Giftedness is a Bluebeard

by Nic Olson

Listing your talents as an adult is inevitably prideful. In the rare cases where it is necessary, like in a resumé, in a drug abuse support group, or on the adult playground (i.e. social networks), if you come up with a skill too quickly, then you likely think that you are better at it than you actually are. If you hesitate, then you look as if you are trying to be overly modest. If you can’t think of anything, then you are fooling yourself. Moderate giftedness is the immense swimming pool in which most people find themselves wading, and where their fingers and toes become wrinkly from being in for so long.

I maintain the idea that some people have obvious physical skills while others have less obvious human skills. Some can be considered artistic or mechanical or athletic, something that can be measured in items created or matches won, or something apparent that fills a person’s time as an occupation or a hobby. Those with the physical gifts are praised highly for their abilities; they are considered the greatest of our species and are known for making humankind better by continually improving at their trade. Humans with skills that cannot be charted or counted, those with social abilities, an emotional giftedness, are often attributed as ‘nice people’, or ‘very kind’, or ‘fun to be around’. As children, in classroom exercises where we would appreciate our peers with words on a paper, we would write, ‘Nic is very athletic!’ to those that we didn’t think were nice, and ‘Nic is very funny and nice!’ to those that we didn’t think were gifted. Now as adults we praise those with obvious gifts and tell the rest that they are ‘very funny and nice’. The unclassifiable gifts are regarded as less important. It is those with the quiet gifts, the talents that do not boast, that can define a people. Gifts that aren’t physically noticeable but relational, intellectual or emotional competencies are the translucent cousins to the categorizable gifts of the often labeled ‘talented’ humans. If you don’t have an obvious physical talent, then I will ensure you with a motherly kiss on the forehead that you are still special and gifted. That although we may not be noticeably appreciated as often as the musician or the cook, that we are of equal acclaim in the fabrication of our species.

Those of us with moderate talents, whether obvious talents or not, know of several acquaintances who seem to have incredible abilities in all things. People that can triumph every sport, can play several obscure musical instruments, can write all forms of literature, can speak seven languages, can bake an exquisite brie, can grow immaculate facial hair, have a glowing and linear smile without the help of dental cosmetics, can do a backflip on flat ground and are a great lay. And sometimes they are even extremely decent human beings. Obviously we always idolize these people, shake our heads at their dumb luck and good genes because they are somehow instinctually good at many of the obvious skills, and often better than we are at something we have spent a whole life practicing.

The normal: the ones with moderate abilities in one or two things and the ones with the gifts that are not immediately identifiable can still be great with an understanding that greatness isn’t a list of abilities and talents, but rather that greatness is humility in those gifts of whatever degree in whatever domain.

I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.

I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives—maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.

That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”

How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard, Chapter 9, p74-5