Gift or Skill?

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

“How is the travel going?” my client asked. “How many weekends did you teach this month?”
“Just twice, once in the West and once on the East Coast,” I replied.
This perfectly mundane conversation had deep roots in a far less superficial conversation several years earlier. In the silence that followed, I could not help but wonder if my client remembered that conversation, one that I will never forget. It took place when she was on my table and, as I remember, the conversation went something like this …
“It is hard to get an appointment with you,” she said. “It took almost a month to get on your schedule. When I told the front desk staff that Fridays, weekends, and Mondays are best for me, they said you aren’t typically in on those days, as you are often out of town. You get to take a lot of vacations!” she said, somewhat teasingly.
“That would be nice,” I replied, “but my weekend travel is due to teaching continuing education workshops for therapists in my field.”
“What kinds of things are you teaching?” she asked.
“The work we are doing now,” I answered. “The bulk of the training is hands-on, where therapists are translating anatomical understanding into hands-on applications. They practice on each other to sharpen their palpation skills and master the techniques. That takes some time and accurate feedback from their practice partners.”
“Seems a little futile,” my client said.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked incredulously, thinking I must have heard her incorrectly.
“It just sounds like an unachievable task,” she explained. “I’m not sure that is possible.”
“You don’t think what is possible?” I responded, trying to quell the irritation I was experiencing.
“Well, it just seems like what you do is an art. You are extremely gifted, like no therapist I have ever seen. You have an uncanny knack for knowing where to go and what to do. A friend of mine, who also sees you, said it’s like you can see with your hands. That is a tremendous gift, and it just seems unlikely to transfer that capability to others. I think it is something you are born with.”
At this point, the feeling I was suppressing escalated far beyond irritation. I took a deep breath before I replied.
“As I understand your point, each of us is born with innate gifts. Perfect pitch, for example. You either have it or you don’t. Teaching a gift isn’t really possible. It’s a gift, not a skill, right?”
“Yes, exactly,” she said.
“Now, I understand what you are saying,” I continued. “So, we should ask the University of Illinois to close the School of Music and shutter the doors at the School of Art + Design. Either you can draw, sculpt, or play the viola, or you can’t. It is an innate gift and attempting to teach that to someone else is futile.”
(Did I mention this client is an art professor?)
“Well, no, I …” her voice trailed off. “I just think that your craft is different.”
“How could it be?” I challenged. “How can one discipline be different from another? Music, theater, drawing, sculpting, poetry, or photography—the same rules apply to all. Why would massage therapy be any different? I have worked with some of the best performers in the world and every single one of them is obsessive about skill-building and practice. Cellist Pablo Casals played one of the Bach cello suites every day of his life, even up to age 93. Most of these artists also coach younger people in skill refinement. Observe a master class with opera singer Renee Fleming or violinist Itzhak Perlman and watch how they teach their students fundamental concepts, so that the art can deepen.
“One more thing to make my point. Researchers in Japan took 24 children between the ages of 2 and 6 years old and did four short pitch discrimination training exercises per day. In less than one year, every single child developed perfect pitch. Yes, one in 10,000 people are born with perfect pitch, but this study suggests every child has the capacity to attain it. So, I ask again, gift or skill?”
“Wow, I get your point,” she said, rather apologetically. “I just didn’t break down your craft into its component skill sets.”
As it turns out, she wasn’t the only one. The following year, I asked every class of massage therapists I instructed to name the requisite skills for excellence in basketball in 60 seconds. On average, they could name 7.8 skills (passing, dribbling, shooting, etc.). When asked the same question about massage therapy, the number was 2.3 skills identified in 60 seconds.  
To develop skills, you must be able to identify
them. If you practice those skills with enough discipline and passion, eventually, someone will probably call you gifted!

Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars, president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois, and president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit, or email him at