfortunately, our system is based on more than quality, it’s also based on a hundred factors of marketing, gender, race, bias, luck, money, image, mindworms, visual framing, storytelling, and good ol’ competition! But really it's all about opportunity.
And opportunity is a moving target. It dashes and strafes and feints, only showing up in the corner of your eye. It’s a fly, buzzing in your ear, screaming at you to catch it but shooting off to the ceiling when you try to reach out and get it. Still, if you have all the time in the world, people to support your every other need and whim, the goal seems less insurmountable.
Part of why I’m such a Stephen King fanboy is because the guy writes like an addict. He’s a self-admitted addict actually. He stopped doing drugs after an intervention and focused all of that energy into writing. King has said in interviews that he writes every day, no matter what, and he publishes a novel annually. Dude even got into a car accident and responded to the trauma by finishing the memoir he was already working on, then writing another book called “Lisey’s Story,” promising he was quitting writing, then getting back into writing a couple years later.
So basically if you want to write like Stephen King, be an addict but don’t drink, write. Arguably, the guy earned his critical fame by writing so much that eventually someone bought one of his short stories, took a try on Carrie, and his fame took off from there. “Take that Daryl! The system works!”
But that’s one guy with a special, weird thing that fit perfectly with his circumstances. (Some would say... lucky? Keep up.) What if you have trouble finding the motivation or inspiration to write, or what if you write as much as you can but struggle to find the time?
Well you can be like J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of Lord of the Rings and generally agreed father of all modern fantasy writing… if you have a wife and servants to take care of your every whim while you dream of hobbits and imagine fictional histories.
Or how about Henry David Thoreau, one of the most renowned geniuses of this century? Well, do you have a mother who will cook and clean for you while you sit in the forest and wonder about transcendentalism?
I know, I know, old rich white guys, they had a lot of resources and privilege, big surprise! Well sorry to say, it goes further than that. Sometimes it’s not about having money or support systems in place while you pursue higher goals. Sometimes you have people who will actually put fly paper all over the walls to help you catch the opportunity bug.
When Taylor Swift wanted to pursue songwriting, her parents moved to Nashville, Tennessee, the capital of country music, and hired a team of experienced songwriters to work with her every week. My parents once bought me an AP style manual for Christmas.
Cara Delevingne was “discovered” and started her modeling career when she was 10 if you look at her bio. She also has a godfather in the modeling industry and her grandmother is Dame Joan Collins. My mom had a co-worker who met Chris O'Donnell.
Drake (no! Not Drake!) went to an affluent Canadian middle school (admittedly only part-time) where he was able to make friends with a kid whose dad was a casting agent. That casting agent got him into a little show called Degrassi. A few years later Drake released a mix-tape and left out that part of his life story. I don't like to mention my brief time in the Pen Club.
Now this is not to say that these people are not good or underserving of praise. Taylor Swift is a good songwriter (or at least a catchy one), Cara Delevingne was clearly invented in a lab by God to be a model, and Drake is Drake. My point is just that these people were not alone, they had people helping them, believing in them, supporting them, even giving them shots at greatness that any of us would sell an uncle or two to get at.
None of this is stuff that we don’t already know of course, but no one ever talks about it! We all as a group need to acknowledge, out loud, that this stuff is not based on our skills or our talent, it’s based predominantly on pure dumb luck. You’re probably a better writer than you think, your music is just as good or better than anything on the radio, and I’m funny goddammit! (Second City, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, let's talk)
Yet you can understand why famous writers or other celebrities don’t want to admit this to themselves. Imagine if you achieved your dream, had a hit record, movie, novel, whatever, and then some asshole on the internet came up to you and said “You were just lucky! A bunch of people could do what you do, you FRAUD!”
Our brains want to accept that our success is due only to us, no luck involved, and that's human. Yet our brains can't even accept that other people's success, weirdly enough, might be due to luck, no, no, it must be that they are amazing gods of ability. Isn't that weird? Wouldn't it be more comforting to think that we are great and everyone else is lucky, instead of thinking we are not good enough and everyone else is deserving and we need to work harder you piece of shit. No, because that would mean the world is chaotic and random rather than just and fair and sensible, and that rabbithole can be even scarier.
Here's a personal anecdote I've noticed, and this applies to employment in general rather than just creative things. Success breeds success. When someone nails one audition for a big opportunity, everyone starts handing them more opportunities (my fly metaphor starts falling apart a bit here) and you can see the logic. "Oh, that accredited organization believes in you, so you must be worthwhile, therefore I too will believe in and give you more opportunities."
Get your foot in the door, it's more true than you would think. But rather than a door, we should think of it more as a hydraulic press, and getting your foot in there will go very, very badly unless you're very, very lucky.
Some people will read this and think I'm a bitter hack (which remains to be seen!) but I think more people will understand what I'm trying to say. People need to imprint this message into their hearts: success in creative fields are always in part luck. We need to look at the worth of our works as being defined by more than success or the acclaim of others. Pitting our dreams on anything having to do with our intrinsic worth is non-productive and it hurts (crush your foot in a fifty-ton press hurt) so let’s give ourselves a break.
Or alternatively, wait until the day we snap and start screaming at a bank teller and then get cast in a movie. But we can't all be as lucky as Charlize Theron
Reading this helped me think of this article:
And if you hate reading, just watch this because Bo Burnham makes my point more succinctly: