“Talent is B.S.”

The following passage comes from The KnowledgeThe speaker is a version of myself, when I was driving a cab in New York City and struggling to learn the writing craft.

I have a literary agent. His name is Martin Fabrikant. Marty is ninety-six years old. That’s not a typo. Marty is Dutch. He speaks with an accent. He’s about four-foot-ten and likes to joke that he used to be six-four…

Marty is a death camp survivor. He’s got the tattoo. He never speaks about the experience directly (I only know through my friend Pablo, who originally introduced me to Marty) but he’ll make remarks from time to time whose gist is, “Appreciate life. Never complain. Work hard and do your best.”

Marty has one other mantra: “Talent is bullshit.”

“I’ve seen a million writers with talent. It means nothing. You need guts, you need stick-to-it-iveness. It’s work, you gotta work, do the freaking work. That’s why you’re gonna make it, son. You work. No one can take that away from you.

“And I’ll tell you something else,” Marty says to me now over the phone. “Appreciate these days. These days when you’re broke and struggling, they’re the best days of your life. You’re gonna break through, my boy. And when you do, you’ll look back on this time and think this is when I was really an artist, when everything was pure and I had nothing but the dream and the work. Enjoy it now. Pay attention. These are the good days. Be grateful for them.”

I really did have an agent who really was (or seemed to me at the time) ninety-six. He was actually in his seventies. His name was Barthold Fles. He represented Kurt Weill, Anaïs Nin, and even Carl Jung. Know what he said about talent? 

 The exact same thing Marty said.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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"PUT YOUR ASS WHERE YOUR HEART WANTS TO BE"

Available for pre-order in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

48 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on July 27, 2022 at 4:11 am

    Good one today. It makes me think of this quote from Stephen King:

    “Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force.”

    • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 7:20 am

      Love it. A dull knife in the hands of a dullard. It is surprisingly refreshing to see oneself more as a mule than a king. When working next to the JOC in Afghanistan, I heard one Major refer to staff work as, “get in, shut up, and row.” Similar to me.
      bsn

    • Joe on July 27, 2022 at 8:28 am

      Liz Gilbert on mules:

      “I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.”

      and

      “Work like a monk, or a mule, or some other representative metaphor for diligence. Love the work. Destiny will do what it wants with you, regardless.”

  2. Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 4:21 am

    Steve, you have made my day. My husband often says that I’m stubborn. I tell him that my mom is stubborn and my dad is ultra stubborn, but what I have is stick-to-it-iveness. I can change thoughts, opinions, etc. but will stick to a project to reach the end goal or beyond. That’s not stubborn. That’s stick-to-it-iveness. He said, “Stick-to-it-iveness isn’t even a word.” Ha! It sure is. I now have proof. Thanks.

  3. Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 7:16 am

    In high school we had a program called “GATE”, gifted and talented education. The grading system was 1-5 instead of 1-4. An ‘A’ was 5, ‘B’ 4…we thought we were pretty special. My bestie and I took this hubris even one step further.

    Our motto became, ‘We will do nothing and get the same grade or half a grade lower than our classmates who worked so hard.’

    A day an assignment was due we’d rush to the library and pound it out during the lunch hour–or if it was the last day any assignments could be turned in–we’d skip all other classes to do all the English assignments at one time. We thought we were so clever.

    In hindsight I realize that an education or learning something was never the object, it was only the grade. It was another badge for an academic letterman’s jacket. It was status. It was hierarchy (War of Art again…).

    Embarrassing to admit to this. I think this is what Homer might have meant with, “…to destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted sun!” Christ’s parable about burying talents in Matthew 25:14-30 touches the same theme. When I first read that Bible verse, with an open mind about 2-3 year ago, it hit me like a sledge hammer.

    I had a crazy ‘Steve Pressfield’ kinda dream about 3 weeks ago. Went home. It was powerful. Relived some traumatic events, and took actions I was unable to do as a child. Snapped awake gasping–and was wide awake for 2.5 hours – remembering every single detail of the dream. It was a processing experience.

    Had some profound insights into ‘gifts or talents’. While certainly not poverty stricken, none of the things I have tried (businesses, programs, etc) have ever really gotten traction or grew into their potential. I knew that night it was because of my intent and azimuth. Everything has been corrupted with vanity, greed, hubris, lusts of one kind or another…

    The talents, gifts, blessings I (maybe everyone..) have been given are not ‘MINE’, but they are an onus. Only when properly aligned for the highest, best use are they fully actualized with meaning (the true rewards)–one might say ‘Glory of God’–‘service of mankind’–or what Krishna said about fruits of labor–all of this came crashing into my head as I came to terms with my past.

