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Discovering Your Talents

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Once, there was a rich man who went travelling to a far-off country. He left his money in the hands of his servants, expecting them to invest and increase it. He gave five talents (a talent was a sum of money) to one servant, two talents to the second servant, and only one talent to the third servant.

When the rich man returned from his trip, he required a reckoning for the talents he had left in his servants' care. The first servant brought back his five talents along with an additional five talents — the interest made on the original five talents. The second servant likewise brought back a return of two talents on the original two talents he had been given. The man commended them both for their hard work and financial savvy, and promoted them to positions of leadership.

The third servant, however, came back with only his one, meager talent. This servant had been given the least amount of money and thus had the least amount to lose if his investment went awry. But he was afraid his master would be angry if he lost the talent he had been given, and so he buried his talent in the ground. When the rich man saw that no return had been made on the talent he had given his servant, he was angry. He berated the man for his fear. The rich man made his fortune through investment and risk, not by hiding his money away. The man would have been far less angry with his servant if he had taken a chance, invested his talent, and lost it. The servant's talent was taken away and given to the first servant. The man cast the third servant out for his fear and ineptitude.

Some may recognize this story as a parable given by Jesus Christ to his followers (The Holy Bible, Matthew 25:14-30). It is the origin of the English word "talent," which we use to describe a special gift or ability that a person possesses. Each of us has at least one talent. Some have many talents, and others have only a few. It does not matter how many talents we have. What matters is how we use those talents. A talent's worth is realized when it is shared. Keeping a talent to oneself out of fear actually decreases its worth.

There are many different kinds of talents. Some people have very obvious talents —musical gifts, athletic prowess, acting skills, artistic creativity, or the Midas touch (turning one dollar into a million dollars). Other people have quieter talents — an ability to listen to and understand other people, or the instinct to know what is going on in the body and how to heal it. Some have talents that are quite helpful in the workplace —leadership, multi-tasking, organizational skills, etc. Some people possess the ability to acquire knowledge, and some also have the ability to explain that knowledge so others can understand it (teaching). Some people have a green thumb (gardening) or a special connection to the natural world around them (conservation). Some are good with animals (veterinarians, animal behaviorists, zookeepers). Some have a gift for motherhood or fatherhood. Some people can work wonders with machines and electronics, and some are extraordinarily good at math. Some know how to design a building, while others are good at making those designs a reality (construction). These are only a few of the talents a person could have. A comprehensive list of talents would fill volumes and volumes of books. Each person must discover his or her own talent (or talents) and then put in the needed work to help them flourish.

Talents are sometimes obvious when we are children. Other talents may not appear until we find ourselves in a situation which draws them out. Some may have a latent talent that they develop later — a "late bloomer." The opera singer Birgit Nilsson is one such person. Born in 1918, she grew up on a farm in Sweden. The farm had no running water or electricity. Her days were spent either at school or working on the farm. She milked the cows, thinned the beets, planted and harvested, cared for the animals, and did a lot of housework. She was an only child, and her father expected her to take over the farm (which had been in the family for several generations) when she grew up. She loved singing and sang in the church choir but never had formal training in her formative years. She began piano lessons at the age of fourteen, but singing was her first love. Though everyone in her town knew she had a wonderful voice, no one ever suspected that one day she would become one of the most world-renowned opera stars of our time.

At age 23, Birgit decided to take her talent to a new level. She enrolled in the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. She was intimidated by her fellow students, who all seemed to have extensive backgrounds in music. Uncertain of the depth of her talent, she vacillated between staying at the farm and following her dream of singing. Finally, a couple taking refuge at the family's farm during an intense storm heard Birgit sing and insisted that she get her musical training. They themselves were from Stockholm and offered her a place to stay when she arrived. Their encouragement sent Birgit's heart soaring, and she decided then and there that she would pursue her musical training.

In 1941, Birgit embarked on a three-year vocalist program at the Royal College of Music. After she completed the program, she attended the college's opera school. She graduated in 1946 and began singing in vocal concerts. Her debut as an opera singer came on October 9, 1946 when the Royal Swedish Opera asked her to fill in for an operatic role with only three days' notice. Thus was Birgit Nilsson thrown into the brilliance of the limelight. She never again went back to the shadowy sidelines.

Birgit's fame grew. She debuted on several international stages, including New York City's Metropolitan Opera. As she performed, her talent and voice continued to grow. Her dramatic soprano voice and imposing acting became the hallmark of Wagnerian opera. When we think of the Viking woman in the horned helmet, it is Birgit Nilsson we see. She could sing the most vocally demanding roles without ever tiring her voice. She had an astounding talent. After she retired from opera in 1984, she devoted her life to teaching other vocalists and helping out her hometown in Sweden. She passed away in 2010, leaving behind a bountiful legacy of talent and teaching.

Birgit Nilsson could have buried her extraordinary talent in the soil of her family farm. Instead, she took a chance. She invested her talent in education. Using the work ethic she had learned on the farm, she nurtured that talent and seized the opportunities that came her way (even if they were a little scary). Her investment brought back quite a return, and the world is better for it.

Each of us has a seed of talent and ability waiting to be nurtured and grown within us. For some of us, our parents discover this seed at an early age and encourage us to take lessons and receive the education needed to help that talent grow. Some of us may know, as Birgit Nilsson knew, that we have a talent that is waiting to burst forth. We can seek the needed training and opportunities to bring that talent to fruition. Still others of us do not know the powerful potential that lies dormant inside us. As we search ourselves and seek input from those around of us, we can find the undiscovered talents that lie buried in the fertile soil of our souls. The talents we develop and bless others with can bring limitless returns. One of the greatest returns we can receive is the joy that comes as we share our talents with the world, using them to uplift and strengthen others. Talents are treasures worth not only finding, but also giving away.