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You've gotta be born with it

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JULY 03, 2012

I once knew an acting coach who adamantly stated that “you can’t teach someone how to act — either you have it, or you don’t.”

Funny thing to say, I have to admit, for someone who made a living teaching people to act. But, as she used to say, if you want to be a great actor, “you just have to be born with it. No one can teach someone something that they don’t already understand.”

What the components “it” consist of I cannot even begin to fathom, but whatever “it” is that one needs, I just didn’t seem to have.

My family is what some people might call a “theater family.” My mom met my dad while doing a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” back in the 1980s, when she was an up-and-coming young actress and he was a talented student at the Marin Ballet Academy. They’ve both always been very entertaining people, charming, outgoing.

My mother had almost been cast as the lead in the Miss Saigon national tour in her early 20s, so naturally my parents had always hoped that I’d get famous early on and go to Broadway. I was given singing lessons on every car ride, taken in for modeling at the age of 2, put in lots of shows. Maybe I was too reserved for the theater, maybe I just wasn’t good enough … but whatever the reason was, my mother has since noted that I just don’t have it in me. I can readily admit that I’m no match for the theater, at least not in the way that some people are.

You’ve got to be born with it, and I definitely wasn’t born with it.

Although, I suppose it’s all well and good that no one would be able to teach me how to act, I never took my career in musical theater all too seriously. Yet, it did make me think. Apparently, to be a successful actor, you need to be gifted, and no one can teach you if you don’t already somehow know. But what about everything else? There are a lot of things out there in the world that don’t pertain to acting. Does the same precedent hold true for other things in life?

Do you have to be a natural to be successful?

I was reading a Forbes article the other day titled “’You Can’t Teach Entrepreneurship.’” In it, I found the same basic idea, relevant in the business world just as it was in the acting community: “top US and UK universities claimed that entrepreneurship could not be taught.” Clearly, the issue is much more universal than any one field. There’s obviously something important to this whole “gotta be born with it” thing.

So I began to wonder: Is it truly necessary that one be born with a given talent, or can it be learnt by not-so-naturally gifted people over time? Many of us in the world are born un-talented, you know. We can’t all be musical prodigies at the age of 7. Are we just supposed to sit and admit defeat?

I really don’t think so. It’s interesting, I’ve come to think that gifts aren’t so much a result of natural ability as they are of sheer passion.

It should also be noted that being gifted is not necessarily always a good thing: Gifted people oftentimes have a disadvantage to those willing to work extremely hard; their natural gifts may sometimes reduce their determination and drive. I’ve seen some of the most talented people I know quit many of the things they’ve tried because they weren’t automatically good at them. These types of people are used to getting things easy because they’re intelligent or charismatic or beautiful or something. When things get tough, they might just get going.

Not so with people who had to work for what they have. Having had to earn everything you’re proud of through blood, sweat and tears definitely helps your work ethic. You start to appreciate things more.

As my dad always says, “It’s about the amount of effort you put in, not how good at it you start out.” And he would know: Unable to read until he was in fourth grade, my dad was not academically gifted growing up and left high school early to pursue his acting career, thinking he’d never need math again. After meeting my mom, however, he decided he had a new purpose in life — one in which he’d need to painstakingly teach himself years of calculus in his apartment to obtain his degree in computer science to start a family with my mother. His life goals changed completely when he fell in love with her, and it was vital he put in the work to make them happen.

So he did. And it happened.

Maybe to some extent you’ve got to be born with it, but without a few other things — things like dedication and enthusiasm — you aren’t going anywhere.

Contact Mia Shaw at 


JULY 03, 2012