Talent Versus Skill — Which Leads to Freelancing Success?

skill-vs-talentWhich do you think is more important for freelancing success — talent or skill?

This topic is rarely discussed in freelancing circles, but most freelancers do have an opinion about which factor contributed the most to their success.

The question of whether talent or skill contributes more to success is a controversial debate for many in the freelancing world (and elsewhere). In this post, we’ll examine both sides of the debate and give you an opportunity to weigh in with your own opinion.

The Central Debate

What is talent? Or, for that matter, what is skill?

Here are some definitions:

  • Talent is the natural ability that you are born with.
  • Skill is a learned ability.

There are those who believe that just about anything that we accomplish, including various freelancing achievements, is a result of our skills.

There are also those who believe that most of what we achieve is because of the natural abilities that we were born with (in other words, our talents).

We’ll start out by examining the case for skill as the main contributing factor in freelancing success.

The Case for Skill

There’s a strong case to be built for skill as a crucial component to freelancing success. If you’ve ever benefited from a training class, then I’m sure that you can vouch for the value of good training.

One of my former bosses fits into this side of the debate. As an avid baseball fan, my boss firmly believed that he could have been a major league player IF ONLY someone had taught him to play the game at a much younger age (like around age four as opposed to age eight) so that he had more time to develop enough skill to become a professional ballplayer.

Do you think my former boss was right?

There are two key ways to improve your skills:

  1. Training — being taught by others.
  2. Practice — putting what you’ve learned into practice.

Other ways to build your skill in a particular area include finding an experienced mentor and reading information that is relevant to your area. By the way, while you are thinking about skills you may want to check out this list of 20 Not So Obvious Blogs for Freelancers. Reading the blogs on the list can definitely help you build up your skills.

That wraps up the case for skill. Now let’s look at the case for talent as the main contributor to freelancing success.

The Case for Talent

There is definitely a case for talent as the basis of achievements, particularly in some specialties.

For example, I know that no amount of training or practice would be enough for me to become a top ten recording artist. I simply don’t have a natural gift for singing. The same goes for art — while I can learn to operate software tools (and occasionally even come up with something clever), I know that drawing (especially by hand) just isn’t one of my strengths.

However, over the years I’ve met excellent natural singers with little or no training and some talented artists who can put a pencil to paper and come up with a great illustration nearly every single time.

Some points to consider:

  • Could naturally talented people benefit from training? In my experience, most gifted people are eager to use training to enhance their talent.
  • Do the gifted absolutely need training to be able to perform in their field? In many cases, someone with natural ability can become quite successful without training.

Now that we’ve looked at both sides of the issue, let’s examine the middle ground.

A Middle Ground

Which is really most critical for a freelancer to have — skills or talents?

This argument has been around for a long time, and there are many aspects to it. While I doubt that we’ll permanently settle this argument today on Freelance Folder, I would like to suggest a practical approach the question.

An old adage states, “It’s not what you could accomplish that counts, but what you actually do accomplish.”

From my perspective, I think the adage is correct. Effort counts for a lot. In fact, I think that someone with drive and determination can accomplish a great deal, regardless of whether they have talent, skills, or both.

What Do You Think?

We’ve looked at both sides of this debate and now it is your turn to weigh in with your opinion.

Is your freelancing business success based on your training and skills, your natural talents, or some combination of both?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image by 27391161@N07

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent question, Laura!

    As for talent – you either have it, or you don’t. Whereas skill, you can develop.

    Talent is valuable, but without discipline and proper application, it can easily go to waste, remain undeveloped or even be destroyed by bad habits.

    Skill, on the other hand, can take you far, but only as far as your natural abilities allow you.

    My answer to this question is: it’s a combination of both. Talent is like a ball of yarn. Skill is the knitting process that turns the yarn into a warm and beautiful scarf.

    (Can you guess who’s been knitting a scarf in her spare time lately?)

    Lexi

  2. says

    Nice overview and food for thought. I feel you can have all the skill in the world, but without talent you might not quite make it. The most skilled writers can still be boring, biased, and lacking in the ability to engage readers.

    Skill is good to have, but talent is a must.

