Tom Wright of Epic Games: "Talent Is a Myth"

Industry veteran and Senior Technical Artist at Epic Games, Tom Wright, has a work history to make you swoon. Being the incredibly generous - albeit busy - guy he is, he's more than happy to share his insight (as he did during a recent CG Cookie livestream). Tom's experience has shaped his seasoned perspective on art, CG, and the industry: One of them is the consensus that being a good artist is directly related to talent. Tom begs to differ - and here is why:

My mother is an award winning painter, our town’s Artist of the Year several times running. It wasn’t easy being the child of a well known local artist and pursue the same course. 

Long story short: I struggled. At some point, I even started to believe that my mother's talented DNA had not been passed to me. Until one day, she told me a dirty secret... 

“There is no such thing as talent.”

Why would she say this? She was obviously mistaken, I thought, looking at how easily she produced an amazing piece of art while I struggled to make convincing stick figures.  

“It’s a skill,” she told me. “A skill that takes many, many hours of practice to build.” Without those hours of disciplined training, she told me, I would never be able to make the images I wanted.  As much as I loved traditional art I would never become a skilled 2D artist unless I put in the time. 

The Truth About Talent That People Don’t Want to Hear

Claiming “there is no such thing as talent” is controversial. Think about the implications: It places all the blame of unachieved goals squarely on you. It’s hard to accept that you simply didn’t work hard enough.

Now, in some circumstances that isn’t entirely the case. A star athlete is born with certain traits; you can’t practice being taller, for instance. And even if you are the ideal height and build to be a football player, it doesn’t mean you will have the fast-enough reflexes to get to the NFL.  

At the same time, the highest achievers in sports are also the hardest workers. Tim Notke, a famous high school basketball coach, coined one of my all time favorite quotes: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.  

In art, hard work matters even more, since there are no physical requirements needed to become the best: Nothing is out of your control.

Years after giving up as a painter, I received a birthday gift that changed my life: a personal computer.  It was a Commodore 64.  

I was absolutely infatuated and worked the entire next summer to afford its successor, the Commodore Amiga, a computer capable of 3D raytracing graphics.  My passion for art was rekindled a thousand times over.  Remembering the secret I learned from my mother years before, I knew that I could be as good as any artist at this new medium.  

During this process, I discovered some valuable lessons.

1. To Succeed as an Artist, You Have to Learn how to Learn

It’s hard to imagine a degree less relevant to art than Criminal Justice, but that is the degree I graduated with. Totally worthless in my field, right?

Well, not entirely. Getting that degree is probably the most important experience I have ever pushed myself through because it taught me how to learn.  

It takes real discipline to be a learner, which is why I highly recommend completing some sort of higher education even though it’s not required for our field. 

2. Believe in Your Power to Improve

“Growth Mindset” is a concept developed by Stanford researchers showing how effort placed into learning changes your ability to learn. It posits that your brain will literally grow with your ability to learn. The key is believing that skills are acquirable, as opposed to being fixed; precisely what my mother told me. 

3. Practice Does not Make Perfect!  

Ok, to be fair: practice does kind of make perfect, but only if you’re practicing the right things. A proper foundation of technique is one of the most important things to begin your career with.  If you spend 10,000 hours practicing poor technique, you will become a poor artist. 

If you’re building your skills on an inadequate substructure, tear the whole thing down and start again with a new base. You will be ten times faster and a hundred times better for it. 

4. Enjoy the Process, not the Product.  

Don’t worry about what you’re producing, worry about how you are producing it. 

In Los Angeles, there are two types of actors: Those who love the idea of being a famous actor and those who love acting. As a rule, the latter becomes far more successful.  Fall in love with the process of making art and don’t worry about creating a masterpiece.  If you’re doing it right, you’ll never be satisfied with the final result anyway because of your desire to keep improving. So just enjoy the ride!

5. Be Crazy Determined.  

Push yourself as far as you can and when you think you have reached the ceiling, keep pushing!

A seventh grade teacher in New York, Angela Lee Duckworth, started to realize that IQ was not the only determining factor for success in her students. While in her PhD program, she began studying a common characteristic in her successful students which she calls “grit”.  Duckworth talks about this find in her amazing TED Talk and defines grit as the “passion and perseverance for very long term goals”. Find your grit!

6. Don’t settle for great.  

As a kid, my mother told me to throw my paintings away and paint them again no matter how good they were.  It was a lesson to always push myself further, to never be satisfied.  If you believe that you are the best at what you do, it will be very difficult for you to grow and achieve the level of skill that you are actually capable of.

The amazing artists that I know don’t see themselves as great.  They see themselves on the journey to greatness.

In my mind, a talented person is someone who can understand complex concepts quickly and is interested, driven and determined.  At the end of the day, the artist that works the hardest becomes the best artist, talent or no talent.  Learn, remember, practice, be patient, be dedicated and above all, cherish the journey.  It might be the only one you get.

