I have a beef with the phrase “natural talent.” Not that such a thing doesn’t exist. But anyone we consider to be truly talented – in music, sports, literature, finance, medicine, you name it – has had to work like crazy to develop that talent into a stable skill.
This is true of the concert violinist as well as the rock star, the Shakespearean actor or the Hollywood movie star, the Olympic skater or the professional football player. They are all highly accomplished but nothing like that kind of talent comes naturally. You might not like the performance or even the industry but let’s not deny that rising to the top is anything but natural.
Sometimes we use the phrase “natural talent” in a way that disparages or denies the crucial reality that every skill we have requires cultivation, meaning hard work, unrelenting practice, and plenty of failures and correction along the way. All this requires a conscious choice to displace every evidence of failure with overwhelming virtuosity. Getting there requires discipline that extends from a deep and passionate desire to do what it takes to achieve excellence.
By the time the talent reaches our eyes and ears, the hard work is done. We see only the finished product. In our attempt to discern the difference between their level of awesome and ourselves, we reach for the easiest answer: the person must have been born this way. It just comes naturally.
It’s nonsense. And this is precisely what is uniquely valuable about a new series on Amazon Prime. In conversations with people who have seen The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it fascinates me how people take different messages away from the first season. Some people think it is about a woman finding a place in a man’s world. Others see it as a drama about family life. I see it as an allegory about turning a minor talent into greatness based entirely on the desire to achieve.
A young married woman with two kids is trying to coach her husband on realizing his dream to be a comic. In the course of this, she discovers her own talent. Once he bumps up against his limits, she tries her own stand-up routine and is a great success. This eventually dooms a marriage that is already on the rocks.The woman then needs a career and decides that comedy can be it.
There’s a problem. She has thus far relied mostly on liquor and spontaneity to carry the day. It works. It works again. But then it doesn’t. And it doesn’t again. Now she has a problem. She has to figure out a way to codify her spontaneous genius and realize it every single night and do it without liquor.
The initial attempts were disastrous. She becomes imitative and inauthentic and then falls flat. She does not immediately have an automatic intuition about what made her initially successful. So she has to reverse engineer it, find that core ability, build on it, package it in a way that is consistently good, while maintaining her originality.
In this long endeavor, filled with many failed attempts at the microphone, she has a coach who helps her, just as every great performer has a coach. So too with every violinist, every pop star, every ballerina, and so on. Excellence requires this. But no coach can cause excellence to happen. It is always and everywhere up to the volition of the performer to figure it out, complete with nonstop failure. This is true of the beginning pianist all the way through the top-of-the game performer in any industry.
What’s beautiful about this show is that we get to watch it emerge in real time. We cheer for Mrs. Maisel and suffer with her when she fails. And we can all learn from her process, no matter our profession.
As a person who is honored to be called on to speak often, I’ve come to marvel at stand-up comedy. The best of it is highly intellectual but the humor part is the part that is difficult to master. The timing. The attitude. The conversational authenticity that seems spontaneous but is actually extremely well-rehearsed.
To achieve Louis C.K. levels of genius requires years and a vast amount of private study time. The goal, in the end, is to come across like a natural. When you finally achieve it, being called a “natural talent” might be the highest compliment simply because very few can ever imagine the hard work that goes into becoming that person.
The great merit of the show is how it shows that the realization of virtuosity comes from only one place: the individual will. The coach can’t do it. The boss can’t do it. The politician can’t do it. The central planner certainly can’t do it. A society that encourages and rewards excellence is built bit by bit, one dedicated human mind at a time.