  3. says

    Hi Lexi and Deb,

    Great points. I especially like Lexi’s analogy with a ball of yarn. Without the yarn, you can’t knit the sweater…

    It IS an interesting discussion. I’ll be interesting in reading what the rest of our readers have to say.

  4. says

    I have always believed that Talent should be the driving force in someones decision to be an artist. Then the talent should be nurtured through proper education, and enhanced by learning the skills necessary to operate the tools.

    Another important factor is good business sense. You need to market yourself to find projects. Once you have the project you need to communicate well with your client and deliver a professional result on time. Then follow up and stay in touch with your client to enable future projects with that client, because repeat business is the key to success as a freelancer.

  5. says

    Hi Harry!

    Wow, you bring up a good point with business sense. Without that, it could be pretty difficult to succeed as a freelancer.

    I wonder, do you think that business sense is a talent, a skill, or both?

  6. says

    This is a good, albeit difficult debate. I think there’s a fine line between talent and skill because it’s not like some people are naturals and others aren’t. We are all essentially built in the same way, and don’t have anything in us that makes us any better than another person other than practice.

    Even those ‘talented’ people on the television that you see aren’t _naturally_ talented. These people just have different cognitions when it comes to their project, making them more analytical of something, and helping them to spend more time on something. Only then, through the analysis and practice they become good at it, and seem to be natural. So, they’re not talented, just incredibly intelligent, through their own doing.

    So, my answer is that both things are one and the same. Skilled people may go to classes and that sort of thing, but that’s the way they prefer to learn. Whereas, your so-called ‘talented’ people learn and perform in different ways.

  7. says

    Laura,

    That’s hard to say. I believe that I would be a MUCH better businessman if I had studied business in school. That said, I do have the talents to communicate well with my clients, deliver a product that makes them very happy and follow up with them.

    My marketing skills need some help though, and there is only so much that you can learn about that,indirectly, through the internet.

  8. says

    None of the above. You can be the most talented or skilled [insert skillset here] jockey on the planet, but without luck, or marketing and customer relationship management capabilities outside your core consulting competencies, you won’t get anywhere.

  9. says

    This is getting to be a good debate.

    I can see that some equate talent and skills, some are clearly on the side talent, while others seem to lean towards skills.

    Andrew, you brought the element of luck in to the debate. That’s something that I hadn’t considered (probably because I believe you make your own luck). It will be interesting to see if others mention luck as a key component to success.

    Thanks to everyone for participating in this discussion!

    Keep the comments coming.

  10. says

    I tend to fall into the 90% Effort/10% Talent camp when it comes to success. All too often we see an insanely talented person, see their skill at that moment, and think that it’s something that just came to them be it a musician, an artist, a writer, etc.

    What we aren’t seeing is the years of practice and knowledge of music theory that allows the musician to effortlessly toss out a tune, the thousands of terrible drawings and misplaced lines that the artist put to paper before the muscle memory settled on how to draw well, or the five novels that the bestselling author wrote and had rejected before they hit on that bestseller.

    Talent is really nothing more than a lifetime of effort that’s hidden from the moment we see it being exercised.

  11. says

    Skill and talent only get you so far and what Andrew said it’s mostly about luck but something else that should be added in is determination. Without a solid foundation of those four things your just a talented or skilled individual and lots of praise from the few people who have actually seen your work or even care to take notice.

  12. says

    I still want to stand by “luck or marketing skills” but otherwise, 100% agree David. Determination underlies most success in life I’d like to think.

    Maybe you luck into reputation and work. Maybe you know how to market yourself. One way or the other, getting yourself/your name/your brand in front of the right people at the right time is essential.

  13. says

    To add to the list, I would say “your network is your networth!”. You have to network. Also, “talent” is great in your craft, but you need to communicate that with a good portfolio and also have business talent as well.

  14. says

    I can use the guitar as an example to start the conversation.

    Some would consider me to be a talented artist, designer and animator. I’ve enjoyed designing since I was a child. I’ve also liked the guitar my whole life. I took lessons as a child and as an adult, but for the life of me I can’t seem to progress very far.