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  • Kaj Suominen (louhikarme)

    why cant i like this more than once?! :D Excellent article!

  • Ronald Vermeij (indigowarrior9)

    I do not agree with this title / statement:
    "The-thing-called-Talent" - as i see it - is a Soul level pre-determined thing. It is not something everyone always can achieve during their lifetime in every aspect of their lives. through blindly doing the hard work that comes with the territory. Every Soul has its own set of unique natural-born abilities, which they toke along with them from previous lives experiences. (not from Earth bound practice in this life-time).

    That is the spiritual reason why some "kids" can excel at a given area of life, way above and beyond their age-peers... at a very early stage in their lives. By simply remembering their previous life experiences again
    and by understanding the fact that they now (again) need to develop their unique talents further, since it is part of this life mission to, to help their fellow souls with it.

    Here are a few examples of those (pre) gifted souls from the human history timeline:
    Buddha, Archimedes, Plato, Socrates, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael de Nostradamus, Nicola Tesla, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.

    Each of those beautiful Souls had agreed upon the fact to incarnate onto Planet Earth (inside a given time-frame) and to globally assist, help mankind ahead in a certain area of life. And they did so because they already HAD accumulated the right TALENT to do so and the necessary KNOWLEDGE for their last lives mission was collected and embedded into their Souls at the time of their last birth..

  • galledark (galledark)

    I love this article !
    Thank a lot for this lesson !

  • Mary Fazzolari (maryshan)

    I do not agree 100%, just some.
    It's true that hard works and constance are the best things to make your skills grow...but...
    What is talent? it's a inborn skill you have.
    example: creativity cannot be taught.
    Irony cannot be taught.
    If you can teach these things, then how can depression or happiness be into some people naturally?
    I mean, if we can learneverything, then we can learn how to be happy too. But unfortunately you born with that side...because of life. Only life can shape you, and experiences. But above all is the response of your brain and soul that will make the difference.

  • sorta

    iindigowarrior9 I disagree with your comment. No one comes into this world with past experiences, to this otherwise is foolish. Leonardo Da Vinci for example was not a pre gifted soul. The reason he became who we know him as is because he was born a bastard. His father and all his legitimate children became notaries. Since Leo was not legit he was not brought into the family business. Instead he dawdled around the town of vinci and like every other child he developed an interest in nature...and from it everything else. Long story short he took to painting because notaries had loads of paper and in the 14th century you didn't have the same limitless degree of distractions we have today, and paper wasn't as common as it is today.

  • Erik Meyers (valevorena)

    People's life experiences and how they decide to tackle learning and driving themselves is in a sense a talent because some people will achieve this faster and more clearly than others. People might spend hours trying to learn how to do stuff right, but it just never clicks for them. However, by following a few guidelines thrown in this article most of the time people will learn to circumvent most hurdles. It is when trying to be the very best that the talent barrier starts to set in and make a difference.

    Most everyone can learn from those greater than themselves and it helps set a path forward. Though part of the talent at being the best comes from eventually begin able to learn how to push yourself further when there is no one else who can show you how.

    Though at the end of the day talent I agree does not stop people from being among the best because the hard work put forth by them will win out over those who have talent and do not apply themselves.

  • Kaj Suominen (louhikarme)

    maryshan depression is an illness. you don't learn to become depressed. maybe you confuse depression with emo's which is completely different thing.

  • Kaj Suominen (louhikarme)

    iindigowarrior9 funnily though everyone you listed worked their asses off, to be where there were.

  • Leo Pessoa (leopessoa)

    This is a perfect article! I want to like it twice or more! Refreshing... Amazing! Thanks a lot!

  • anarchymedes

    The skill is about *how* you do what you do, and *how* you say what you say: this can definitely be practiced. The true talent, however, is about *what* you say by all that. About having something to say; something wanting to get out so desperately that it drives you to do all that hard work, to live the life of the stereotypical 'starving artist', and to choose your own inegrity over money.
    Once, they say, a young composer came to Mozart and asked him to teach him to write symphonies. 'You're young, my friend,' Mozart said, 'Why don't you start with, say, ballads? '
    'But sir, you wrote your furst symphony when you were just seven years old!'
    'Yes, but I didn't ask anyone to show me how to do it.'
    I'm not insisting this is a true story, of course. But still.

  • theone


    Well, I do not agree with your statement. What you stated is your belief. Everyone has their own belief. I don't believe that everyone is reincarnated, I think that's silly to be honest. If that's want you want to believe , than OK. I won't stop you. But if that's how it was, than why isn't everyone super smart? We don't know how the Egyptians built the Pyramids without cranes! Of course there's theories, but nothing concrete. Plus, there's evidence that they had electricity! If they knew that then, than why didn't someone reincarnate with the skill to discover that in 1200 AD? Or even 1500 AD? Just sayin'.......

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