Skill Mindset – Hard Work Over Talent

In this article, I want to lay down the simple groundwork for understanding success as based on effort. I will do this by describing my personal experience, sharing popular examples, and backing up my assertions with information from leaders in the subject and peer-reviewed articles. Through this, I hope to show "natural talent," if not as simply fallacious, then at least as a phenomenon so rare that it should never be the basis for how to lead your life. 

Effort is more important than natural talent 

"Natural talent"--the sparkling jewel of birth we all wish had been bestowed upon us. It's the intellectual equivalent to being born beautiful. "If only I were just naturally amazing at something," we lament to ourselves, pondering how much better our lives could've been. Feeling as though we lack something, whether knowingly or not, far too many are hampered by the burden of their self-proclaimed ill birth. Below, I want to make a strong case for something you can control: effort.

building the foundation of our understanding

Laying down the foundation of effort 

Maybe what follows is just the senseless ranting of a deluded person without talent, forever convinced of his ability to change predetermined fate. I not only hope that's not true, but I think there's compelling evidence to refute that idea. While there are seem to be a neverending line of "natural-born" geniuses flaunted on TV, laid out for all our hungry eyes to envy, the vast majority of us get by on something a bit more pedestrian. Effort, it seems, is a quintessential component to achieving success.

Before we dive into the details, I want to take a moment to discuss the phraseology of this subject. As of late, the word "hard work" has taken on a slightly disparaging aura in some circles. "Work smarter, not harder," is the battle cry of modern intrepid entrepreneurs. I agree wholeheartedly that working smart is crucial for your success. After all, if you work hard trying to burrow through a mountain with a shovel (instead of smart with an industrial-size excavator), it's doubtful that you will be praised or rewarded for any success likely to be achieved.  

That said, hard work isn't ready to be dumped next to phrenology in history's dust pile of long-forgotten ideas. Not even close. Yes, it's important to work smart. But what is working smart without working hard? Simply thinking about it? Mere ideation? The intersection of your success lies in the ability to strike a balance between working smart and sustained effort. 

portrait of EinsteinCombating Hollywood 

There might be someone out there who could effortlessly spend an afternoon completing everything that takes me a week...but I doubt it. Newspapers and magazines adore the unstoppably creative brainiac inventor, the indomitably rugged adventurer, and the casually successful and suave start-up billionare. Through attention-grabbing headlines, we're told the stories of these fantastical beasts of industry and thrill. 

And why should they stop? We all love a compelling narrative. We hang on to the verbal thread of a story spun from hardship and eventual triumph. It's not that I believe their stories are not worth telling, but that the "story version" and the "full version" give a slightly different picture of how things unfolded. Glossing over the details makes for a great episode of Oprah, but offers little in the way of genuinely applicable inspiration. It's the apparent uniqueness in their story that makes it both so captivating to hear and so hard to apply to our own lives. Hard work? That's a bit easier to mimic.

Catching our breath for a second, it's easy to find a plethora of articles that detail the fallacy of this kind of thinking. Newspaper titles like, "Successful people openly lie about what it takes," books with names like "Outliers: The Story of Success" (which talks about the 10,000 hour rule), and adages like, "practice makes perfect," all show a different side of the story. 

Similarly, the idea that "geniuses" are always successful is a complete misunderstanding of the situation. As this article, "Why the smartest people often fail at work," indicates, being smart doesn't always mean being the best. In fact, those IQ tests can be used to measure certain aspects with statistically significant results, it has been shown that the relationship between IQ and income is probably not what many people think it is.  

Real world example of hard work

I originally wanted to pull an example from mathematics, a field overflowing with stories of prodigies, but it's a bit cliché. So, I'll turn to words instead of numbers!

nihar janga - spelling bee champNihar Janga was the 2016 Spelling Bee co-champion. It's easy to think that an 11-year-old correctly prattling off the spelling of words as convoluted and unfamiliar as gesellschaft, Feldenkrais, and pneumatomachy is a sure sign of genius. I mean, how could it be anything else when I, a college graduate, still sometimes mix up breath and breathe?!

