The ubiquitous talent ceiling


This summer Shawn Blanc published his book Delight is in the Details. It’s an excellent book, and well worth reading if you’re interested in (as Shawn puts it) creating “substantive work that delights and excites [y]our audience.”

Part of the book deals with the idea of a “talent ceiling” — that is, the barrier you hit when your imagination and desire to create cool things over-runs your ability to do it. Whilst he was writing the book Shawn put a request on his website for stories of how people had broken through their own talent ceiling.

I was intrigued by the question, because I immediately recognized that experience. I’ve always had a good imagination, and the corollary to that gift is that when you try to recreate in reality what your mind has devised in the infinite possibility of its own landscape you quickly hit barriers. So I started writing down my experience, intending to dash off a couple of lines and fire them in Shawn’s direction. 500 words later I realized that it was a much deeper subject than I’d initially suspected.

I won’t quote in full what I said. Shawn put it in the book — in a chapter full of other people’s experiences of the talent ceiling, and if you’re really interested, it’s $20 from him directly. But here’s the crux of what I ended up with:

Innate ability will only get you so far. The only way to get past that glass ceiling is to practice, over and over and over again. I don’t think that the glass ceiling is something you smash, I think it’s something that you painstakingly push a little higher every time.

and

It took me a good deal of growing up before I could really start to make something useful out of my failures as opposed to just letting them deflate me.

The first point seems pretty straightforward to me. Practice and you get good at something.

But the second… man, how much easier that is to say than it is to do! It’s a battle you have to re-fight every day — just when you think you’ve figured out how to use your failures as stepping stones, they’ll shift under you and you’ll be on your back in the water.

Part of the problem is that, being human, we have to experience failures, instead of just jumping to the helpful teaching moment. It’s all very well to recognize where you went wrong and work out a strategy for doing better next time. It’s a bit harder to not let that become a depressing proof of your own unworthiness — evidence that you’re a faker: impostor syndrome.

Delight is in the Details was an entertaining read and an excellent blueprint for great design, but I think the biggest lesson I took from it was this: I’m not the only one who’s hitting that ceiling.