While I’ve certainly called people “talented” over the years, and meant it as the highest kind of compliment, it might be taken differently than that.
As Seth Godin says in The Practice, “talent is not the same as skill.” He goes on to define each word:
Talent is something we’re both with: it’s in our DNA, magical alignment of gifts.
Skill is earned. It’s learned and practiced and hard-won.
It’s insulting to call a professional talented.
If someone has spent thousands of hours becoming an expert at what they do, calling them “talented” is taking away the effort and attributing it to the luck of how they were born.
Rudy sacks O’Hara in practice
A great example of this is from the film “Rudy”. If you’ve somehow not seen it, it’s the mostly-true story of Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger walking on to the Notre Dame football team and eventually getting to play in one game. When it comes to talent, he had none, but fought hard to make the team.
The running back on the team, Jamie O’Hara, is the opposite. Loads of talent, no earned skills. On the last day of practice, Rudy is pushing hard while O’Hara is coasting, and the coach laments O’Hara’s lack of effort throughout his career:
Rudy is sort of the type of guy you kinda want to hate in that scene, acting rather cocky, but the lesson holds true. Rudy had no talent, but worked to improve his skills, while O’Hara had tons of talent but was a slacker.
The best of both
Ideally, you can find something that you have some natural talent in, and then develop the skills to go with it. As famous NBA player Larry Bird has said:
A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.
All of that said, I’ll likely still call some people “talented” as a compliment, as it’s unlikely to be taken as an insult, but knowing the difference is important.
You can’t change your talent level, but you have your whole life to improve your skills. Go level up.