Does Hard Work Trump Talent?

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My son and swim team friends.

I was questioning whether swimmers with good work ethics and some talent can ever be as great as swimmers with extraordinary talent. I “Googled” hard work vs. talent and I discovered “Hard Work Beats Talent (but Only If Talent Doesn’t Work Hard)”–by Piers Steel Ph.D. –The Procrastination Equation on Psychology Today from Oct. 8, 2011.

Complete with a chart the author discusses intelligence, rather than physical talent, but they are both inherited traits, so I believe they’re interchangeable. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Hard work vs Talent: Who Wins?
In a world where we are ridiculously overcommitted to making sure everyone is equal in every way, a new study just published in Psychological Science contains some sobering news you might not like. In their paper “Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance,” David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz kill the myth that talent doesn’t matter. We would love to believe, of course, that all we need to do to be the best is to try hard enough. You can be anything you want as long as you really want it: rocket scientist, pop icon, sport hero. There is no shortage of popular pundits promoting this myth. As Hambrick and Meinz point out:

Malcolm Gladwell (2008) commented that “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real world advantage” (pp. 78-79). In his own bestselling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks (2011) expressed the same idea: “A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 1Q, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success” (p. 165). Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are simply wrong. At least in science, a high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage-and the higher the better.

The people peddling this notion that talent is irrelevant often cite a 1993 paper by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tech-Romer regarding deliberate practice in which the researchers argue that success is usually built upon purposeful, thoughtful and intense efforts to improve performance over about 10,000 hours. This is true; hard work does pay off. The Beatles got to be so good because they had to perform their music four hours a day (eight days a week) during their two year stint in Hamburg. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at chess after years of honing his skills at the Brooklyn Chess Club.  But that wasn’t the question. What we want to know is whether hard work makes talent irrelevant. Will every group that jams together for 10,000 hours become the Fab Four and every chess obsessed child become a world champion?

Hambrick and Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in this chart. The vertical axis measures your level of performance. Higher up means spectacular. The horizontal axis charts your innate talent, in this case cognitive ability, what the rest of the world refers to as “intelligence.” Further to the right means super smart. The two lines refer to different levels of deliberate practice. The red line refers to those who have put in the hours while the blue refers to those who haven’t made the effort.

There are two things to take away from this. The first is that being smart is a useful thing to inherit, right up there with a large trust fund. The more smarts you have, the higher your performance. And despite what Gladwell and Brooks say, intelligence’s benefits don’t disappear; the more innate talent of any sort you have, the better off you are going be.

If you take a careful look, however, you will notice that those of us with more modest abilities do have a chance. Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t. Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.13.09 AM

So, to answer my question about whether hard-working swimmers will ever match super talented swimmers–it all depends. Being a swim mom in the LSC Southern California Swimming means we were surrounded with talent. Every team has standouts and at meets, my kids had to compete with drop-dead amazing Olympic swimmers like Vlad Morozov, Abbey Weitzeil and NCAA champ and American Record Holder Ella Eastin. Those three swimmers I mentioned were blessed with talent–plus they work hard, too. That’s not a common combination.

I observed that many of the most talented kids didn’t learn to work hard. It was easy for them to compete and win. So growing up, they didn’t experience failure and how to turn that into motivation. In the end, I saw many of these talented kids quit swimming when they either had to work hard to improve or were no longer the fastest on their team or at meets. I believe a missing key ingredient that determines success in any field is passion. Passion is what drives a person to keep trying, working hard and enjoying the process and small improvements along the way.

I have to say that in my Masters’ group I notice that hard work pays off, too. I’ve been out for more than five months with an injury. Now that I’m back, I’m surprised at how much my friends have improved in my absence. They are the ones who are showing up every day and putting in hard work. They are swimming faster, are stronger and swimming more. It’s motivating to me to keep going and gain back some of what I’ve lost.

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An age group meet at our Palm Springs pool.

What are your thoughts about talent versus hard work?

 

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4 thoughts on “Does Hard Work Trump Talent?

  1. Hard work gets you a long way. Talent and hard work will get you farther. Talent without hard work is often passed by the hard worker. I first noticed this as a high school gymnast, where there were some naturally gifted kids who didn’t work. I was aware then that if I had their physical gifts combined with my desire and will to work, I could do great things. Given my natural physical attributes, and desire and will, I was able to do good things. Both talent and grit is a surprisingly rare combination.

    • I agree completely. I watched my daughter, the hard worker with some talent by pass a few talented swimmers who lacked interest and desire. You can’t make someone, even more if they’re gifted, want to put in the hard work. It has to be intrinsic.

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