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Can Hard Work Beat Talent: Part 4

Finishing up from Part 3, let me try to finally address the question “Can hard work beat talent?”.  I’ll look at this within a couple of different contexts since that does determine what the answer is or might be.

Can Hard Work Overcome a Genetic Limit?

Coming out of Part 3, you can probably imagine that my general answer to this question is simply no.  If we take talent to include what are clearly genetic limits, then no amount of work, hard, smart or otherwise can overcome them.  Because that’s not what the word “limit” means.   By definition a genetic limit is one that cannot be surpassed naturally.

Simply, the most that proper, hard and smart work will ever do is let a given trainee maximize their inherent talent.  Obviously if you don’t put in the work like the “always gonna” athlete, you’re never going to accomplish jack squat.  But assuming you put in the work, the most you will ever do is achieve your own inbuilt genetic limit.

Put as simply I can:

To maximize whatever talent you have means still putting in the work.

And I want you to read that sentence until it really sinks in since it’s the key to all of this.  No amount of work can take you past a genetic limit because that’s not what a limit is.  All it will do let you maximize whatever talent or potential you have.

And I guess in that sense, the trite assertion that “hard work trumps everything” is sort of true.  You can’t do anything to really change your genetic limit.  All you can do is determine whether or not you get there by putting in the work.  Put differently, both you and a world record holder have put in the hard work to reach your limits.  His limit was simply higher than yours.

Reality Checks

There are also the basic facts of adaptation over time.  For an adult taking up a new activity and doing things “right”, almost all of the gains that are going to be made will probably occur by year 3-4.  And that’s it.  If they have not reached (or gotten within 10% or less) of whatever goal they may have in terms of muscle mass or VO2 max or power output or whatever, they aren’t going to get there.  They are approaching their limit and no amount of work will get them past that.

If after 4 years of serious lifting you’re only squatting 400 lbs, the reality is that you’re never putting up 1000 lbs.  Not unless you get one hell of a super suit, jack enough anabolics to kill an elephant and join a federation that passes high squats.

Because even training your brains out, you will be making incrementally smaller and smaller gains with every passing year.    Just do the math, say you’re adding 40 lbs to the bar every year.  To get from 400 to 1000 means 15 year of training and that’s assuming you maintain that rate of improvement.

That’s not even factoring the aging issue.  Beyond some peak age, you’ll be losing ground due to aging alone.  Eventually you’re fighting not to get worse than to get better.  Strength/power performance is hit harder and the best athletes usually peak in their mid 20’s (in some sports like women’s gymnastics, the best performances are in their teens).  Endurance athletes seem to hit their peak a bit later often in the late 20’s and 30’s.  Some of the adaptations to endurance training take a really long time.  Aging also doesn’t hurt Type I fibers as much.

Just Buy Performance

In certain sports, you can throw money at equipment and get what appear to be performance improvements once you’re at your limit.  Just realize that everybody else can buy the same equipment.  Unless it’s a situation where you get more out of the new equipment than they do, it’s usually kind of a wash.  Even here, no equipment you can buy is going to take you from also-ran to great.  It might give you the perception that you’re continuing to improve though.  Bench stuck?  Just keep buying tighter and tighter shirts.

And Then There are Drugs

Outside of that, about the only way past a true genetic limiter is drugs.  Which is a big part of the appeal.  Drugs (whether anabolic steroids and such for the strength/power sports or things like EPO for endurance sports) take you beyond the limits set by your inherent physiological makeup.  Many of the sources that show an asymptotic curve like the one I showed in Part 3 will show an additional curve where performance keeps improving when drugs are added to the mix.

Genetic Limits Are Limits

But outside of that no amount of hard work will take you past your genetic limit.  Because again, that’s not what the word “limit” means.   Beating a dead horse, you have to put in the work or you won’t even get to your limit.  But no amount of work will get you past it.

