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Talent vs. Work: Part 2

On Monday in Talent vs. Work: Part 1 I introduced the issue/idea of whether or not there is some sort of innate ‘talent’ that might exist (at least in an athletic context) as part of trying to address the issue of whether the assertion that ‘hard work can overcome’ talent has any validity.

In that piece, I moved from general to specific looking at the idea that there would certainly appear to be some innate factors (physiological, biomechanical, neurological, other) that might give someone an innate edge or talent for a given activity.  Basically, I think the idea that there is no such thing as innate talent is a flawed one; it’s a lovely idea to have, to think that hard work can get you as far as anyone else.  But in reality, it just doesn’t seem to be the case.

But that still doesn’t really answer the original question or address the issue since there is the other half of what I want to talk about, the work issue.  Surprisingly, given the amount of verbiage I gave to the issue of talent, I don’t have much to say here.  But I will say what little I have before finally getting around to the original question and trying to make some sort of useful answer to it.

What is Work/Hard Work?

As noted, I don’t have much to say here comparatively speaking.  Whether you buy into the idea of there being some type of innate talent or not, I don’t think anyone would deny that you still have to put in the work.  That is, people often tend to play this silly little game where they turn debates like this into an either/or sort of issue.  Either you have innate talent or you’re a hard worker.  Effectively, people will take your argument that ‘Someone has a genetically innate talent for something’ and read it as ‘What you’re saying is that they don’t have to put in the work.’

But that’s not what’s being said.  Certainly, beginners in any activity may show some sort of relatively better or worse ability at doing something; in all likelihood the folks who do a bit better initially are more likely to stick with it.  But nobody, and I repeat nobody gets to the top level of anything without taking that innate talent (or perhaps a high genetic limit) and maximizing it with years of grinding work.

That is, even if you want to argue that West Africans have a genetic talent to be good at sprinting or that East Africans have a talent for endurance running (I’d point people to the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It for a look at this) the simple fact is that they still put in years of grindingly hard work to maximize that talent.  I’ll come back to this later on.  It’s not like someone with the right ethnic background is going to step to the line in the 100m and tear it up if they haven’t put in the work.

So how am I defining ‘work’ here, in an athletic context.  Again, I’m going to use it somewhat generally. Consider the work half of the equation to including proper, intelligent, progressive training.  Assume the individual got competent coaching (from a technical standpoint).  Assume that the individual was willing to put up with the discomfort that comes with high-level training (again, consider that the temperament or personality profile to be willing to hurt that much might just be innate in the first place).

That’s what I’m using to define work here.  And figure it’s going to take a solid 5-10 years of it for the person to even come close to maximizing their talent. Certainly there are examples of folks who got there faster, usually in sports without massive technical demands (you see some folks get up there pretty quick in running and cycling from time to time, a few years).  But for most the 10 year/10,000 hour rule seems to be a pretty good one.

So by work assume that someone puts in that time.  With training appropriate for their sport, putting in the hard work as needed (and resting as needed, we might include training ‘smart work’ as part of ‘hard work’).  I think you get the idea.  That’s how I’m defining ‘work’ or ‘hard work’ here.

And now finally I can address the original question I set out to address: does talent overcome hard work or can hard work overcome talent?

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The Work/Talent Matrix

Yes, matrix.  Because matrices are hardcore or something.  Yeah.  For simplicities sake (and make no mistake, this is staggeringly simplified), I’m going to define talent and work (or maybe work ethic or whatever) as being high or low.  That is, I’m going to pretend that they are binary settings which they most clearly are not.

Which is why I said this is simplified, clearly we are looking at a huge continuum.  But this keeps the matrix (YES, MATRIX) cleaner and hopefully everyone can extrapolate to different variations of talent or work or whatever.  Ok, THE MATRIX.

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Work
Talent
High Low
High The Thoroughbred The Prima Donna
Low The Workhorse The Always Gonna

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Basically, by dividing talent and work into high and low categories (and again this is very simplified) we get 4 potential ‘types’ when it comes to sport performance.   Let’s look at each combination.  First, the extremes.

Low talent + low work ethic = The Always Gonna

An individual with low innate talent and no work ethic isn’t really worth discussing: these are folks that won’t ever get anywhere. They’ve got no inherent ability at something but nor are they willing to do the work that it takes. They usually talk about how much they’d ‘love to do something’ but never seem to actually put any effort towards getting there.

They are always gonna start putting in the effort, gonna start watching their diet, gonna start blah, blah, blah.  But it never happens.  About the only way you get these guys to do anything is to give them no choice in the matter: enroll them in the military.  Left to their own devices it’s one bullshit excuse after another.

High talent + high work ethic = The Thoroughbred

At the other extreme is the individual with high talent AND a high work ethic.  Not only do they have an inherent physiology (as discussed in Talent vs. Work: Part 1) that is suited to success, they put in the work.   Endless work.  Hard work.  Painful work.  Smart work.  For years on end.  And that combined with their innate talent takes them to the top.  Coaches sometimes call these guys thoroughbreds.  They have the talent and they are willing to do the work.  They can be groomed for the top levels.

Drug issue aside, Lance Armstrong is a great example of this.  Even as as teen he had one of the highest measured VO2 max scores when he was tested up in Dallas and he was winning triathlons at a very early age.  Then he got cancer, came back and put in years of grinding work (his ability to hurt and put in immense amounts of training was pretty legendary) and reached the pinnacle of his sport.  Having a proper support team (including his team manager and teammates) were part of his success. But he combined a monster physiology (much of which is innate) with years of hard work.