    I always say that I don’t have the talent for it but perhaps if I put in more “Effort” I will develop the “Skills” necessary to be a better player. And with a little “Luck” I’ll be doing duets with Joey Santiago.

  15. says

    I agree with Andrew. You can be the best freelancer in terms of skills and talent, but they won’t get you very far without the right marketing, knowing the right network, and the ability to manage client relationships.

    Those will get you a lot of work, but you will still need a good business sense and be able to manage finances to stay profitable. :)

  16. says

    Laura,

    I believe success is generally a combination of talent and skill. I also am a believer if you want to chose a profession that you will be happy in start with your talents and develop the necessary skills to make your career successful. When I started college I started out wanting to be a nurse. I figured it was a profession where I would always have a job, make good money and live anywhere I wanted. I struggled with the prereq courses because sciene is not where my talents lie. I switched to business and excelled, because thats where my talents where. In science classes I struggled to get a “B”, studying and worrying. When I switched to business I literally would go to some classes and sleep threw every class and get a “B.” I think it was because it all made sense to me and it was natural to me. I heard people complain about how hard economic was, I breezed threw the classes. When I worked in corporate america I gained promotions easily and did very well on my jobs. I just grew tired of the corporate arena and mainly office politics.

    I am great at seeing the big picture and planning, not so great with the little details. I had to and continue to develop the skills to handle the details to support my natural talent of seeing the big picture and making plans to make that big picture a reality.

    I tell my kids that I don’t expect “A’s” in every class, I just expect you to do your best. If a “C” is your best then that is good enough for me. One son does great in math and struggles with english. The other son does great in english and struggles with math, I tell them both, just do you best. Everryone is different and have strengths in different areas and that is just perfect. I have a nephew who is a natural artist, does not do well in core academics, I tell him the same thing, you are just perfect the way you are and just give your best effort. The world needs them all and their God given talents.

    Jenn

  17. says

    I’ve had several careers where I didn’t have natural talent so instead I figured out which skills I needed and I learned them. I gues that puts me in the effort and determination camp, and maybe also in the dumb camp for doing things I didn’t have any talent for.

    Besides Woody Allen’s quote about just showing, there are also these old chestnuts:

    I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.
    -Thomas Jefferson

    Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
    -Thomas Edison

  18. says

    I think that both talent and skill are required to be successful. I think that talent without skill means that you are like a rough diamond and you may be able to produce some things that look good but without skill you can’t make something professional. Likewise if you have skill but no talent I think you can be successful but that doesn’t mean you would be producing good work.

  19. says

    Of course, both are needed. In my opinion, you can’t get any skill that comes from no natural talent. One wants to improve his skills on something he already likes because he feels he’s gifted.

  20. says

    Some people have talent in a particular area, but they don’t use it for whatever reason. Another person can develop a skill in an particular area and will have more success than the person with natural talent, only because he/she has the drive and puts in the effort needed to be successful. I don’t believe it’s a matter of talent or skill necessarily, but more about the self motivation.

  21. says

    Great topic.
    Actually, I think it is none of these two but rather a third thing called CHARACTER!

    It is particularly interesting to look at examples. In my case, I am a sound recordist for film and TV in New Zealand earning in the top 1% of the NZ income bracket – so doing quite well – yet I do not think I am necessarily such a wonderfully skilled or talented sound recordist. What I do have, at least what I try to develop, is my character. To be more devoted to clients, more approachable, to have more stamina on the long film shoots on location up mountains and yes, of course, to increase my skills in sound recording.

    Now the interesting thing about character, as I am in the early stages of testing now, developing myself as a web designer too, is that it can be applied to any industry. So if you feel like diversifying or taking on another industry skill-set, then you are just as likely to succeed in that new area if you have shown that you can succeed in your previous industry. Imagine the relief for you if you prove this to be true in your own experience. No more worrying about loosing jobs or the downturn in the economy. You only have to apply your character to another industry and you will be sure to succeed again.

    Ande

  22. says

    I think talent is not enough, or maybe If you are really-really lucky.
    You also need to have skills to make profit of your talent, and I guess a gifted person should learn very hard too.

