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Theme Pack 9: Character and Talent

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Character and Talent1

By Alfred Adler [1927]

Chapter I in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 6


The thesis advanced by the group of psychological thinkers known as the Individual Psychologists--the thesis that talent is not inherited, and that the possibilities and potentialities of any individual for performance are not fixed-has been a bombshell in the camp of the old-line academic psychologists. Individual Psychology has given evidence to show that talent, potentiality, endowment, special gifts are merely elements in the structure of an individual. It has been further shown that these elements may be variously employed, depending upon their relation to the total activity of the individual.

The Individual Psychologists have decided to understand the totality of the individual before regarding the partial phenomena of his existence. They hold that a partial phenomenon, such as a talent, a gift, an endowment, can be properly understood only when the total is first known and thoroughly understood. In other words, we can judge the potential performance of an individual in some specific situation only when we can determine his total reactions, his total behavior pattern, his general style of life, his "distance" from the normal goal of life.

An example will show us how valueless any other viewpoint than that of Individual Psychology becomes in the face of an actual problem. Consider the case of a thirteen-year-old boy who gives the general impression of a backward, mentally retarded, neglected child. He has not made the usual progress at school, has been forced to repeat several grades, and is brought to a social agency because of thievery and vagabondage. The reports concerning this boy are uniformly bad. He is irritable, unsocial, has a poor memory, is unable to concentrate, inattentive. These reports are the results of psychological tests as well as the schoolroom experiences of his various teachers. Closer study of his character and history shows that he was the younger of two children for some eight years, during which time he was inordinately spoiled by his mother. Then his younger brother was born, and at the same time financial difficulties occurred in his family, with the result that the mother had to leave the home to help earn a living. The net result was that the boy began to receive far less attention and love than he had previously been accustomed to experiencing.

School, therefore, found him in an entirely new situation. His thievery occurred chiefly outside of his own home; but everything that he gained by

Originally Published in Harper's Magazine, June 1927. Translated by Walter Beran Wolfe, M.D. Edited to improve readability by Laurie J. Stein, 2004.

stealing he gave away as presents to other children, in order to gain their friendship and affection. We can see by this incident that we should not make final conclusions when we brand a child as a "thief."

We next learn that this child often ran away from home when his father was particularly brutal to him, but that he always managed to deposit a bundle of stolen kindling on the doorstep for his mother to cook with. This done, he spent the nights in the streets, sleeping in alleyways or old barns.

We can hardly evaluate this "truancy" or "delinquency" according to the timeworn conceptions. It is quite evident that his thievery is more than mere stealing, and his truancy more than running away from school. And we must call attention here to the inadequacy of branding the actions of an individual with some set label and then believing that we have understood him!

This "delinquency" and this "thievery" mean something different. It is as though this boy were saying, "I want to force my parents into a situation in which they will pay more attention to me, love me more, sympathize with me. I can best do this by showing my mother that I care for her needs!"

I should like to ask whether there is anyone who could suggest to a boy like this, for whom normal activity in the schoolroom seems hopelessly distant because of his bad preparation for life, a better method of winning the affection and love of his parents and school friends than he has chosen? I shall later show why this normal activity seems to him so impossible of realization. For the present I simply want to indicate that we cannot call such a child "delinquent," "criminal," or "backward." If we want to characterize this boy, we could say that he is a child who demands and needs an inordinate amount of motherly love. That he seeks this affection in an asocial way, which he does not particularly like, is because the normal approach to his goal seems to him effectually barred by circumstances. The normal paths to affection would be industry and progress in school, giving pleasure to his parents and teachers by helpfulness, attention to work, etc. But we have already heard that he was a spoiled child. It is the characteristic of all spoiled children that they cannot change the behavior pattern which they have developed as a result of being spoiled. It is their tragedy. A child has formed and shaped his behavior pattern at the end of his third year of life. A change in the nature of his character as a result of external influences seldom occurs thereafter. Particularly in the case of a child with the behavior pattern of the spoiled child. Such a child never learns from experience. His experiences, good and bad, are all assimilated into his pattern. He takes an experience and twists, turns, distorts, reshapes it until it fits into his predetermined scheme of things.

