A wonderful performance or show of skill is more often than not the result of a long process of applied effort in specific skills rather than innate ability. Praise the performer's conscious effort, not his innate ability.
The layman concept of a genius is a person who has an above-average proficiency in intellectually-oriented skills, either by chance or some kind of divine plan. The truth is that, while there are true geniuses throughout history, almost none of them fit this trope. A genius is a person who happens to excel at one or more skills after long hours and years of practice, related work and directed focus, but rarely by chance.
However, us human beings crave stories and stories always have something out of the ordinary: extraordinary people, extraordinary problems, extraordinary skills... We tend to feel psychologically satisfied when we know of such a story, even more if it's not ficticious. This is one of the basic components of the genius trope explained above: a person of extraordinary skill that succeeds where no one else can. We'd like to know that there is a hero among us.
Stories often skip on the boring parts of the Quest. This deletion is intentional: a good story is a very zen-like thing because it has everything that it needs but nothing more and nothing less. Anything that slows down the story (that is, anything that doesn't help establish character or advances the plot) must be eliminated.
In real life you can't skip those boring scenes. The training montage in Rocky serves the purpose of showing that the titular character is actually honing his skills and getting better at them, but carefully skips over the details that don't belong (like his routine, the specific exercises he made and such). It works in fiction, but not in reality.
Those boring parts, however, are essential to mastering any skill. Every person that has ever amounted to be better than average at anything has most likely gone through "boring" hours and maybe years of practice. Slowly but surely, these long hours add up and transform the student into a master.
2. The "invisible skill" problem
There are many theories on how we learn and how we achieve mastery of things. For the sake of simplicity, let's consider the theory that states that you achieve mastery at something after 10,000 hours of practice (and yes, I'm aware that this idea has its flaws and it's being debated elsewhere). Let's do some quick numbers here:
- If you practice something 2 hours a week (for example, a hobby), in a 52-week year you'll get 104 hours of practice, so you'll achieve mastery in 96 years.
- If you practice 2 hours a day, every day including weekends, in a 365-day year, you'll get 730 hours of practice, which means you'll achieve mastery in a bit under 14 years.
- If you want to achieve mastery of anything in 5 years, you'll have to practice 5 or 6 hours a day, every day.
It's easy to see that mastery, or even a significant fraction of it, is either the result of a "short" and very intensive period of training, or the result of a less intense but very long and very consistent period of training. More often than not the performer learns through practice how to conquer the most basic obstacles so that they no longer require a conscious effort to overcome. Thus, practice enables the performer to confront greater obstacles while making lesser obstacles trivial. The problem arises from the fact that these efforts are completely invisible to the casual observer.
An observer, unless he or she has some training in the skill, won't be able to recognize a number of things during a performance:
- The lack of minor obstacles (or rather, the fact that those obstacles exist and they aren't present)
- The specific obstacles that challenge the performer and how he or she overcomes them
- The overall skill level of the performer and his/her particular struggles
3. The things that you shouldn't say to a skilled singer
(or any other skilled person)
I must admit this whole writeup began as a somewhat angry rant about the things people have told me over the years. This is obviously not an exhaustive list and it's obviously based on singing, but the points I make here can be applied to a good number of skills, both "artistic" and "non-artistic".
- You're good because you were born with a good sense of music/a good voice
- For some unknown reason I happen to "get it" easier than most, but I have improved over it because I wanted to get better at it. My innate skill is only a source of motivation and nothing more, certainly not everything
- I could never do that (because I don't know anything about music/because I don't have a good voice)
- There are lots of people who "don't have it" and are equally good as me, if not better. If you truly can't do it, there's a deeper problem with you (either an honest problem with your ear or a pathetic self-esteem)
- You're very lucky to have a good voice
- Oh yes, the Luck Fairy is the sole responsible for all that. Never mind the hard work. It was all luck. Luck, luck, luck.
- I wish I'd had a good voice
- I bet you also wish you'd had a million dollars. For many skills, the only thing between you and having my skill is spending time practicing. That's why I have it and you don't
- I can't do it, it's impossible
- Then either change your religion and start praising me instead or explode your head because you're seeing the impossible right before your eyes. It's not impossible, it's very hard. The difference between those two is the same as the difference between a million and infinity.