    At the other hand I think if someone has no talent but good in learning, and having strong skills that can be an expert in his job, but if we are talking about art related jobs there something will always missing – that what I call to spirit.

  23. says

    I side with ideas. You can have all the talent or skill in the world, but no amount will save a bad idea. The flip side being, if you start with a good idea, talent or skill can accentuate it, but the core is already there.

  24. says

    Hi All,

    I love the depth the comments here…especially Robert saying “You can have all the talent or skill in the world, but no amount will save a bad idea.” What a great insight!

    Andrew — some of my Twitter followers responded directly to the question on Twitter. I’m @txwriter. I believe that some @freelancefolder followers also responded on Twitter.

  25. emil says

    ha … never really thought about it like that . i’m a man that believes in a certain spark of genius that some people , from time to time , are able to – oh well – spark .

    but i can’t say i’m a big fan of talent . i believe it takes hard work , determination and being fair to succeed in an area , any area . i believe this is true for freelancing . it just takes a lot of work . from knowing the rules to understanding the way things work .

    and talent-shmalent the point is you can’t be good unless you actually have the know-how . sure you may come up with some great ideas for a web page … but unless you actually know how to implement them that page ain’t happening . it all comes down to skill …

    and .. maybe … sometimes , some of us … are lucky enough to get a glance at that spark i was talking about earlier .

  26. says

    Laura,

    What a fantastic thread…it seems to me that we levitate to our talents. If we deliberately try to find purpose in our life we will discover what those talents are. Both talent and skill can be improved with practice and effort but you first have to discover that passion. Whether or not they are inherent traits can be debated forever.

    I am reminded of a case study – I think it was at Carnegie Melon where a large sample group was asked to participate in a reading program to make improvements on how quickly they read and how much they absorbed. They thought that the worst readers would have the most dramatic improvement and were surprised to find the opposite. The good readers with over 500 wpm would improve quickly while the poorer readers would only make a small gain but with a lot more effort.

    The conclusion – those with a natural strength in something will soar to great heights, especially if applied. Try it. Start focusing on the things you love and do well. Do more of them. Only do those things. Monitor your results.

  27. Katy says

    Interesting discussion, everyone. I like Lexi’s metaphor about the yarn and the sweater – I also believe that some degree of talent (passion, or whatever you’d like to call it) needs to be there for skill to develop.

    It’s already been touched on here but perseverance is another important ingredient in freelancing success, especially because of economic cycles in recent decades. It’s taken me about 20 years and three downturns to learn that when times are slow, take a temporary side path if you must to pay the bills and put food on the table, but stay true to your craft and persevere. Things have a way of coming back around again.

  28. Jason says

    I think the one consensus seems to be that it is a combination. The title of the article infers that you have one or the other, but It seems to me that they are more of a sliding scale. I believe that the ratio doesn’t really matter, as long as it equals 100%. Both skill & talent are needed, if you have a lot of skill you can make it on less talent, & vise versa. Doesn’t matter if its 80/20, 50/50, 60/40, as long as the 2 combined equal the 100% effort needed.

    Regarding luck (and making your own), I believe the best explanation is:

    “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” -Seneca (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)

    my 2 cents…

  29. says

    “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”
    — Émile Zola

    Great article! I think the quote above is very true. There are people who don’t have talent, but works very hard, who can surpass someone with natural talent, who are slacking off.

  30. says

    I’ve never believed that talent was something real. I believe every skill is simply learned. I have believed for years that I could be an artist if I wanted to be. After having gone through some drawing tutorials recently, I am becoming quite the artist. My family/friends were “shocked” at my first drawing. There are always obstructions to being skilful at something. For example, someone with no eyes, or hands, has a serious impediment to being a photographic quality artist. Someone with a brain handicap, in a particular centre of the brain, may simply not be good at a skill that uses that part of the brain. But, aside from being handicap in some way, I truly believe everything can be learned.

    Keep in mind that learning at a young age is an important thing. In fact, it appears as if it is “talent” because you did it so early on, and it was “natural” for you to do. A young mind truly is more adept at learning. However, while it may be a struggle to learn knew things as an adult, it is doable.

  31. says

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