Naturally, he does not want to go to school, because the warmth and affection which he is used to is found in greater abundance at home. As a result, he comes to school on the first day against his will and resistant to all attempts at instruction. His teachers will say that he is inattentive, lacks concentration, daydreams, spoils the games of other children, cannot concentrate, has a bad memory. All these things are explained when we know that he has an entirely different goal in life than that of a normal schoolboy. The truth is that our boy finds himself in a new situation for which he was never adequately prepared. And in this situation occurs the tragedy of the petted child. He is always right! Since he does not play the game in school, school becomes a very unpleasant place for him. To make matters worse, he now finds his home also unpleasant. Bad school reports turn his mother against him. She does not show her love and affection to the same degree as before. The child blames the school for his misfortune at home, but he does not change his style of life. Love and affection he must have. He seeks it in other places, and with other means.

Enough for our example. It proves very simply that when someone characterizes an individual with a definite character trait we really know nothing about him. We are in much the same situation as a musician who is asked for his opinion of a symphony after hearing three chords. But let the musician be acquainted with musical history, play him a simple melody, and he will be able to say "That is Bach!" or "That is Wagner!" We cannot judge a personality unless we have its dominant motif, unless we understand it as a totality.

II

The Individual Psychologists have also shown that the development of a personality cannot be foretold from the phenomena of physical inheritance. The inherited instruments with which we fight the battle of life are extremely varied. How we use these instruments, however, is the important thing.

We can never tell what actions will characterize a man if we know only whence he comes. But if we know whither he is going, we can prophesy his steps and movements toward his objective. It is for this reason that we have found the concept of goal-attainment, of goal-appropriateness, the essential one for the understanding of human behavior.

In the case of our boy, knowing that his purpose in life is to achieve warmth and affection, we can understand the means that he will choose toward that end. And we know also what our therapeutic approach must be, for we understand the tragedy of this child's life. Suppose, for instance, that we could discover that the father and the grandfather of this child were also thieves. This would in no way be responsible for the activity of this particular boy. To be sure, it is interesting to know just why the boy should choose thievery as a means of gaining love and affection. This issue must be cleared up in order to rule out a possible hereditary influence. But we shall clear up this point, too.

In the earliest remembrances of childhood, we often find the key to later activities. Among this boy's earliest remembrances is the following: He recollects that he was present at the burning of a delivery truck. The men on the truck threw many rubber balls out on the street, in order to save them from the fire. Children and adults who had gathered around the burning delivery truck seized upon these balls as the acknowledged booty of the onlookers. Nobody seemed to have any scruples about helping himself to this property. This remembrance served the boy as a model, as a training, if you will, for his future career as a thief. He found that there were, so to speak, extenuating circumstances even in thievery. Later, when the normal development of a child seemed barred to him, he chose the way to enrichment and power for which this scene had prepared him.

A word now about his development in school. In kindergarten things went rather well. He had a very tender, loving teacher, who was not unlike his mother. But in the primary grades he met a very strict, stern teacher. He immediately withdrew into himself, failed miserably in class, and resigned himself to the conduct mentioned above as a protest.

The great majority of our opponents believe the really important factors in the development of a character or personality are hereditary and congenital. These opponents are always anxious to show that subsequent developmental "trends" modify the result. In support of this theory they often make very keen observations, as for instance Kretschmer and his school. We do not deny the findings of Kretschmer; in fact, we have anticipated them long ago when we stated that if an individual gets off to a bad start in life, by reason of congenital defects or hereditary anomalies, it requires an extraordinarily beneficent environment to prevent him from developing a warped style of life. Lacking this beneficent influence of a fostering environment, the individual assumes a false and unwholesome behavior pattern which fits perfectly with his defectively developed physique, his inadequate endocrines, his sickly condition. He is just like a man on a slippery incline: if he falls and sprains his ankle, it is not to be wondered at. But wondering is not enough. We must attempt to keep him erect, and actually that is what we have succeeded in doing.

III

What I have said about the development of character also holds for talent. In discussing this issue, I rule out those individuals whose equipment is so woefully inadequate as hardly to come under consideration. I mean the congenital idiots and imbeciles whose condition is actually due to a failure of organic development, to enormous defects in the actual nervous substance of their brains.

