The concept of talent is very attractive, particularly in a field like music. Whether it be Mozart, Taylor Swift, or the five year old piano player with a million hits on Youtube, people often presume that outstanding musicians possess some natural ability that allows them to do things other people can't.
With this concept in mind, we are often quick to praise young musicians for their "talent" if they are learning quickly and exceeding at an early age. This, however, is a critical error that we must all try to avoid.
Here are three reasons you should never compliment a child for their "talent."
1. You can't prove it.
Was Beethoven a talented composer? Maybe - but there is no concrete evidence to support such a claim. You cannot look at Beethoven's genes and clearly identify where his "talent" came from. Therefore, if we are to review this topic objectively on a foundation of cold-hard facts, we cannot assume Beethoven to be talented.
However, we do know that Beethoven spent a ton of time with music - tens of thousands of hours over the course of his lifetime. That is something we have evidence for. Interestingly, this correlates with the behavior patterns of other great composers like Mozart, as well as great modern musicians, such as Joshua Bell. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assert, with concrete evidence, that these musicians became excellent as a result of their hard work and dedication.
This does not forbid the prospect of talent existing. I am not saying it doesn't exist. I am simply saying that you cannot prove it, and as a rule of thumb, it is usually best to not say things you cannot prove. Meanwhile, there is a mountain of evidence (check out my book list page) that talent is one relatively unimportant factor among several more important factors in achieving success.
2. "Pro-talent" prodigies often fail down the road.
Say you know a child who made All-State as a freshman. This is an impressive feat, and it is exactly the kind of situation where a parent or teacher may feel inclined to compliment the student for their talent. However, by doing this, the implication is, "Winners are just naturally better than everyone else. Success is not something everyone can control for themselves."
The harmful effects of this thinking are limited as long as the child keeps excelling and winning auditions. However, at some point, the child will face a great failure; perhaps multiple failures in a row.
In the face of these failures, many such children struggle to find success again, because they have spent their entire life being conditioned to think that talent is responsible for success. Therefore, when they lose, they think they lack the "talent" necessary to succeed at this higher level of competition.
If, however, a child is conditioned to believe that their preparation was responsible for their past success, then the child will naturally assume the people who beat them prepared differently. Preparation, unlike talent, is something within a person's control, and as a result, he/she will likely take the intelligent and proactive approach of looking for ways to improve their preparation process for the next audition.
3. Talent cannot explain changes in skill.
This is my greatest issue with the concept of talent.
Talent is understand to be "natural ability," or in other words, ability that you are born with.
This means that your talent is a fixed variable in the complex formula of success, and therefore, any improvement or changes in skill cannot be traced back to talent.
I can't stress how important this is, because so many incredibly successful people started out as anything but "talented."
A close friend of mine didn't make the top band at his high school for his freshman year. However, rather than operating in a fixed mindset, he had a growth mindset, and believed that if he improved his audition preparation process, he could grow as a musician and change his musical ability.
The next year, he was the best saxophone player in the entire state.
Looking at more a more famous example, we can observe 2-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry's path to success. Curry was rejected by every major D1 college basketball program. He was not "talented." And because talent is a fixed variable, it would be accurate to say that he still is not "talented." The incredible skill he has today is a result of a level of work ethic very few people can even imagine.
Stephen Curry didn't have talent. Stephen Curry didn't need talent. He just needed passion, drive, and a dream.