But behind the veil we can see a different story. In his article, Chris Weller details some of the contributing factors that have led the co-champion to victory. He mentions, "two to three years of continuous training translated into NSF 9-year-old having thousands more words under their belt." Likewise, the article details how the kids will "spend time studying not just ordinary dictionaries, but dictionaries made up solely of prefixes and suffixes [too]."

There are a few important details to single out from those sentences. The operative words here are "training" and "studying." These kids didn't wake up one day with the knowledge of how to spells words suddenly branded into their brains. They learned it through effort! Similarly, studying prefix dictionaries doesn't really jive with our Hollywood-inspired notion of the confident and carefree genius. Stereotypes notwithstanding, you would be hard-pressed to find a skill out there that didn't come with a hefty helping of grunt work and tedium. 


Quirks of neurobiology 

Ok, so maybe Nihar is just an incredibly ambitious and hardworking student after all. To many, that might sound like an insult. But to me, this is even more extraordinary than being a "natural born" genius. Nihar poured hundreds of hours into his craft. Like a rags-to-riches story, isn't that more admirable than someone who was just born into it? Furthermore, Nihar's effort is uplifting for another reason: it shows that we can do it too! No longer a right of birth, self-improvement and even "genius" are more in our reach than we thought! 

But what about the REAL geniuses, like Kim Peek (who could read two pages of a book simultaneously in under 10 seconds and recite them with 99% accuracy) or Stephen Wiltshire (who can draw astonishingly detailed pictures with photo-realistic accuracy after seeing a cityscape for just a few moments)? Because these people represent the top 1% of 1% of 1%, I'm going to afford them a proportionately small segment in this article. 

picture drawn by Stephen Wiltshire

First, in a staggeringly high number of such cases, the quirks of neurobiology that gifted them with such extraordinary abilities has also taken something valuable away from them. Kim Peek might have only needed 10 seconds to mentally figure out which day of the week it was 3,000 years ago, but he couldn't button his shirt. 

Second, because of the absolute rarity of these instances, it's completely nonsensical to use them as a basis for understanding our own minds. There's nothing we can readily glean from their experiences. Yes, there are undeniable benefits to researching their minds and using such findings to better understand ours. But for the average Joe, the more useful takeaway is that they cannot be used as model for how to live our lives. 

Interest: where working smart and working hard bring the best results 

Thus far, I have tried to accomplish two main goals. First, I tried to show that hard work is the wind at any "natural-born" genius's back (if they exist). Second, that anyone who lies so unfathomably far from the abilities of ordinary people is of exceedingly limited use in understanding how to live our lives.

In the following segments, I want to move away from "geniuses" and savants and focus more on us plebeians. Besides, if a genius is defined as someone with an IQ in the top 1/4 of 1%, then for the sake of marketing I should probably tailor my article to the remaining 99.75% anyhow! 

One great way us hard workers can achieve our goals is by applying our effort to something that interests us. As Rupert Murdoch said, "It's all hard work. Nothing comes easily. But I have a lot of fun." To illustrate my point, I'll use an example from my own life. 

Storytime: living in a linguistic world 

I was nervous on my first day of high school. I had gone to school with the same group of 20 kids from K-8. To make matters worse, my high school also had a middle school, so 90% of the students had already been there for 3 years. In a school of 1,000 students, I knew 0.

kanji on japanese lanternsWhen it came time to pick classes, one of them leaped off the page at me: Japanese. Thinking back on my initial interest, I'm still dumbstruck about why Japanese struck me. With the pressure of being in an utterly foreign situation, my dad highly recommended I choose Spanish instead. "It's easier," he said, "and more useful too." In truth, he was right about both of those things. Had I taken Japanese as a freshman, there's a decent chance I wouldn't have done well. In fact, I continued taking Spanish for the next 4 years of high school + another 3 years in university. Spanish officially became my second language, I enjoy learning it, and it has proved useful (once or twice)!