In ice speedskating, Chad Hedrick comes to mind.  His ability to suffer was also legendary, as my coach put it “Chad would just turn his brain off and go”.  He also skated hard for over 20 years. He had the innate physiology and the work ethic to reach the top.  And invariably when you look at the world beaters, the guys who reach the topmost level of their sport, this is what you find.

Taking a quick tangent here: It’s not a question of talent vs. hard work even if people try to make it into a simple either/or. It’s an issue of them having an innate talent that they maximized with the hard work.  There are other issues mind you, lucking into that sport, being able to pursue it, having the money to do it, whatever.  I’m not saying talent and hard work are the only variables.  But without either you don’t reach the top level.  There simply has to be a bunch of other stuff too.

And I guess here is the best place to discuss Steve Prefontaine; as I noted in Talent vs. Work: Part 1 he asserted that talent was a myth, that he beat guys based on guts and being willing to suffer.  And as it turned out he was one of the early test subjects when physiological testing started.  The results: a VO2 max of 85 ml/kg/min or thereabouts.  One of the highest ever recorded (if I recall correctly, the highest ever is about 90 in a cross country skiier).

Compare that to the 68-70 of good endurance athletes and the 45-50 or lower of the average person.  The simple fact is that, guts/suffering or not, he’d never have set the records he did or competed at the international level without the innate talent and physiology to succeed.  Again, his work ethic let him maximize his talent.  But his assertion that he lacked talent was simply nonsensical: he probably started with a higher VO2 max than most folks will ever achieve.  And his ending VO2 max is one that is only seen in the most elite of the elite.

High talent + low work ethic = The Prima Donna

Ok, next up what about guys with lots of talent and a poor work ethic?  These guys do well early on, when up against guys without their inherent talent they get by on talent alone and putting in the minimal work necessary. They don’t watch their diet and never learn to train hard because they simply don’t have to at the lower levels.

Invariably these types of athletes coasted through early competition (high school, etc.) on talent alone and never really developed any sort of work ethic.  They never learned to hurt or work hard (or smart) because they never had to early on.  And as they reach higher levels of competition, and start running into either guys with talent and work ethic (or the next group I’m going to talk about), they realize that talent alone isn’t enough.But since they were always the top of the heap before they usually don’t see any reason to change.

And they are the bane of higher level coaches.  They are often uncoachable, they never had to work before and don’t see any reason to start now.  Coaches look at these athletes and think “What a waste”; other athletes look at them and just get frustrated “If I only had your talent.”  In fact, many coaches would rather work with the next group instead of these guys.   Because while you can’t work with someone unwilling to do the work; someone at least willing to put in the effort is worth paying attention to even if the natural talent isn’t there.

Low talent + high work ethic = The Workhorse

And then there’s the final group, which coaches sometimes call the workhorse. These are the guys who didn’t have the innate talent (or didn’t have it to the degree of the thoroughbreds, it’s rare for a workhorse to totally suck at something or they wouldn’t pursue the activity at all) but they pursued it anyhow and put in grinding amounts of work to try to compensate for a lack of built in talent.

Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes workhorses reach a pretty high level depending on how they approach things.  They don’t get to the top but they can go pretty far.   Mind you, this wasn’t uncommon in the earlier days of sports; there are plenty of stories of guys who reached the top despite a lack of talent (or some physical issue in many cases).  But it almost never happens anymore, the level of competition is simply too high with the best having talent and a work ethic.

In some sports, workhorses often play critical roles where they can put whatever level of talent they have developed to use (and they can often make quite a good living doing this).  In road cycling for example, which is a team sport, workhorse cyclists are as often as not domestiques.  They aren’t the star because they simply don’t have the talent or ability to win. But they can help the team win by working for the leader.  And if the team wins, they win by extension because they were part of the effort.

In track running, workhorses can be pacemakers, either helping the thoroughbreds train or acting as workers in races.  Again, they aren’t really in the running for the win but they can be part of a record setting effort by doing a specific job and putting their ability to work on some level.

Basically, when thoroughbreds are present, the workhorse can’t win because life isn’t a Disney or Rocky movie (oh that it were).  No amount of work can overcome a lesser degree of talent compared to someone with the same work ethic and more talent.  And thoroughbreds always  have the winning combination of talent and the work ethic.

Mind you, as often as not, the workhorse overtrains themselves into the ground.  They fall into the trap of thinking that they need to work 2 or 3 or 10 times as hard as the talented athlete and do themselves more harm than good by trying to compensate for their lack of talent with sheer effort.  Because it’s not always ‘hard’ work that is needed,  As often as not it’s smart work.  I, of course, wouldn’t know anything about this.

Finally, workhorse athletes often make the best coaches.  Since they didn’t have the talent which let them succeed easily, they are usually the ones who take apart their sport and chosen activity bit by bit, anything to eke out the most out of what talent they do have (often they become coaches in an attempt to take someone to a level they never reached and make up for their own frustrated sporting goals).  I’m not saying that nobody from the other groups can’t make a good coach, just that a majority of coaches seem to come from this group.

And I’m actually going to cut this here.  I had wanted to finish this in two pieces but I have a bunch more to say and this is already too long. And I’m too exhausted to write up the rest of it.  So…Monday.

Read Talent vs. Work: Part 3.

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