And while naysayers and hardheads will counterargue that you can’t ever know when you’re at your limit, or that you never actually get there, I’d point them back to the discussion of asymptotes and rates of improvement in Part 3.

Sure you can work another year to get that next 1 lb of muscle mass on your frame or add 10 lbs to your best lift and tell me that “I’m not at my limit” and you’ll be right.  But if you currently weight 170 or bench 300 lbs, I can tell you that you’ll never step on stage at 220 or bench 200 lbs.  You’re working harder and harder for tinier and tinier gains and unless you’re already near the top at year 3-4 or so, you’re not getting there.  Your inbuilt limit was simply too low.

Ok, enough pissing on your parade, next question.

Can Hard Work Beat Talent?

So the above is looking at genetic limits within any given individual.  And as much as many probably still disagree with me, the simple fact is that no amount of work can take someone past their genetic limit.  That’s not what the word limit means.

But what about between two individuals?  In the case of competitive athletes, can hard work overcome talent?  The answer here is a little bit more nuanced.

First recall the four types of athletes I described in part 2: the always gonna, the workhorse, the prima donna and the thoroughbred.  First the extremes.

The Always Gonna

At one extreme is the always gonna.  They spend their life talking about what they are going to do or want to do but never get around to doing anything.   When they do, they half-ass it and quit.  Or they go looking for training secrets or whatever.  They’ll want magic pills, magic coaches, magic exercises, magic equipment.  Basically they will put their focus into everything except what matters: devoting time and energy to doing the work.  They don’t matter so let’s move on.

The Thoroughbred

At the other extreme is the thoroughbred, the athlete with high potential and a high work ethic.  This is the athlete who is a world beater and, outside of fluke occurrences, they will beat any of the other three categories.  Usually this athlete is competing with athletes in his own category . That is, other thoroughbreds with just as much talent who worked just as hard.

Even here you can see differences in performance.  Because here all it takes is a microscopic advantage to put one athlete out of the reach of another.  That is, when first and last place are often decided by 1% or less, the athlete with some 1% inbuilt genetic advantage may be unstoppable.

This actually makes the point to the hardheads that “hard work cannot in fact overcome any limit.”   Does anybody think that the other 100m sprinters weren’t training just as hard as Usain Bolt?  And none of them could get close to him.  It would certainly seem that he had some inbuilt talent advantage that put him so far ahead.

During his dominance, every cyclist in the Tour De France was busting their ass off year round and none of them could hold Lance’s jockstrap. Yes, cycling is more complex since a lot of Lance’s success was due to his team and tactics and such (not to mention some real skill with epo microdosing).   But those other cyclists can’t get past the top guys.

Even though the Tour is the top 120 cyclists in the world, there are still guys who can’t get out of the pack of even finish.  Yes, fine, they shell anybody even a little bit lower than them but against the top guys in their sport, all of their hard work and talent (and assistance just isn’t enough).

Effectively, thoroughbreds are competing against one another although you can’t always predict who will come out on top every time.  Bad tactics, bad luck, situations that unfold in ways you didn’t expect can cause on thoroughbred to lose to another on any given day.  Maybe some of it is even genetic or hard work at that level.

But in Olympic lifting, for example, all it takes is for one top athlete to be off technically in the snatch and suddenly a World Champion is out of the running or bombs out.  It happens but it’s usually just freak stuff.  And it just means that someone who was within a few percentage points comes out on top that day.  But it doesn’t let someone 10% behind suddenly medal.

But at this point you’re still looking at competitions that are decided by 1% or less between first and tenth.  Random noise or an off-day can cause that.  But it only matters when you’ve got guys who are that close to each other in the first place.  That kind of random race day noise is not going to let someone who is 15% behind suddenly pull out a victory under most conditions.

But you’re looking, again, at a difference between first and last that might amount to 1% of the overall result.  Random noise or an off-day can cause that.  But it only matters when you’ve got guys who are that close to each other in the first place.  It’s not going to let a guy 15% behind the front runners suddenly pull out a victory under most conditions.

