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Sydney J. Harris On Motivation And Talent

What most people — and especially parents — don’t want to recognize is that motivation is an integral part of talent, and not just a kind of fuel injection that powers it.

Parents are fond of sighing, ‘He’d be so good at this,’ or ‘She’s make such a wonderful that’ — if only he or she would APPLY himself or herself.

But the talent is incomplete without the applying. It is nothing, it is only a potentiality, and cannot be brought into existence if the motivation is lacking.

Who knows how many ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ have lived and died without the world having been aware of their latent talents? If the drive to actualize their ability is missing, nothing outside of themselves can instill it in them. No threats, no promises, no praise.

A truly talented person is self-propelled. Not only does he [sic] not need to be encouraged (although it helps), he cannot be suppressed. He will keep on painting or writing or composing or doing whatever he does best, despite all the rejections and rebuffs in the world. And he is supremely self-confident, although despair may attack him from time to time. Despair about his future, not about his gifts.

This is true not only of the artist but of the student. The student who ‘could really get an A’ if he wanted to, cannot really get an A because he really doesn’t want to. And the wanting to is an essential part of the achieving, not a separate thing, as parents imagine, that can be injected into him like a shot of adrenaline.

All genuine and meaningful and lasting motivation comes from the inside, not from the outside. The carrot and the stick work — maybe — only as long as the carrot is in front and the stick behind. When they are withdrawn, the motivation ceases. You can get a mule to move this way, but not a person, for very long.

Parents should … stop nagging their children about how well they could do ‘if you only tried more, or cared more.’ Trying and caring, in specific areas, is built into people; or else it comes to them later, if they mature properly; or it never comes at all. But it is dead certain that no young person was ever motivated by a querulous, disappointed parent more concerned with his own pride than with the child’s ultimate self-actualization.

If she [sic] shows ‘a talent for music’ and doesn’t want to practice, let it go — the only talent worth cultivating is that which is accompanied by patience, persistence and passion. If these are lacking, you might as well try to make a ballerina out of a ‘talented’ paraplegic.