There remain, however, the great majority of children and adults, who have the resources but have not developed them to the full extent. Is it absolutely impossible for such people to render a good performance with relatively modest tools? In the early days of our human race were there not accomplishments which could be compared with ours of today, even though our forefathers lacked our modern techniques and worked with poor instruments? Are we capable of imitating today what the old guild workers accomplished with relatively primitive tools? Of course we are!

And here we are back at the problem of hereditary faculties and talents. Again I must deny that heredity has a great deal to do with accomplishment or performance. It is not true that with heredity the last word is said, that the chromosomes are inexorable determinants of subsequent genius. In fact, it is probable that an organism equipped with deficient organs, with inadequate tools, will actually develop a better and more ingenious strategy to combat the rigors of its environment. Such an organism will pay a great deal of attention to detail, will devise more unerring "short-cuts," will undergo a more intensive training. This brings us to the surprising, terrifying conclusion of reality. The great, really worthwhile achievements have been made by individuals whose equipment was not exceptional.

Normal individuals with normal organs approach the typical adjustments of everyday life with a greater equanimity, since accomplishing these tasks seems easily within reason. They lack the tremendous tension that is characteristic of an individual who sees less clearly than his fellow, or a left-hander who is forced to work with his weaker and more poorly coordinated right hand. The normal individual seeks for no tricks, no deception, because he can adjust without them. Try to drive a nail with a hammer. The hammer almost does it by itself, because it is an efficient instrument. But try to drive that same nail with a pair of scissors, or with a pocket-knife! You need tricks and deception now, and a refinement of technique, to accomplish the same result that comes easily with a hammer.

We must recognize that it is one of the greatest advantages to be born with defective organs. That is the surprising conclusion we arrive at when we regard the issue of heredity in a purely objective fashion, the great majority of psychologists, physicians, and laymen to the contrary notwithstanding. The average layman believes that he carries his future with him into life, like his milk teeth: a given quantum of creative ability, which need only be unpacked, so to speak, to make him a dolt or a genius. This superstition lies at the basis of the premise which so many investigators use when they say, "Let us see how far this individual has developed his native talent."

We are constantly hearing people say, "Yes, there is a definite quantum of talent given every human being!" But this is not true. There is a definite human constant of talent and potentiality, but this constant remains only so long as no effort is made to develop and train it. The boy whom I discussed in the beginning of this paper certainly belonged to the "untalented." He had been forced to repeat two grades by the time he had reached the fifth grade. After treatment, he became the best student in his class. The psychologist of the old school will counter, "Yes, he had a latent talent." That is precisely my point. Everyone has latent talent.

I shall cite several examples from our experience of so-called "untalented" children who developed a marked "talent." This development, however, does not take place by magic or occur overnight. I am choosing for illustrative purposes some of the easy cases, but we must not believe that it is always so simple to make a brilliant student out of a backward child. Sometimes we succeed easily; often it requires great effort and greater patience. In the end, however, it is always better to be able to say that one boy has talent because he was properly and encouragingly trained to overcome a defect, and that another boy is untalented because this or that error was made in his education.

If we disregard professional activity for a moment and investigate, rather, very small details of child activity, we can best see the developments of talent. Take for instance a little three-year-old girl who tries to sew dresses for her dolls. She takes a few stitches which are certainly far removed from works of art, and her mother comes to her and says, "Do you know, that is a very good beginning. Now if you take a few more stitches like this" (showing the child), "then you will have a beautifully dressed doll!" Such a mother, by encouraging this child in her efforts, giving her new fields to conquer, appealing to her ability to do more, is preparing the way for a "talent." Contrast another mother whose three-year-old daughter makes the same clumsy stitches in a doll's dress, and is met with, "For heaven's sake, don't bother with that needle! You'll only prick yourself! Little girls can't sew dolls' dresses!" In the first case the child is encouraged to find new combinations, new colors, new models, and develops her technique because her efforts are met by encouragement and applause. The second child loses all desire for activity in which her clumsiness is held up as a cause for shame and punishment. The first develops a talent. The second will complain all her life, "I have absolutely no talent for needlework!"

