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A few weeks ago, this article about a tough music teacher made the rounds via email. I wound up discussing it with some friends, including a school counselor who had a lot to say about the need for kids to learn certain psychological skills that they never get a chance to learn if they are always assiduously protected from criticism, failure and competition. The idea that failure = unnecessary trauma is a particularly dangerous one, a belief that has crept up on us in our efforts to make the world more fair and more fun for our children. It’s a noble goal, but misguided. The world is not supposed to always be fair and fun.

The most striking aspect of this article when I think back through my own life is the idea that “grit trumps talent.” It took my a very long time to understand the proper relationship between grit and talent. The problem with being told you’re “smart” is that this gets understood as an identity. An NPR segment on a musician who was once a child prodigy said it this way: Very few of these prodigies make the transition from child prodigy to master adult musician, because that requires a whole different skill set. A prodigy has a certain innate and remarkable ability, and s/he can master something that’s already been invented. But adult creativity requires doing something in a whole new way.

To put it another way: Innate talent is only interesting because of what we do with it. To build an identity around the talent itself is to get lost.

I recall far too many discussions as an undergraduate in a creative writing program about what it was to be a “real” writer. There were readings from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on the subject. There was a certain image people felt a need to fit. There was an aesthetic, and there were ethics. This was all ego stuff. We spent far too much time learning how to be writers, and not nearly enough learning to write.

The problem of identity is that it is both necessary and misleading. There is a time to say to a kid, wow, look how good you are! But there is also a time to say, yes, we’ve established that you’re good at that. The question is, what are you going to do now?