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Talent vs. Work: Part 4

Having looked at some general issues and the concept of what might constitute ‘talent’ in Talent vs. Work: Part 1, then examining the issue of what constitutes ‘work’ along with the talent/work Matrix in Talent vs. Work: Part 2, then losing the plot completely and making some seemingly random comment about asymptotes and progress in Talent vs. Work: Part 3, I’m going to try to stay focused for 30 minutes and actually wrap this up.

Today I want to put this all together  by trying to address some of the questions I originally raised that are so often debated on the Internets.  Questions such as “Can hard work overcome talent?” (for example within a given individual), “Can hard work beat talent?” (in a competitive sense one person vs. another) and I’m sure I’ll come up with one or two more.

I want to emphasize/reiterate that dividing things up into talent vs. hard work and looking at them in isolation is simplistic and inaccurate.  They are both relevant and asking which is more important when you’re talking about athletic success is missing the point.  In fact, athletic success has a ton of other variables that would take another overwritten article series to address (I’m in the process of writing said series in my head now).  But ignoring all of those other issues, clearly the level someone reaches is an interaction between talent and work.  Which is why I’m focusing on those two here.

Can Hard Work Overcome Talent?

Having read and hopefully gotten the point of what I was getting at in Talent vs. Work: Part 3, you can probably guess that my overall answer to this idea is a simple no.  That is, if we take talent to include what are clearly genetic limits (and that’s along with the basic facts of rates of adaptation over time), then no amount of work, hard or otherwise can overcome them.  Because that’s not what the word ‘limit’ means.

At most, putting in the proper type and amount and effort of work will let you maximize your inherent talent.  That is, as is the case of the ‘always gonna’ athlete I talked about in Talent vs. Work: Part 2, if you don’t have much talent potential and you don’t put in any work, you’re not getting anywhere.  Put as clearly as I can:

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

And I want you to carefully read that last sentence again since it’s really the key to all of this: no amount of hard work can take you past an inbuilt genetic limit, that’s not what a limit is.  What it will do is let you maximize whatever talent or potential you do have (because you’re absolutely not getting to that limit if you don’t put in the work).

I guess in that sense the rather trite/simple admonition that ‘hard work trumps everything’ is sort of true; you sure as shit don’t get anywhere close to your potential if you don’t put in the hard work.  You and a world record holder both have to put in the hard work to reach your limits; his limit will simply be higher than yours.

Because it’s the simply the reality that there will be some limit you won’t get past (set by genetics and other factors) no matter how hard you work.  If you don’t have the right genetic potential to start out with, you simply can’t ever get beyond a certain point.

And the other reality is that you’ll be pretty damn close to it by about the third or fourth year of proper training (again, very technical sports being a bit of an exception to this).  You’ll end up working harder and harder for incrementally less gains.  And eventually no matter how hard you work, you simply won’t get any meaningful improvement.

If after 4 years of lifting, you’re only squatting 400 lbs, the reality is you’ll never put up 1000 lbs (unless you get one hell of a super suit and join the right federation).  Because even if you keep training your brains out for the next decade, you’ll be killing yourself to add smaller and smaller amounts to the bar.  Just do the math, say you’re getting 40 lbs on the bar every year.  To get the next 600 lbs means 15 years assuming you maintain that level of improvement (which is unlikely in the first place).  It’s simply never going to happen.

And that’s not even factoring in the aging issue; beyond some peak age you’ll be losing ground because of aging and what it does to performance.  Strength/power performance is hit harder and the best athletes usually peak in their early to mid 20’s (in some sports, best performance are in the teens, a handful of female sports like gymnastics and swimming).  Endurance athletes often peak a bit later, especially in the longer distances as some adaptations occur for a really long time.  As well, aging doesn’t hurt endurance and Type I fibers as much as it does strength/power and Type II fibers.

Now, 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 way more out of the gear than they do, all that happens is everybody’s performance goes up.  The relative placings don’t change.

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.  Quite in fact, many sources which show curves similar to what I put in Talent vs. Work: Part 3 add another curve showing the impact of drugs on performance (allowing it to continue improving at a decent rate past the 4 or so year mark).

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.  Again, you have to put in the work to get anywhere close to or reach your limit but surpass it you will not.  And while naysayers will counter-argue that you can’t ever know when you’re at your limit or that you’re never there, I’d point them to the discussion of an asymptote and average rates of improvement in Talent vs. Work: Part 3.

Sure you can work another year to get that next 0.5 lbs of muscle mass on your frame or 10 lbs to your best lift and tell me that ‘I’m not at my limit’ and you’ll be right But you’re not getting to 250 lbs lean or putting up a 600 lb bench in this lifetime either.   You’re working harder and harder for tinier and tinier gains and unless you’re already near the top at year 3 or so, you’re not getting there.  Your inbuilt limit was simply too low.

Ok, enough pissing on your parade, next question.

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Can Hard Work Beat Talent?

Ok, this is where it’s going to get messy and a little bit confusing, I may need a graphic to be coherent.  As I talked about in Talent vs. Work: Part 2 when I presented THE MATRIX, we can sort of describe 4 ‘types’ of athletes: the thoroughbred, the workhorse, the prima donna and the always gonna.

The last guy isn’t worth talking about, they’ll spend their life talking about what they are going to do or wish they could do and never get around to doing anything.  Or they spend their time looking for Training Secrets or whatever.   Magic pills, magic coaches, magic equipment. Anything that doesn’t actually require work or effort or time or energy.  Moving on.

