Day after day I am reminded how critical work and effort are to success. Some of us need to be convinced that performing at high levels, in just about everything, is possible, if we put in the work. Sometimes we lack the ability to learn something quickly, but once we learn how to do it, we can manage to get really good at it through hard work. I have seen people who thought they had no talent get really good at something by working hard. And as they progressed, they actually started to believe they were talented at the given activity. They often credit a “hidden talent,” rather than the hard work. It is true that talent presents itself at different times during improvement curves. However, if I had to bet, I would say it is the effort. I have also seen this work against us. Sometimes people give up in the first stage because they watched someone else (more talented, they presumed) learn it quickly and pass them by as they struggled. Often, if they just keep practicing, they too would learn the skill and, in time, potentially outperform the person who learned it faster.
This was the case when I took my family to Costa Rica to learn to body surf. My son, who is not known for how quickly he “gets” different sports, is not short on hard work and perseverance. He managed to become the best surfer of all of us because he outworked us. His raw talent was not his ability to time the wave or paddle harder, but it was in his ability to learn from every good and bad experience, making micro-adjustments and staying after it wave after wave. He was being supported by all of us and had some excellent coaching by his uncle (a total aqua-man and expert body surfer in his own right). The water was just right and the waves were also perfect for learning to surf. He was clearly struggling for a good portion of our time in the water, either missing waves or getting crunched by them. The difference was that after everyone else was content at the level they were surfing, he continued to work, grow and improve. Toward the end of the day he was doing things differently than the rest of us, allowing him to ride almost every wave no matter what the size. This caused many of us to watch in awe as he not only rode the waves, but learned to cut and turn along the wave and not just ride it straight in. Everyone said afterwards that he must have natural balance and feel of the water. NO! Not really. He just worked hard, learned from every experience and did not get discouraged as he watched everyone else get the hang of it much more quickly. He did not catch the first or second wave or even the tenth, but once he did he could repeat how he did it. He gained knowledge and understanding from all the falls, allowing him to exceed everyone else’s natural ability.
This story offers a couple of parallels to VQ. At VQ, like those perfect ocean conditions in Costa Rica, we try to create a program in which everyone has the opportunity to improve. We do this by providing a safe environment that allows for taking risks and not being judged; a place where coaches and athletes help everyone work smarter and harder. We hope we have created a collaborative environment where everyone is helping others improve without expectations based on “raw talent,” but on consistency and grit. We strive to give positive support when athletes improve and keep them focused on the process when they struggle.
The take-away here is this: If I could only have one, either talent or grit, I would rather have GRIT any day of the week. Moreover, I would rather coach people with grit over talent as well.
I recently read the book, Mindset by Carol Dweck. In it, she describes how talented kids who are repeatedly told how great they are struggle to live up to that level day in and day out. She details how people who rely purely on the fact that they have talent never develop enough grit to really get uncomfortable. She also explains how “super smart” kids never want to take risks for fear of not being called or seen as “super smart” if they fail. The same goes for any and all athletes. Time and time again I see the people who tested poorly take more risks, work harder and fear nothing. They know they can only improve because they “need” hard work to grow. These people blow their own expectations out of the water and enjoy the process of improving. They don’t leave anything on the table and stay focused on the future, rarely looking back. It’s as if they are lucky not to be blessed with a 60-80 VO2 or a 150-beat HR reserve or a naturally explosive sprint…because they have no expectations. They are free of the stress anyone, including themselves, put on them.
Too many times, though, I see the opposite happen. Growing up, my dad would often say, “With great potential comes the burden of living up to that.” It’s the potential that can cripple people. We actually see it every day here at VQ. Sometimes the “talented” athletes either: 1) give up when the going gets tough, 2) improve only a little and feel it necessary to make excuses (“think how good I would be if I did as much as that person”), 3) rarely take any real risk and stay with people they can dominate or choose “safe” events or 4) the rarest: work their asses off regardless of “perceived talent” and leave nothing to chance, make no excuses, enjoy the process of improving and win and lose like the rest of us. The last is very rare to find because that understanding of having natural talent affects a person’s mindset–usually in a negative way, believe it not.
I don’t often use words like talent or potential in isolation for the simple reason that it doesn’t help anyone. Using those phrases within the correct context is very important because the truth is, without hard work, it really doesn’t matter how talented a person is. I prefer to tell athletes what can be done to improve and that, if they work hard, they will grow. I also tell them that in life we need risk, we need failure, we need success, we need others to push us, we need coaches and we need to believe we can do incredible things. I make sure they know they are not at the top or at the bottom, and the biggest difference between any of us is hard work and attitude, not TALENT!