Anyhow, back to Steve Prefontaine.  While he was absolutely dominant in the US against lesser talent, success at the world stage eluded him.  At that point he was facing guys just as good as he was with the same inbuilt talent and who had put in the work.  And he often lost to them because they ran tactically and he didn’t.  He didn’t believe in anything but front running since he thought it was chickenshit to sit in back until the end.  That strategy worked in the US when he was so far ahead of everyone but didn’t cut the mustard against athlete as good as he was.

But, again, that’s a case where you’re comparing guys with massive talent and a hard work ethic to one another.  If you didn’t already have the talent and work ethic of a Prefontaine, you don’t have the ability to sit in on him in the first place no matter how much work you put in.   This was a guy who did his morning “easy”runs at a 6 minute per mile pace, a pace faster than most can go at race pace.    He warms up with your max, as the saying goes.

In contrast there is Sir Chris Hoy.  Between all of his world record and medal winning contests he raced an odd event called the Keirin, a weird Japanese betting sport.  And his approach to racing was to start in front and just stay there.  It’s not the best approach tactically but he was in fact so much stronger than everyone else (due to genetics and his ability to work hard) that he made it work.

The Thoroughbred vs. the Workhorse or Primadonna

Mind you, sometimes weird shit happens in sport and a workhorse or primadonna will take down a thoroughbred.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it is rare and it shouldn’t be expected.  Case in point I once saw an 8 year old female speed skater defeat gold medalist and world record holder Derek Parra in a 500m race.  He fell in the first corner and I pray that she tells people how she beat a gold medallist to this day.

While that is just a silly example, there is a very real one that happened years ago.  It was in short-track speed skating, a sport where silly shit like this can happen.  Specifically this happened to Australian short-track speed skater Steve Bradbury.  In the semi-final round he was in dead last when the 3 skaters in front of him got tripped up and fell.  He stayed upright and crossed the line and moved on to the finals.

Where the same thing happened.  Coming into the last lap he was a solid 50 meters behind the three leaders who were racing for gold.  Those three got tied up and fell.  And because he was so far behind them he avoided the crash and won a gold medal (thankfully the record books don’t come with notes).  But this is one of those freak occurrences that only happens in certain sports and rarely at that.  It is the exception, not the rule.

Because in general, no amount of work is getting a workhorse past a thoroughbred.  The latter just has too much of an inherent talent advantage.  Even if the workhorse puts in more or harder work, it won’t bee enough.  At least not on any sort of consistent basis.  One weird exception is in cycling where top riders will often give a lesser teammate a win so he can get paid a bonus and get laid.

The same holds for the prima donna. Even if they have the same latent talent as the thoroughbred they won’t have maximized it since they weren’t willing to put in the work.  So except for perhaps very early in their career, they won’t get past a thoroughbred either.

But those are the extremes, what about the middle?

The Workhorse vs. The Prima Donna

Where things get fuzzier is in the middle, when you’re comparing a workhorse versus a prima donna. As I mentioned in Part 2, the prima donna is the athlete who gets by on raw talent and minimal work ethic early on. They trump folks with lesser talent who haven’t had time to put in the work.  And they tend to get really shocked when competition gets more serious and their natural talent doesn’t cut it anymore.

Because at this point you may see a situation where a guy with less raw talent but who was willing to put in the work may come out on top.  That is, it is possible for the workhorse to beat the prima donna.  For hard work to beat talent.  How likely this is to occur depends on a host of factors.  To keep it simple, let’s simply assume that we are dealing with talent and work as separate entities.  let’s assign each a value.

Let’s say that a prima donna athlete starts with 100 potential talent points, the number representing their upper genetic limit of performance.  A thoroughbred might start with 150 talent points and let’s say that the workhorse starts with 75 points.

If all three athletes trained to their ultimate potential, the thoroughbred would always beat the prima donna who would always beat the workhorse.  The always gonna athlete is sitting in the stands just getting ready to get serious.  Maybe tomorrow.