    Talent is BS. Especially when wasted on vanity or for material, base reasons. Talent however, when sweated out drop by drop in the service of noble aims however–I think that is where reservoirs of inexhaustible energy and meaning lie. Sure has taken me a minute to get just a toe-hold of understanding about this. Better late than never.
    bsn

    • Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 10:47 am

      great response, Brian. Guys like you drove me crazy in school. I was one of those slaving for the grade, not because it was hard but because I couldn’t not get the A. Started to learn that the A wasn’t important to me as much as everyone else, so stopped for a while and got Ds. Then I started learning what I wanted to learn for myself and got As again, with less effort and a lot less stress (though some of my teachers thought I was very weird with the stuff I’d come up with). Glad you are learning for yourself now. Loved these lines:

      “Only when properly aligned for the highest, best use are they fully actualized with meaning”

      “Talent is BS. Especially when wasted on vanity or for material, base reasons. Talent however, when sweated out drop by drop in the service of noble aims however–I think that is where reservoirs of inexhaustible energy and meaning lie.”
      .

      • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 1:15 pm

        Lin,
        In hindsight I’d like to go back and kick my own ass…arrogant little bastard!
        Thanks for the kind words/thoughts. It is obvious you’ve found your stride as well—and I think that more than anything—is the true reward.
        bsn

        • Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 3:49 pm

          Thanks, Brian. I had my arrogant moments too–shudder to think about them now, but they are good lessons.

  4. Joe on July 27, 2022 at 9:11 am

    I guess I should say that I disagree with “talent is BS” as a standalone statement. It’s a good hook, but true only within the context of the bigger idea.

    “A Ferrari is not fast.” That is a true statement — when you walk up to the thing parked at the curb. It’s just sitting there. Clearly “not fast.” It’s only when fire and intention and a destination are added that that Ferrari becomes what it’s meant to be.

    The statement “Talent is BS” is true as a whack from a sensei’s stick. Look, *of course* talent is important. A Chevy Cavalier is never going to reach 211 mph like a Ferrari Enzo. But the person who gazes lovingly at their selfies, praises themselves for their own genius, and waits around for someone to tap them on the shoulder… that’s as worthless as a Ferrari with no gas, no driver, and no road.

    • Michael Beverly on July 27, 2022 at 10:32 am

      Steve is appealing to the masses here. “Yes you can make it if you just work hard.” But, no, I don’ t care how hard you work, if you’re short, you’re not becoming an NBA center. Or even making the NBA with extremely rare exception (Spudd Webb is one in a billion). The formula for success is a mixture of talent, work, and luck. Luck can be of various types, genetics, family or social ties, mentors, accident of birth — why is the best way to become a baseball player in the Major Leagues to be born to a father who played in the Major Leagues? Of course, these sons work hard to make the Yankees — but thousand of others worked just as hard and we’ll never know their names. There is something to think about: you can develop talent by working. But it’s still talent at the end of the day.

      • Michael Beverly on July 27, 2022 at 10:57 am

        Writing is in a special catagory, I belive. In nearly all other endevors where the work/talent thing comes into question: sports, music, art, acting, as the main examples, those that get in their 10,000 hours as a child have an advantage that’s almost impossible to overcome.
        Tiger Woods might have still become a professional golfer if he started later in life instead of at 3 years old, but he wouldn’t have been the greatest in history. Mozart, Beethoven, and Michael Jackson were who they were due to parental (for better or worse) guidance. This dynmic is seen all over the place and is undeniable — however, for writing, there’s a weird difference as there’s not a physical component (sure it helps to type well, but it’s not like playing the piano or throwing a football).
        Since many writers (maybe all good ones) were readers at a young age, story telling skills were being built then, so it’s possible to pick up a writing career and be successful later in life via hard work. Latent talent, of course, helps. For a singing career, or being a tennis star, or football, or anything that requires a physical component, if you didn’t start young, the odds are extremely against you being a pro, much less a star at it. Because talent matters. I’d be interested to know if there is any working-for-a-living writer who didn’t read a lot as a kid, I kind of doubt it…
        I started my writing career after giving up a career as an oil painter. I realized that since I started painting at 30 years old, instead of 13 or better, 4 or 5, I was never going to be a star. Granted, I probably still could have achieved a professional status, maybe, with decades of hard work, but writing is so much more scalable and offers a lot more potential to earn.
        I finally got out my first novel at 50…still believe I have a chance to make a career now, I’m on novel number ten (and getting paid–something that ultimately matters, imho) so there’s light at the end of the tunnel — and sure, hard work is essential, but talent is important too (maybe learned talent, by studying and so forth) but it matters. I’ve seen a ton of people work hard and not make it (their work falls into the “nobody wants to read your sh*t” category because they’ve mistaken writing a lot of words as building talent and they’re not the same thing.

        • Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 11:20 am

          I don’t think that’s entirely true, Michael. I was a very dedicated pianist from the age of 6. By the time I was 12, I was practicing 3 to 4 hours a day. No matter how hard I practiced, I could never get beyond a certain level and eventually realized that I didn’t have the talent (or the temperament–another story) to be a professional pianist and, in fact, realized that wasn’t where my true talents (for lack of a better word, lay. Like you, I found another medium and have had a good run of outer world success. I’m now moving into another medium–scary as hell!!-and not thinking about outer world success, only about writing what I need to say.

          If you watch professional sports–I follow tennis–you will see many people with great dedication but the talents are varied. If your muse calls you to paint, don’t worry about being a “star”, that’s not where your focus should be. True, getting paid is some measure of success–and congratulations on getting published!–but if your heart, muse, whatever you call it, calls you to do something in another medium, you should honor that too.

        • Joe on July 27, 2022 at 11:21 am

          Good thoughts, Michael. I don’t know how many country singers have in their bios something to the effect of: “Lucy got her start while in elementary school, singing in the church choir and at county fairs in central and west Texas.”

        • robyn weinbaum on August 4, 2022 at 6:30 am

          amen, brother. the lack of socioeconomics inherent in the ‘talent is BS’ statement is frightening. yes, talent without work, training, skill, and LUCK, will not get you to the finish line. But Talent with ONLY work won’t get you there either. Hard work with only a smidge of talent, if you are in the right place at the right time. will win you accolades, awards, and money.
          I see it in the workplace, in politics, in the writing awards ceremonies, all the time.
          but then, i’m a trained sociologist and a socialist, so i will see it.
          i highly recommend reading Freakonomics and Dubner and Levitt’s column in the NYT.

    • Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 10:41 am

      Lovely metaphor, Joe!

    • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 11:22 am

      Joe, I love that last line!

      • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 11:24 am

        As worthless as a Ferrari with no gas, no driver, and no road…lol, so true.

    • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 1:16 pm

      Joe,
      Brilliant. As always. Ferrari with no gas…perfect metaphor.
      bsn

  5. Bing on July 27, 2022 at 9:22 am

    Love it Steve. It also sounds like something all the great stoic’s would say.
    Definition of a stoic: A person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. I also love that Marty is ninety-six years old. Go Marty.

  6. Maureen Anderson on July 27, 2022 at 9:25 am

    My elementary school grouped students by IQ. I was in the top group, but even as a kid I wondered what it would be like to be marked otherwise for life.

    Labels limit, even the supposedly good ones. They give you something to defend, to borrow from Mindset author Carol Dweck.

    Hard work carries none of that baggage.

    • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 10:18 am

      Somewhat along those lines, Maureen, I worked with a young man who was always saying, “In my dissertation… or when I was in grad school…” There was no doubt of the man’s intelligence. But I also worked with two women with high school diplomas and who were twenty years the man’s senior. My two colleagues accomplished more in one six hour shift than the man did in a week’s worth of six hour shifts. It makes you think about labels, limits, and old fashioned, hard work.

    • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 1:19 pm

      Maureen,
      Your post showed remarkable mindfulness at a young age. Reminds me of a Richard Bach quote (Illusions I think), “Argue for your limitations and they are yours.” Substitute labels, identities, scars…all the same.
      bsn

      • Maureen Anderson on July 27, 2022 at 2:10 pm

        Thanks, Jackie and Brian.

        I get proof of the scars from the not-Group-1 contingent every time we gather for a reunion. At our 30th — when it was time for the big photo — someone hollered, “Group 1s in back!”

  7. Anne Marie on July 27, 2022 at 9:38 am

    At an early age I used to put so much stock in being “gifted and talented”, and when your grades do not match up with the caliber of humans that are deemed “gifted and talented”, and therefore are not granted the opportunities to explore these gifts even further in school because you’re not as “smart”, it leaves a mark. For a very long time I thought I had neither gift nor talent to be remarkable at anything. Good God so much time wasted believing that. I didn’t think hard work could create it, I didn’t think aspiring or believing in myself could be the answer. I thought you either had or you didn’t, and at an early age it was reinforced, through school and my average grades, that I didn’t have it. I was indeed average.
    Thank god I’ve come out of that haze! Talent is helpful, but it’s not the answer. Skills can be learned, and honed, and worked on, and belief in your abilities is power. We’re all unique, we all possess gifts, and it’s our job to share those gifts as best we can! Work hard and do your best. And when you know better, you do better. You learn more, you practice, you acquire skills, you grow. And always, what makes your heart sing is worth following, even if you’re not the best at it, even if you start off as average!

    • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 10:06 am

      Well said, Anne Marie, well said.

      • Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 10:51 am

        I agree. And as you said Anne Marie, what makes your heart sing, that’s what success really is.

    • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 3:30 pm

      Anne Marie/Jackie/Lin,
      Your posts made me ‘gulp’. Powerful. Effort is so much more attractive than results. Rocky lost to Apollo Creed—but who cares as we leap from our seats crying and applauding?

      It is the display of the heroic virtues that stir the soul.
      bsn

      • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 4:15 pm

        Brian, since we seem to be ointo a bit of high school nostaligia, I played volley ball. As a freshman, i played varsity. Coach said I was not the bet player (I knew that), but I showed the most heart and gave all. So I played.

        • Jackie on July 27, 2022 at 4:16 pm

          Sorry for all the typos. Long day.

          • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 4:49 pm

            Jackie,
            Varsity as a freshman is IMPRESSIVE! Hustle. Love the hustle…Pete Rose needs to be forgiven and in Hall of Fame…
            bsn



  8. Tom Vandel on July 27, 2022 at 9:43 am

    I always, deep down, thought I had talent. Now I realize I’m full of shit. Need to work harder.

    • Brian Nelson on July 27, 2022 at 10:19 am

      Tom,
      Brilliant, concise, and on target.
      bsn

    • Brenda Hopkins on July 27, 2022 at 4:29 pm

      Tom, your short comment triggered me to click on reply as it made me laugh. And soon after I realized that that is what I was secretly wanting to believe in – that I have talent for writing. But there is another side to this – I also secretly didn’t believe in me being able to write the book that my Soul has been wanting to write and express in a book form.
      Yes – now I agree with Steven saying that hard work and not giving up is the key to achieving realistically what our Heart/Soul wants to fulfill … and never mind talent.

  9. Derek on July 27, 2022 at 9:48 am

    To me it’s fun and of course I’d rather play all day everyday than work.

  10. Nick Sherman on July 27, 2022 at 10:08 am

    “Nobody cares. Work Harder” 🔨🔨🔨

  11. Sam Luna on July 27, 2022 at 10:24 am

    When I was a kid and it was clear I wasn’t destined to be starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys my Dad would say “just promise me you won’t be a coffee shop artist, son.” Meaning: use your talent and do the work, don’t just sit around and talk about doing the work.

  12. Doug on July 27, 2022 at 10:34 am

    I’ve told my MBA students for what seems like centuries, “There’s nothing more advanced that the basics. Now get doing them.”

  13. Carl Blackburn on July 27, 2022 at 10:37 am

    Hard Work X Time X Whatever You Got = Talent

  14. Kate Stanton on July 27, 2022 at 11:15 am

    “Appreciate these days. These days when you’re broke and struggling, they’re the best days of your life. You’re gonna break through, my boy. And when you do, you’ll look back on this time and think this is when I was really an artist, when everything was pure and I had nothing but the dream and the work. Enjoy it now. Pay attention. These are the good days. Be grateful for them.”

    So many great comments today.

    Nobody cares until they see your results! BACK TO WORK, KATE!! Have a beautiful week, all.

  15. Lin Keeling on July 27, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    Just ran across this quote from Georgia O’Keeffe:
    “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing–and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”

    • Nom de Plume on July 29, 2022 at 1:33 pm

      Not a direct connection, but that quote reminds me of something else. It relates to what Sensei has referred to here about the mystery of creation, and has Alexander state in the Virtues of War: “I believe in the Unmanifest, the Yet To Be. Great commanders do not temper their measures to What Is; they bring forth What May Be.”

      I just found a quote from Alexander Graham Bell which touches on the same idea: “The inventor is a man who looks around the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve what he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization.”

  16. Amy on July 27, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    WOW – This created a lot of chatter! Talent is important but wastes away if one does not hone it or use it. I LOVE the quote on persistence by Calvin Coolidge my father gave me when I was a teen along with Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena. Alas, nothing like being a daughter of a Marine.

    No excuses!

    “Press on! Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

  17. Maureen Anderson on July 27, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    I wonder what it would be like to be Steve, throwing out the latest and seeing what happens!

  18. Jon X on July 28, 2022 at 5:44 am

    I love Steve, and I truly do love these blogs. I just always feel like there’s some part of the story that’s missing. How does a struggling taxi driver have a literary agent? Were things really that different then? I’ve read “War of Art” and “Turning Pro” and there are these little record skips in the story where Steve will suddenly talk about his writing partner, or his literary agent, or retreating to a cabin that’s just down the road from writer Paul Rink, and I just want to ask “How??” I’m a published writer with dozens of stories to my name — published in places you’ve heard of! — and I can’t get an agent to save my life. I hope this doesn’t come off as all sour grapes, but I read stories like this and it feels like I’m living on another planet. Sorry for the venting!

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  21. Kelly on August 2, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    Wow, short but inspire. The work reveals our skill.

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