Weeping, an eight-year-old girl came into the office, weeping, with her mother. The latter explained that the child made no progress in school. She had come in from the country with excellent reports having finished the third grade. She was put in the fourth grade in a city school, failed, was demoted to the third grade, failed again, was finally demoted to the second grade, and was doing very poorly there. The disparity between the previous excellent reports and the present bad reports was very marked. From the standpoint of Individual Psychology, the change in reports represented not a change in talent, but the substitution of a bad environment for a good one.

Investigation of the child's life disclosed that until recent months she had lived in the country with foster parents. The mother had been divorced from her husband and while trying to exist by work in the city had sent her daughter to the country. Now that she had succeeded in establishing herself financially, she had brought the child home to live with her.

From our standpoint, this amounts to a psychological experiment which had been unsuccessful. The reasons for the child's failure are not hard to find. We can imagine that this child living in the country with foster parents expected that the return to her mother would be something of a triumphal entry into a promised Eden. She expected her mother to be the apotheosis of beauty, kindness, goodness. One question gives us our clue. I ask, "Did you like it out in the country with your foster parents?" The girl answers, "Yes. They were very kind to me, treated me like their own child, and bought me pretty playthings."

Now I ask the mother, "How did you receive the child, and how do you treat her?" The mother answers, "I have had a very sad life with my husband. He was an habitual drunkard, and I was afraid that the child had inherited his bad traits, and so l have tried to educate her very strictly, and prevent, if possible, the curse of drunkenness falling upon her, too!" "How do you do this?" I ask. "How does one educate a child to prevent the curse of drunkenness from showing itself?" The mother replies, "One must be very strict and severe with the child; not allow her to play with bad children, criticize all faults, punish all lies and moral failings."

Now put yourself in the child's position. This is the Promised Land; this is the mother from whom one expects the goodness of an angel, the beauty of motherly love! And the mother turns out to be a nagging, anxious, criticizing, punishing sort of an avenging witch.

I take the mother aside and tell her that perhaps under other circumstances her actions would be advisable, but that in this case it might be better if she attempted to win over the child to her with love and affection. "If I were in your shoes," I tell the mother, "I should go so far as to admit to the child that I had made a mistake, that I had meant well but I had followed a bad method, and that now I wish to be reconciled, and to try to forget the past and do better in the future. I know that you will not follow my advice entirely, because it requires great courage on the part of a mother to admit an error to her child, but you can at least try love and affection.”

This mother, however, did have the courage. "I shall do exactly as you would do," she said. Mother and daughter were reconciled before my eyes in the midst of ceremonial tears and sobs. Fourteen days later, mother and daughter returned. The picture was entirely different. Both were laughing; both were happy. The little girl was leading her class in the third grade, and brought a note from the teacher saying that a miracle must have occurred.

We have the records of a number of similar cases. With the more complicated cases I do not wish to burden my readers, but it is precisely these most complicated cases which come into our hands as psychiatrists. These are the cases of patients who have suffered a total shipwreck of their personality upon the rocks of somebody's prejudice and have been miseducated in their childhood. Either the individual believes he is totally untalented and unworthy, or as frequently happens, the individual or his relatives believe that he is enormously talented, but the talent does not appear because the individual is "so nervous!"

There are hundreds of such individuals who find themselves duty-bound to live a life of sickness and “nervousness" in order that their "talent" (which they inwardly fear does not exist) shall not rise to the surface. We can see what mischief this conception of "talent" can accomplish in a life. The paradox is that the poorly equipped man, the man who starts behind the line, has the greatest advantage. Progress and achievement result only from the conquest of difficulties. He who conquers difficulties wins.

The issue of talent, particularly in America, England, and Germany where the need for trained technicians is great, has reached such importance that nowadays half-grown children are tested for their "talent" for some adult profession. It is my duty to point out that the most expert and highly trained experimental psychologists all make timid, unconvincing reports concerning tests of ability. All their experiments demonstrate that no well-defined, actual judgments can be rendered concerning the "talent" of an individual for any particular task. All of them agree that reality is quite different from the tests, and that we finally have to take the stand that the average man can perform the average task. The riddle really begins when we find an individual who cannot pass the tests.

