Something former New England Patriots (and New York Giants) head coach Bill Parcells used to say at the start of every season, usually in regards to some high-paid, first-round draft pick, haunts my brain whenever I see young people described as "talented" and "high potential": "Potential just means you haven't done it yet." Parcells would usually spit on the ground after saying this.
In business and in all creative endeavors, we equate talent with desired outcomes. But it takes a lot more. The tale of the tortoise and the hare is just one of a million examples of talent overcome by grit. The turtle persisted, and the hare got cocky and underachieved. This happens outside of fairy tales every single day and in every single workplace.
If you gave me the choice between hiring a talented person without persistence or a persistent person without talent, I'd hire the persistent person every single time. As a former teacher, I believe profoundly in human development. A willingness and eagerness to learn is the most underappreciated characteristic in human history, in all realms. When you put talent and persistence together, you have genius. Think of jazz great Charlie Parker. We say he was an epic talent, a genius, but he practiced his saxaphone endlessly, with every waking hour ("woodshedding," Parker called his intense practice routine). "Natural gifts" are wasted unless they are fully developed -- which actually makes them earned instead of a gift.
To be honest, we don't always know what talent is. I don't even believe in talent as an isolated entity. I think of talent as accumulated learning that may or may not manifest itself in important action.
Some people CAN but don't want to; others WANT TO but can't. The WANT TO comes first, and the CAN gets developed. I'll take the WANT TO but can't (yet) person every single time, because I put the desire to learn above simply "knowing stuff." Talented and lazy is such a cliche' but it's a tragically common phenomenon. We worship talent in this country -- in business, in sports, in academia -- because we want to believe that "talent" comes easy or in-born. But we woefully undervalue effort, persistence and grittiness -- all of these qualities can be learned and will lead to the acquisition of great skill.
Sometimes, when we say a baseball player is "talented," we fail to recognize the immense amount of work and effort the player has invested in reaching that point. Ask any baseball fan whether they love the most talented player or the one who seems to hustle the most, get dirt on his face, run the hardest -- the answer is always the same. We love the hustler, the player who shows effort and emotion on his face every play. Why? It's both simple and unfair. We can all see ourselves making effort, hustling, but we're not all "talented." We trust effort, while talent seems a bit flighty, unpredictable, and mysterious.
But the talented player, the talented sales person or "gifted" plumber, has also invested tremendous effort in developing his or her talent. We should celebrate their effort and their outcomes. Talent is effort accumulated over time, period. If we want to develop great baseball players or writers or students or managers, we should be celebrating effort, and get rid of the largely-meaningless word "talent."
Talented people sometimes think they don't need to work hard. They are wrong. Hard workers, people who give their full efforts every day, might think they don't have talent. They are also wrong. We can all give our best effort, and that should be celebrated as part of the lifelong process of becoming "talented."
The Japanese K-12 educational system always outperforms the U.S. on math, science, language, and every other type of standardized test (btw, I don't believe test performance equates with intelligence. The reason is simple. The Japanese celebrate effort above talent, while the U.S. tends to do the opposite. In the U.S., we are far too eager to label students as "talented," which sends a clear and devastating message to the "non-talented kids." All students and all humans can build mastery if they continue to give effort, a belief that's at the core of the Japanese educational ethos.
The key is to support learners as they continue to give the effort that builds mastery, and that's what the educational system in Japan seeks to do. Again, I prefer to celebrate effort rather than talent, even if this puts me at odds with U.S. pedagogical approaches.
I don't think I'm a talented writer, but I do think I've spent the last 40 years confronting an infinite number of challenges that writing presents to every writer. Over time, I have solved every writing problem I've faced. This has taken tremendous effort, persistence and grit. I've found a way to keep confronting the obstacles, of writing, and the writing life, not because I'm talented but because I've always been determined to improve my writing. Learning can be painful, but the effort moves us forward. Without grit and determination, there is no talent. If I'm at all "talented" today as a wordsmith, it's because I've blended passion and persistence.
Nobody ever reaches complete mastery -- it's akin to chasing the sun. The object you desire will always be out of reach. However talented you are, you still have things to learn. Want to be a great writer or great at anything? Irish playwright Samuel Beckett offered us the best formula: "Try. Fail. Fail better each time." The values Beckett is celebrating there are effort, resilience (fail and keep failing, forever), humility, passion, and grit. Give me these values any day above the mysterious vagaries of "talent." And if Bill Parcells and Samuel Beckett agree here, then I'm in good company too. Your thoughts, dear reader?