The difference between a talent and a skill is significant. The former, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘the natural endowments of a person, a general intelligence or mental power, a special aptitude’ and is derived
from the ancient Greek, talanton, meaning the pan on a scale, which in Latin became talentum, a unit of weight or money. The implication is that a medieval Englishman saw a talent as one side of a balance, the latter acting as a metaphor
for what we bring with us into this world.
A skill, on the other hand, is defined as a learned power of doing something competently, a developed aptitude or ability, and is derived from the Old Norse skil, meaning distinction.
Thus we are born with certain talents, or what Howard Gardiner has called multiple intelligences, presumably genetic. Mostly we take them for granted - we are unconsciously talented. - and one of the joys of parenthood is watching
those talents, or gifts, emerge in one’s children. Skills, by comparison, develop as we grow, either through personal endeavor or coaching. My supposition is that it is easier to develop a skill that is related to one’s talents.
As a personal example, I realize that I have a talent for experiencing the natural world and for writing (as a means of getting my thoughts in order) and with the benefit of hindsight I can see how both played a significant part in my
education. My mother recognized my joy of writing and provided both feedback and encouragement, nor did my parents discourage the long hours I spent alone in the Rhodesian bush despite the risks, an attitude that is difficult to imagine in an age of
helicopter parenting. I vividly recall a third grade teacher choosing to read to the class an essay that I had written as part of a homework assignment. I cannot recall the subject matter; I do recall the feelings that were evoked, and now, some
65 years later, I am beginning to understand why. Much of the time in between has been spent developing the skills of writing and observing, to the point that they have merged through the medium of the honey bee.
that third grade experience may also have spawned a desire for an audience and for recognition!
As I have written about before, and to steal Billy Wilder’s phrase, I have van Gogh’s ear for music. The years spent trying
to develop basic musical skills have been frustrating and fruitless. Learning to play the piano is an example, an area in which my mother’s support and tuition was totally unsuccessful. Don’t dare get me on a dance floor! You won’t
recover from laughing and I won’t recover from the humiliation.
In the 1960’s, Dr Thomas Gordon, a Californian with three Nobel Prize nominations, developed his Skill Development Ladder, a four step process describing
how we acquire a skill. We are all initially unconsciously unskilled. Take the example of flying a kite. At first glance it seems simple - go outside, throw it in the air and run, a la Charlie Brown. Fishing might be
another good example - sit on the bank, throw in a line with a worm on a bent pin and reel them in. It’s when we actually try it that we realize there are artifices involved that we don’t have but which, with persistence and guidance, can
be learned. Dr. Gordon called this consciously unskilled.
My guess is that when a talent and a skill are in harmony it is easier to persevere through the initial disillusionment.
The third stage
is one of being consciously skilled as one’s patience and tenacity are rewarded, until eventually one flies a kite on the beach while talking to a group of onlookers, or sits by a line in the water while reading a good book (or, in today’s
world, checking one’s phone.) The skills are taken for granted and one is unconsciously skilled.
I recall my granddaughter, Nora, several years ago asking from the back seat if driving a vehicle is difficult.
I tried to explain that mostly I did it without thinking - changing gears, pushing the gas pedal braking - and when she looked uncertain (perhaps concerned?) we discussed how she had watched her youngest brother learn to walk, the amount of effort that
initially went into each step, and how now he skipped and ran without conscious effort.
How does this relate to beekeeping and to bees?
First, CCD has drawn significant attention to the plight of honey bees and the
enrollment in new beekeeper classes has been prolific. In my experience about 25 per cent of those who sign up will persevere after the first year, and the reason may be tied to talent. All are well meaning - “I must do something to help the bees”
- and managing a hive first comes to mind. Many are unconsciously unskilled and as the reality becomes apparent and the romantic expectations fade, they decide on alternative means of helping the girls. Then there are those who, whether they
know it or not, have a nature-based talent for whom beekeeping ties into the bigger picture. Being consciously unskilled is not fearful so much as a challenge, they quickly see connections, are undaunted by failure and approach the learning process as one
of constant enlightenment.
Many of us have witnessed this first-hand as mentors. Some new beekeepers move confidently through that vital first year, absorbing everything they experience. Others, should they persevere, keep
asking the same questions in subsequent years and doing the same repetitive things, constantly appealing to their mentor to visit. How gently to encourage them to let go is something I have never successfully managed to do.
Secondly, I recall being told as a young teacher that good students are humble because they realized how little they know, whereas poor students are over-confident because they are unaware of how little they know. One of the challenges of a mentor is to
persuade good beekeepers, in the latter steps of their learning, that they have become unconsciously skilled, that they know more than they realize and have much of value to share either with the public or with colleagues who are tentatively putting their
first foot on the ladder.
This is not to suggest that the learning stops - ever. Once we have reached that top step and got our breath back, invariably there is another ladder waiting to be climbed. It is when I was unconsciously
skilled in hive management that I began to focus on queen quality, something of which previously I had been blissfully unaware, or in Dr. Gordon’s phrase, unconsciously unskilled.
And what about the bees? Do they go through
this same process? Not at all. They are not thinking, reasoning animals with talents and skills, despite having a surprisingly large brain for their size (which primarily receives and organizes stimuli from the various ganglia) and despite our
attempts to anthropomorphize them. We do know that some bees work harder than others, some sleep more, some drones fly higher, but in essence they are superbly tuned, genetic creatures, honed and refined over millions of years of evolutionary struggle,
who emerge from their cells programed to perform a series of tasks for the common good until they die.
The equivalent might be having a baby which, immediately after birth, cleans out the delivery room so that it is ready for the