Four years later, I arrived at my university. With still a week to spare, I got started on the most important things for any green college student: picking out furniture, finding the best restaurants, and meeting new people. On my second day in the new city, a familiar situation presented itself. It was time to pick classes! A booklet of all the possible courses I could take laid out before me, anything could've caught my eye. Yet, there is was again: Japanese. Why wouldn't it just leave me in peace to study the preterite and imperfect tenses of Spanish?!

Joking aside, this time was different. I wasn't taking advice from anyone, had developed good study habits, and wasn't at all worried about life on my new campus. Without hesitation, Japanese became the first class I signed up for as a freshman in college. 

Three years later, I had studied Japanese for 6 semesters, lived in Tokyo for 1 year, and even took Japanese classes at third university in the summer. Japanese was everything I thought it would be and more! I loved the twisted grammar and the cutesy sounds of vowel-heavy Japanese syllables. I also loved how it meshed so well with my interest in Asian culture and history. 

Where am I going with this?

As my Japanese and Spanish improved, I ran into the same phrases again and again. "Wow, your Japanese is great! You're so good at languages." "I wish I could speak Japanese, but I have no talent for learning foreign languages." "Ugh, I'm so jealous! I wish I could pick up a language as easily as you."

pile of books to study

studying at desk with coffeeIt wasn't until I moved to China and started learning Mandarin that I really realized how vast of a disconnect there was between their statements and my reality. "Good at languages? A talent for language? Just "pick it up"? This couldn't possibly misrepresent my experience more! What were they talking about? 

The answer slowly dawned on me. People who hear me speak Chinese for the first time are seeing a semi-finished product. What they can't see is the production process. I, however, know the truth. What they didn't see was that I studied Chinese vocabulary in my room for 3 hours a day. What they didn't see was the notebook that I used to write down every single unfamiliar word I heard in a TV show or saw on a billboard. What they didn't see was how early before work I got up to study, nor how late I stayed up after work to practice. Good at language? It certainly didn't feel like it! Just "pick it up?" Maybe that's possible for kids, but for me? Not a chance! I had to bust my butt for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, just to learn how to order food in a restaurant! 

I could easily turn this into a C-grade Hollywood story about my linguistic brilliance, but I would hate to buttress people's misconceptions about learning and success. So, loud and clear: NO, I do NOT have any special gift of language that you do not. I chose to study (not "pick up") these languages, dedicate hundreds of hours of my time to it, and in the end came out with a passing fluency in each. 

Surviving the hard work 

Remember that headline about "interest" way back up there? Yeah, me neither, but that's ok. While this routine might sound grueling, it was anything but. Learning languages is an intense interest of mine. When it's an interest--and not a chore--time has a way of effortlessly floating by. Give me 3 hours to do math problems and it will feel like 6, but give me 3 hours to study Chinese and it will feel like 45 minutes.

This is something called a "flow state," and companies like Google actively try to create it. A flow state is a special place where hard work feels less burdensome, a place where hours of dedication can pass by like a relaxing spring afternoon. A flow state is the closest I can get to feeling like an effortless genius--I can just sit down, work hard for hours, and not feel that I've done any hard work at all. 

Hard work--not innate ability--is what propels me through my days and closer to my goals. Being interested is what makes it easy. 

Applying these lessons to your life

Not a genius? Great! Me neither. I hope that I've convinced you that the designation is irrelevant anyhow.

Here are the three simple points I hope you take away from these scrambled ramblings: 1 - "geniuses," if they exist, also rely on hard work; 2 - everyone else relies on hard work too; 3 - working hard on something you love is the easiest hard work you'll ever do.

Check out my previous article "Skill Mindset - How to Conquer Travel Fears" to read more about the benefits of rethinking how to think!


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