IV

What science has designated as organic defects are a very general phenomenon. No one has ever seen a normal child, and we can find some kind of organic defect in everyone. What is important is the sense of defect which the child feels because he has an inadequate organ, and more particularly, what that child's environment says about his defect. There are families who believe their children are sick if they do not weigh twice as much as normal children. As a result, a perfectly normal child grows up in an atmosphere of a chronic invalid. We have seen many children who have grown up with the idea they had weak hearts. Despite the fact that no cardiac lesion could be discovered, these individuals could not run or exercise, and shrank from every effort. Their anxiety and care for their preservation from excitement went beyond the bounds of all reason, and the tendency to guard and defend themselves as though they were fragile porcelain remained long after their discovery that they were quite healthy and as capable of work as anyone else. They had prepared a soft berth for themselves in life, and were loath to leave it. But in fact, we find many children who suffer from organic defects, particularly of the sense organs. And we know well that such individuals suffer much more in life than normal children. They experience the deficiencies of their bodies, as for instance a weak digestive tract, bad skin, poor eyes, and suffer more intensely. They feel a certain pressure which under normal circumstances would develop into added attention, greater training, a better technique for overcoming their difficulties.

All poets probably belong in this class. Goethe and Schiller both had bad eyes, and the German poet Gustav Freytag writes in his diary that at the age of fourteen he could imagine better than he could see, as his ignorant father refused to let him wear glasses. The organic defect often gives direction to the total activity of the individual.

Under unpropitious circumstances, an organic defect is compensated in a useless way. In such cases, we have problem children, criminal children, neurotic children. It may be stated with certainty that wherever we see a child occupied with useless, criminal, or neurotic behavior, it is because he has felt himself "untalented" for the normal activity demanded by our world. Here is another angle to the difficult matter of "talent." The language which other psychologists use to describe their beliefs constitutes a challenge to Individual Psychologists to do something about the problem. A boy learns that he is not talented for mathematics and finds himself in a group of similar boys who have been branded in the same way. Or a girl finds herself in a group who "cannot learn Latin." These individuals present us with a very ticklish situation, because if we cannot prove them otherwise, they maintain that they are right, that they are untalented, or talented only to a certain degree.

One of the greatest contributions of Individual Psychology has come in the discovery that there need be no actual organic deformity or inferiority for a child to consider himself hindered at the start. The sense of pressure which I have described as occurring in the actual presence of organic inferiorities may occur also in the presence of purely social difficulties, or as a result of the position of the child in the family constellation. In other words, a child with a normal digestive tract but bad nutrition may assume a behavior pattern similar to that of a child with a malformed stomach.

It is possible to burden a perfectly normal child with a pressure so great that he feels himself unable to cope with it. This point explains the fact which has been the thorn in the side of other psychologists. Occasionally, we find an individual with perfect organs, with good inheritance, and of good family, who is nevertheless untalented, incapable, a poor performer, the proverbial black sheep. We have determined that this is entirely due to the relative picture, the context within which this child finds himself, and that the blind fate of his behavior pattern has been fixed in previous relationships.

Similarly, in children who are educated without love or affection, we find a characteristic behavior pattern. The unbelievably large number of illegitimate children who are tossed from pillar to post by our society come in this category. But a child does not need to be illegitimate to grow up with the idea that he is hated. The petted child sooner or later comes to the same conclusion. A petted child in a situation in which he does not get his accustomed love and affection shows all the reactions of a hated child. This becomes particularly evident in the case of first-born children who are followed by other children. The parents may not actually change their attitude toward the first-born, but he interprets the presence of the second born as an insult to his prestige. He considers himself a dethroned monarch and acts accordingly, making every effort to regain his lost power. Suspicion, hate, envy of the rival are the natural consequences. This type is particularly frequent among firstborn children.

It is at this point that I wish to blast another superstition. It is generally believed that children who grow up in the same home pass through the same environmental influences. This is a fallacy. The tension, the relative context is as different for each individual as can be. No other child ever lives through the same situation that a first-born experiences. Every other child always has a pacemaker. The first-born constantly occupies the family limelight for a time. Put a child in the limelight, accentuate the situation strongly, and we build up an unmistakable behavior pattern. This will be the style of life in which he strives always for the center of the stage, in which he must always occupy the main position. Quite different is the second-born. He directs all his energies at making power crash from its throne. He is always under steam, on the go, looking for short-cuts to power. I do not say that every first-born son and every second-born must follow this pattern; but we are more accustomed to finding these reactions in these situations.

