“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein, German-American physicist.
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” — Michael Jordan, American pro basketball player.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” — Stephen King, American writer.
One of the cornerstones of American culture is the concept of human equality: the notion that while some of us may be born into better circumstances than others, we all have equal rights as human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve enshrined that status in the very documents that declare and outline our system of government.
But as equal as we may be in the eyes of the law, it would be a mistake to assume or assert we’re all the same. We all have things that come more easily for us than they do for other people, even the very first time we try them. Like it or not, we can’t doubt the existence of the elusive quality we call talent.
Maybe you find it easy to play the clarinet, or chess makes intuitive sense to you. Dealing with people may be a snap; or perhaps you’ve got an instinctive flair for time-management skills. Talents pop up for everything in every corner of life. You can learn a skill or get better at something, but it appears you either possess a talent, or you don’t, with no in between. Why? Like most of the big “whys” in our world, the answer to that one remains uncertain. There may be a genetic component to it. Many people have a “talent” for rolling their tongues, while others lacking a certain gene can’t roll their tongues at all … no matter how hard they try.
Recently, the New York Times reported that all else being equal, those with innate talents — especially in terms of intelligence — tend to do better in life than their less-talented colleagues. That makes sense … but so do the studies that suggest that in the long run, hard work and constant practice can overcome a lack of natural talent, which can often take people farther and higher than talent alone. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, this one will no doubt drag on for decades before we reach a consensus — if that ever happens at all. It probably won’t, because let’s be blunt here: when it comes to human intellect and behavior, pat answers rarely exist beyond the realm of children’s stories. Perhaps “practice makes perfect” comes closest to reality. Research by psychologist Anders Ericsson (popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell) estimates it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. This applies most obviously to music and sports, but it also extends to mundane activities like business skills, learning to write well, driving, even housework. We just don’t see these sorts of things celebrated they way we do Yo Ya Ma’s cello playing or Michael Jordan’s basketball skills. For every Mozart who excelled as a child prodigy, we have an Albert Einstein, who did only reasonably well at math in school (the popular misconception that he failed is a myth) but later built himself into the world’s top physicist. Better yet, consider Tiger Woods, who started playing golf at the age of 18 months before going on to become a superstar in the sport starting at age 18. Does Woods have talent? Indubitably. Did almost two decades of constant practice hone his talent to a keen edge? Absolutely. If talent trumped hard work, then would the most famous basketball player in history have started out on his junior varsity high school team? Well, he did. Michael Jordan’s coach didn’t even think he deserved to be in his school’s top-10 players. Jordan undeniably has talent; but combining it with hard work, and pushing himself well beyond the required workouts, got him into the Hall of Fame, not just talent.
When it comes to success, I believe three qualities — hard work, persistence, and desire — hold greater value than sheer talent. Just about anyone of normal intelligence can learn to accomplish any human activity or behavior competently — IF that person practices enough, day in and day out. Sometimes, talent can actually hinder accomplishment. If you tell someone over and over they have a talent for something, they may just decide they don’t have to work hard to succeed. Needless to say, we don’t hear much about those people, do we?
You can make it without innate talent if you work hard — no doubt about it. Conversely, you’re less likely to succeed by depending on talent alone. Those of us who make the big time usually do so because we combine talent with hard work and determination.
The lesson here? Talent does give you an edge — you can’t deny that. But hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.