Clearly the guy with a high talent potential and a high work ethic is going to beat folks in any of the other groups the grand majority of the time.  Usually he’s competing with guys in his own category: guys with just as much talent who worked just as hard.  Even there you can see clear differences.

For those hardheads still wanting to argue that ‘hardwork can overcome any limit’, I want you to ask yourself if every 100m sprinter isn’t working just as hard as Usain Bolt.  And they can’t get close to him.  Every cyclist in the peloton of the Tour De France is working their nuts off; and they couldn’t hold Lance’s jockstrap.    Their hard work can’t get them past the top guys.  Or even out of the back of the pack.  Sure, they can shell anybody lower than them but up against their own all of their hard work and talent (and ‘assistance’) simply isn’t enough.

Effectively, thoroughbreds are competing against one another although you can’t always predict who will come out on top.  Bad tactics on race day, a situation that unfolds in a way you didn’t expect, random stuff can make one thoroughbred lose to another and I’m sure slight differences in genetics or work at that level can play a role here.

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.

Back to Steve Prefontaine.  While he was dominant in the US against lesser talents, on the world stage success eluded him.  Because at that level he was facing guys just as good as he was who had his inbuilt talent and his work ethic.  And he often got beat because they ran smarter tactical races.   So while he could pretty much just run away from guys in the US (because he was so far superior to them), that strategy lost him races internationally.  Guys would sit behind him and let him run himself into the ground breaking the wind and then outkick him to the line.

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.   This was a guy who did his morning ‘easy’ runs at a 6 minute per mile pace; faster than most can go at race pace.   He warms up with your max, as the saying goes.

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.

A slightly more realistic situation which happens in sports where silly shit like this can happen: Australian short-track speed skater Steve Bradbury.  Into the Olympic final (because guys in his semi fell), he was a solid half-lap behind the pack going into the final laps.   When the three front guys got tied up and fell down.  50m back, he was out of the mix and skated to a gold medal. BECAUSE he was so far behind he didn’t get caught in the crash.  Mind you, that’s the nature of short-track but it’s still a freak accident for everyone in front of you to go down at once. In any case, he got the gold medal and, thankfully, the record books don’t come with notes.  But this is the exception, not the rule.

My point being that no amount of hard work is going to take a workhorse past a thoroughbred, certainly not on any sort of consistent basis.  Weird stuff happens, there can be oddities in sport (sometimes a pro cyclist will let a support rider win a stage or what have you).  But thinking that hard work can get you past the guy with talent and the work ethic is a pipe dream.

So those are the extremes again, what about the middle, what about the workhorse versus a prima donna.  Here’s where it gets messy.  As I mentioned in Talent vs. Work: Part 2 the prima donna is often an athlete who gets by on raw talent and minimal work early on (readily trumping folks with lesser talent who haven’t had time to put in the work) who gets rather shocked when competition goes up and their lack of work starts holding them back.

In that situation, often the guy with less raw talent but who works their nuts off can come out on top: often the workhorse will beat the prima donna.  How likely this is to happen depends on a host of factors.  But to keep it simply let’s assume that we are still dealing with work and talent as separate entities.  Let’s assign each a value.

So say a prima donna athlete has 100 potential performance points; that represents their inbuilt genetic limit (and let’s figure that a thoroughbred started out with 150 potential performance points).  And let’s say that the typical workhorse only has 75 potential performance points.  Let’s say that the prima donna only puts in the work to maximize 60% of their potential.  They reach 60 of their 100 potential performance points.

Let’s then say that the workhorse put in all of the work, maximizing every bit of their 75 potential performance points.   It may take them 5 years of gruelling work but they get to a true 100% of their potential.  So they reach 75 of their potential performance points.  They will beat the prima donna: their 75 performance points will trump the prima donna’s 60.  Hooray, hard work beats talent. Of course, you might have a prima donna who puts in a touch more work and reaches 80 of their potential performance points.  More often than not they will beat the workhorse who has topped out at 75.  I’ve attempted to show what I’m babbling about with the graphic below.

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Clicks to see the DUCKIES!
Click to see the DUCKIES!

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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.  But that still puts them ahead of the workhorse with only 75 potential points who has gotten 100% out of it; talent beats out work here.  But the work horse  beats prima donna 2 who, despite a higher potential, was too lazy to get more than 50% out of themselves; hard work beats out talent.  And yes, I’m putting numbers out of my butt to make a point; don’t get hung up on the numbers, just focus on the concept which I’ll sum up now.

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Summing Up

The reality is that we all start out with some inbuilt potential for most things.  Whether it’s sport or some other achievement, to deny that there is inbuilt talent is simply fallacious; if all it took was hard work, nobody would ever plateau and there would be no point in having competitions. Everyone would be equally good so long as they put in the work.  This idea fails the reality check; it’s lovely in principle but is simply not supported by that whole real world.

Some people can get to a reasonable degree of performance on talent (and the minimum work) alone but ultimately they will be limited.  Someone with less talent who puts in the grinding work may well exceed them by maximizing what talent they have.  Neither will beat the individual with both the inbuilt talent and the work ethic.

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: Why 10,000 hours is unnecessary and insufficient”.

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.  But 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 that may take you further than you thought possible) but hard work can’t overcome a lack of talent.  And whether or not hard work can defeat talent simply depends.  Apparently on duckies and cherries and ice cream cones.

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