But let’s say that the prima donna only puts in enough work to realize 60% of their potential.  Of their 100 point talent potential they only reach 60 points.  And let’s say that the workhorse, being a workhorse puts in the work. They grind for 5 year and actually reach 100% of their potential upper limit.  So they reach 75 of their potential performance points.

And the workhorse will be the winner since their 75 performance points will trump the prima donna’s 60 points.  Hard work will in fact beat talent.  Hooray, the Internet is right.

Of course, let’s say that the prima donna gets pissed and decides to put in a touch more work, now reaching 80% of their potential, or 80 performance points.  Now, odds are they will be beating the workhorse again.  Because now they have 80 points to the workhorse’s 75 points.

I’ve attempted to show this graphically below and if you’re wondering about the word designs, it’s because I originally made this in Clarisworks and these were the options for fills: ice cream cones, cherries and duckies.  I’ve also shown two different prima donna athletes.


Talent Potential vs. Work EthicThe maximum height of each box is the inbuilt genetic potential for each athlete while the shaded area indicates the amount of that potential that they have reached with hard work.  The always gonna has a low potential and never even reaches that because they won’t put in the work.

So the maximum height of each box is the inbuilt genetic potential for each athlete.  The shaded area indicates what amount of that potential is maximized with hard work.  Clearly the always gonna has a low potential and doesn’t even get anything out of that since they don’t put in the work.  The thoroughbred trumps every other group unless something catastrophic occurs.

In the middle it gets fuzzy. Even though Prima Donna 1 has the potential to be one of the best (150 potential points), their laziness keeps them from ever getting close.  They max out at 80 points through putting in a modicum of work.

That still puts them ahead of the workhorse who only has 75 potential points, even if they have achieved 100% of that limit.  Talent beats hard work here.

But the work horse beats prima donna 2 who, despite 100 potential points was too lazy to get more than 50% out of themselves.  Here the hard work of the workhorse beats the inherent talent of the prima donna.

And yes, these numbers are all made up, a simplistic attempt to get a point across.  Just focus on the concept.

Can Hard Work Built Talent: Summing Up

Whether people want to believe it or not, we all start out with some inbuilt potential for most things.  Whether it’s sports or some other achievement, to deny that there is inbuilt talent due to genetic or physiology is nonsensical.   If all it took was hard work, nobody would ever plateau or stop improving.  There would be no point in even having competitions since everybody would be equally good so long as they put in the work.

The idea just fails the reality check completely.  It’s a lovely egalitarian thought in principle but is simply not supported by what actually occurs in the real world.

Almost everyone can improve at most things by putting in some work.  How far they get depends on a lot of factors.  But there ultimate limit will be set by genetics and physiology.

There is no doubt that some people can reach a reasonable degree of performance on talent alone, without putting in a lot of work.   But they will only get so far since they will never maximize their performance.

Someone with less talent who puts in grinding amounts of work may well exceed them by maximizing the talent that they have.  That same person will still never get beyond whatever limits are built into their genetic code.

And the simple fact is that none of those three will beat the individual (outside of fluke occurrences) who has both the inbuilt talent and puts in the work.  It’s the combination of the two that creates the world beaters and both have to be present.

As I saw it clearly put, in an athletic concept by the guys over at the Science of Sport blog in some brief commentary on the 10,000 hour rule:

“Champions are born AND THEN made.”

The thoroughbreds, the best in any activity were born with a monster potential (often starting out higher than many will reach after years of work) and then put in the work to maximize that potential.  Unless you start out with that high potential, no amount of work will get you to that level.

Certainly you can and will maximize your own potential by putting in the hard work.  And putting in that hard work may well take you further than you ever thought possible.  But at the end of the day no amount of hard work can overcome a true lack of talent.  Whether not that hard work defeats talent simply depends.

And apparently what it depends on is duckies, cherries and ice cream cones.

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