Talent gets a lot of airtime, especially in American culture, which worships fame and fortune. It’s easy to believe that you either have talent or you don’t and, if you come to the conclusion that you don’t, to feel discouraged and give up. However research continually points to the fact that hard work beats talent every time, in children and adults.
Psychologist Carol Dweck is one of the seminal voices on the research of the success/failure equation since the ‘70s. Her work has revealed further proof that hard work, or being “mastery-oriented” will take a person much further toward success than assuming one has “fixed intelligence.”
Dweck writes in an article for Scientific American: “Many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”
As a developmental editor and writing teacher, I often remind students that writing is a craft that can be learned and improved upon. If you assume only the talented succeed, what motivation do you have to persist or get better? Steve Langerud, a workplace culture consultant in Iowa, says, “Those clients who have been riding talent soon become talented people who never moved ahead. Everyone, high talent or adequate talent, will benefit from hard work.”
Somewhere along the way “work” became a bad word—akin to drudgery or obligation. Yet the human species is made to work, both physically, with our upright posture and opposable thumbs, and mentally, with more than 100 billion neurons making more than 100 trillion synaptic connections.
Corrie Shanahan, CEO of a communications and leadership consulting group in Washington DC, suggests one way to promote a willingness to work is to create “secondary goals” that the work helps you reach. She says, “If you know the routine task, for example practicing keyboarding skills, it will help you in your long term goal—being a writer—then it becomes a choice and not a chore. Creating habit and routine around these secondary goals helps, too.”
Or, as authors Ted Orland and David Bayles write in their book Art & Fear, “Talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster, but without a sense of direction or a goal to strive for, it won’t count for much.”
Another word for goals, and a key driver of hard work, is “purpose,” Langerud says. “Knowing that what we do matters, either to ourselves or someone else, allows us to put in the hard work without naming it as ‘hard work’ externally.”
Set goals; don’t wait for inspiration
If you can come to see “hard work” as the actions you must take toward goals that fulfill your purpose, then you are more likely to show up to your tasks repeatedly, even after “failure.” T K Coleman, Education Director and co-founder of an entrepreneurial training program called Praxis, points out the importance of showing up even when you don’t feel like it, particularly in the creative arts. “The best advice I’ve received on success comes from a personal conversation I had with the actor Marlon Wayans. He said, ‘Don’t wait for work. Create the work.’ After spending five years trying to raise money for an independent film production company, I eventually came to realize that the greatest opportunities come to those who adopt non-permission based approaches to creativity.”
He emphasizes the importance of persistence over talent, and self-determination over luck.
Author Kate Dyer-Seeley, who writes novels under the pen name Ellie Alexander, supports this idea of not waiting around for inspiration. “When I’m on book tour the question I get asked most by aspiring writers is how I get the creative muse to strike. My answer is hard work. I write a minimum of 2,000 words every day, no exceptions,” she says. “I always tell aspiring writers that you can’t fix a blank page, but you can definitely fix a first draft.”
Whether your goals are career driven or for creative pursuits, identifying them is important, and then you just have to show up and do the work.
Persistence goes the distance
If you keep showing up to your work, day after day, guided by a deep sense of purpose, as I suggest in my book A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, you won’t ever have to worry about talent—you’ll be too busy with your own success.