We love to talk about talent as though it’s something you’re either born with or you’ll never have, but does the truth bear that idea out?
Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, used some cursory research to poke holes in the idea of innate ability, something we often ascribe to the successful. Taking a look at a wide number of disciplines, from music to writing to computer programming, he found that those who had mastered the field were not the recipients of lucky genes or an immeasurable thing we call “talent.” Rather, those who had toiled and worked hard at their craft for approximately 10,000 hours (about 20 hours per week for a decade) found mastery. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, those who dedicated the effort to be great, Gladwell observed, were the ones who reached the peak of their profession.
Whatever you think of Gladwell’s hypothesis, and it has attracted some controversy, even those who dispute his findings agree that persistence and hard work result in greatness (they just seem to disagree on whether it’s 10,000 hours or a combination of different lengths of time). Deliberate practice of a skill is one of the best habits you’ll pick up in life, and it pays off in business. From drafting perfect proposals to putting a team together, consciously making the effort get better equips you with the various skills you need. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s something you develop.
If you think about it, it’s a lesson you probably learned in childhood without even knowing it. We’ve all heard the story of the tortoise and the hare. You’ve probably even heard it applied to business: the fundamentally-sound but unexciting tortoise beating out the flashy hare over a long run, substance winning over style. But there’s another lesson there besides the power of persistence. It’s not that the tortoise isn’t skilled, it can move along with the best of them, only at a slower pace. But the hare lost the race not because it was less skilled, but because it failed to make the effort to win. If it exists, innate talent like the speedy ability the hare had is more likely to be a detriment than a boost to your efforts. It robs you of the chance to get good through practice, leaving you vulnerable even to the slowest creatures on Earth.
Those early stages are an important primer for the rest of our lives, and the way we learn is from the feedback we receive. A Columbia University study showed that children who were praised for doing well on a test (their actual scores were disregarded) for having innate talent encouraged them to avoid risks, lest they fail to live up to the expectations that they’d be automatically great at anything. On the other hand, those children who were told they did well thanks to working hard were more willing to take on challenges.
The lesson here scales up to adulthood, as psychologists have demonstrated time and again. Praise someone for their high intelligence or talent? They’re getting the message that their success is out of their control. Tell them they’re doing well because they’re trying their hardest? That puts them in the driver’s seat, diminishing their natural fear of failure and putting their destiny in their own hands. Readiness for any hardship that comes your way is a requisite for entrepreneurship, and that means hard work will see you through when talent is merely a mirage.
While they may be overrated, I’ll never say that skills aren’t incredibly useful, just slightly misunderstood. They’re the kind of thing you build over time as you and your business grow, not a trait you’re born with. You can start a business with all kinds of knowledge in your pocket, but if you don’t make the commensurate level of effort to get it off the ground, you might as well be that dreamer, sitting back in your chair and imagining things instead of making them happen. If it’s the pinnacle you’re after, you’ll do better taking every necessary step rather than counting on fast feet to carry you there.