V

If I have now given brief proof of the influence of the environment in determining the social and professional capabilities and talents of an individual, their preparation or lack of preparation for the solution of the problems of life, what remains of that mystic quality which we have been solemnly accustomed to calling talent? Where is this alchemic thing which psychologists want to weigh and evaluate with scientific instruments? Our problem is quite another one: To make talented individuals out of untalented ones.

The opposite school of thought has always suffered shipwreck. Wherever people have tried to foster so-called talented individuals, the subjects have come to no good end. The schools for talented, psychologically tested “over-average” pupils hide their heads in shame because of their poor results. What of classes for talented and untalented children? I have always found, particularly in Vienna, that the classes for talented children consisted mostly of relatively well-nourished individuals from the better classes, whereas in the untalented classes the poorly fed and poorly dressed children of the proletariat were to be found. Binet, the father of psychological tests, made the same discovery. In the very beginning of his researches he called attention to the remarkable fact that there was a constant relation between talent and body-weight. We should not be surprised at this constant relationship. But it is not a cause and effect relationship at all.

The elements which the Individual Psychologists have found most necessary to the development of a child into a useful social being are a good relation with the rest of humanity and the feeling that he is equal to other children. Training toward social feeling should begin in the earliest years, and continue through life. Courage, the consciousness of confidence, and equality should be fostered wherever possible. If this is done, we find an individual always on the useful side of life, showing the personality of a worthwhile, courageous, socially-minded man or woman.

Rob this child of his courage and the feeling of his equal chance, and we thwart his development. The fallacy of talent is one of the most effective means of limiting the development of a child. If we tell a child offhand he is untalented, and he then proves untalented, this does not prove that we were right. We "fixed" him! And we must not wonder at our evil results. Similar damage can be done to the so-called "talented" individual. By constantly giving him tests of his prowess, usually useless ones, we run the risk of serious damage to his self-confidence and self-esteem. At any rate, a pathological ambition is bound to develop and the chances are that this talented individual will soon have to hide behind a smokescreen of "nervousness" to defend himself from useless tests of his powers.

The courage which is the basis of talent must be combined with adequate training. Many seemingly untalented individuals are simply poorly trained. Their slightest actions bear the inhibitions of this inadequate technique. We know that there are individuals who walk badly, who have no talent for speaking, and of course others who seem to have no talent for studying, reasoning, thinking, or reading books. It is simply a question of finding the right technique for training them to accomplish their tasks.

Let us refer to the biography of Charlemagne and read the amusing words of his biographer: "Although Charlemagne tried with might and main to learn to read and write, he never accomplished these things because he obviously had no talent for them." But since the days of Pestalozzi,2 it is no longer necessary to have talent to read and write. Every child can do it.

Growing insight into technique and training will doubtless open up new fields for the formerly "untalented," and I prophesy that soon the delusion of "talent" will vanish into the limbo of witchcraft, the evil eye, and the casting of spells. If we could develop the technique of teaching composition better, we could make a half-way adequate composer out of everyone. This sounds like heresy to the composers, to the musical genius. But remember that while Beethoven's mother was pregnant with him, his father said, "If this will be a boy, he will be a second Mozart!" We can say that he guessed correctly, that the boy had the appropriate talents. But what was the most outstanding feature about Beethoven? A hereditary organic defect: Otosclerosis, a hereditary disease of the ear ossicles which results in severe deafness about the twentieth year. What would one of our modern vocational guidance psychologists have said to the young Beethoven? Would he have prophesied talent as a musician? Certainly not. He would have made a shoe salesman out of him, would have directed him to leave music strictly alone. And had Beethoven followed his advice, become a shoe salesman, the vocational guidance psychologist would have claimed that he was right. No musical genius would have developed in him!

2 (Editor’s note) Johann Pestalozzi: (1746-1827) – A Swiss educational reformer.


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