Crediting Hard Work vs. Innate Talent For Success

The conclusion from this Harvard Business Review article has stuck with me all day. Researchers looked into whether people think of their success as the result as either hard work or innate talent, and how it affected them later on. The distinction turns out to be important. Something to think about if you’re raising kids as well.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

On a related note, have you heard of the Dan Plan? Apparently a guy read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and decided that he wanted to go from never playing golf before to winning a PGA Tour event. He’s somewhere around 2,000 hours now. Even though I think I would have picked something different, I’ll definitely have to check back on his progress later.


  1. Money Beagle says:

    I had a friend who went out golfing and would hit a house every time he golfed and there were houses in vicinity. Once he sat down and explained to us that, because he could hit a really long drive, he felt he could refine his shot (and I’m assuming stop hitting so many houses), and as a result, could qualify for the PGA tour. We laughed and laughed.

    He kept practicing, going out playing, and a few months later we went out to see his progress.

    He hit a house.

    I think Dan is in for a disappointment.

  2. There is a difference between hard work and success. A single mom with two jobs works hard. that doesn’t mean she will be what society deems a success. This is just the argument the successful/rich use to blame the rest of us for not being successful (as they see it). Some people are never given the chance to improve their skills at anything other than just surviving. It is becoming all too acceptable to point a finger and blame people for failing if they are not successful. News flash…we can’t all be millionaires.

  3. There have been a lot of studies that have shown similar things. If you praise kids by telling them they are good learners or hard workers they will be more likely to push themselves to try new things than if you tell them they are smart. If you try something new and fail, if you thought of yourself as smart then failure might mean that you’re no longer smart or you’ve reached the limit of your intelligence. If you think of yourself as hard working then an occasional failure doesn’t mean redefining your mental image of yourself, it means that you need to work harder next time. I try to keep that in mind and keep pushing myself even if it means failure, but it’s not always easy.

  4. I’d say it’s both hard work and innate talent, plus knowledge too. It’s a known fact that people who are not good in computing (math) are not good in handling their finances too. Knowledge is power, without it, they won’t be able to put that innate talent into good use.

  5. In baseball, a .333 batting average over a season may get a player All Star recognition; over a career, that .333 batting average may get a player Hall of Fame consideration. I always thought that was an apt metaphor for living in the U.S., where we do get many second chances and opportunities to re-invent ourselves.

    Though it never hurts to have a trust fund as Plan B.

  6. So very true. I am 35 and only have just begun to realize how limiting it is to think, “I am not good at that so I just won’t do it.” & kind of realizing how silly that is. But I suppose I see two sides to the coin. I think it is wise to focus on your strengths. As long as you don’t limit yourself. I try to catch myself when I say, “I’m just not good at that stuff.” & that said, I think I kind of always realized, because I took piano lessons for about 20 years. I never felt like I had any inherent talent, but everyone always praised my talent. I just never understood that. THAT took hours and hours of practice – and I think frankly anyone could have done the same. So maybe I have always been a little appreciative of a little hard work.

  7. I can maybe buy into the “expert” part after 10k hrs (if done right..), but I wouldnt extrapolate “expert” to winning a tournament. I would view “expert” as getting to be a scratch golfer, though every scratch golfer does not win a tournament, especially PGA. Wouldnt that mean EVERY PGA golfer should have won a tournament after 4-6 yrs (I am sure that is why they play…)?

    I wish him luck and it certainly is a good marketing hook. I am more inclined to think the 10k hr thing is a gross average (average checkers w/ brain surgery expert). I haven’t read Outlier since I was not impressed with Blink (1st few chapters OK). Though maybe if I was more positive on it I would read the book anyway and dust off the clubs :-).

  8. Gladwell’s book Outliers drastically underestimates the abilities of the individual. He credited greatness to birthyear’s rather than personality traits (God given ability, etc). I feel for the golfer who puts his faith in something as basic as 10,000 hours practice makes you Tiger Woods. I could spend 10,000 playing basketball and never dunk.

  9. I’d like to share a NYTimes article on this. That article suggests that talent does matter, which intuitively makes more sense to me.

    Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters

  10. I think talent does indeed matter, but don’t focus on talent vs. hard work. Focus what you *think* matters. Perhaps that’s hard to change as an adult. But if you teach your kids that hard work matters more and they buy into it, they’ll try harder, try more different things, and ultimately achieve more.

  11. Talent does exist but it is an overused word of a very broad definition. As “Outliers” hits at, there’s only a slight advantage one has genetically (for example having better than average visual memory to be a better visual artist), educationally, financially, etc. However these small variable advantages do add up dramatically the earlier they’re applied and developed in life.

    Outliers gives an overwhelming evidence of this. Just as an example, take Brazil where everyone plays soccer on the streets/beaches from an early age, Russia where chess schools/clubs are found in every little village to see why these countries produce more corresponding “talented” players. There’s no evidence of an innate talent variable that overrides all other odds in life to produce an expert genius, whatever those odds/challenges may be. Even if you take Srinivasa Ramanujan, you can see that his obsession with mathematics came only after the introductions to the subject by college students, after his frustrations with school and life in general and, perhaps, his way of finding a refuge in the subject from the harshness of life.

    In other words, any predisposition to a “talent” needs heavy development (with 10K+ hours) and that’s the consensus so far.

  12. Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters:…..tters.html

    very hand-wavy correlation between SAT results in which memory wasn’t mentioned and the study of pianists with better memory. I can see how memory would help but is it the only thing at play here? Or is it the the most important thing? My guess is not and we’re yet to discover what other variables matter most to our current modern definition of “success in life” 🙂

  13. Talent matters, but…telling someone they are smart or talented will not make them work harder to overcome challenges.

    As a teacher I strive to focus praise on hard work and tenacity, and recognizing students’ mistakes as interesting and learning experiences. I think there are also studies that point out many students labeled as gifted end up as “successful” and unremarkable as regular students, while some who struggled in our school system find success outside of the classroom.

    I agree with the article, that the key is to promote confidence in work ethic and ability to overcome obstacles and challenges, not praise innate ability, memory, IQ etc. as there is limited value in that sort of praise.

  14. Gladwell is a great storyteller, however, his latest analysis/story about the Norden Bombsight is so far off the mark that I have to question some of his other works.

    Enjoyed his talk about spaghetti sauce (look it up on Ted!).

  15. Actually the header should read, “Skill vs Talent”. You may have talent in your genes, but you gain skill overtime. The 10k hr is all about lowering your chance of failure to almost non-existent (improving skills). Talent also require you to spend sometime to tune it. You can’t expect 100% success just because you have talent. Just remember that the most TALENTED sports figures, physicists etc make mistakes as well. The only way to remove the failure from their equation is to spend more time perfecting “it”.

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