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Hard Work Beats Talent

March 15, 2019 Jaime Torchiana


What we can learn about work ethic from a girl who no one wanted to succeed. (Even when she was ridiculed in a school Facebook Group that was dedicated to her failure).

My cycling coach fights me on this notion. Mike and I have lengthy dinnertime discussions regarding talent versus skill and deliberate practice. Recently, a client asked me about the differences between competencies, capabilities and achieving business results. It compelled me to share my perspective and invite yours.

I rarely watch the Oscars. Like ever. With a focus on fashion and drama that's so far from reality, the deep disconnects often allow me to find other ways to spend my time. However, a severe bout of the flu allowed me to see more of the award nominees than prior years, including "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "A Star is Born". I was curious to see how my evaluation of them matched the esteemed Academy - would we align on our definitions of excellence in the realm of artistic and technical merit?

As it turns out, this year, we did.

But that was far from my strongest alignment of the evening. I was most impressed with Lady Gaga's heartfelt acceptance speech after winning best original song. A talented song-writer, musician, performer, and marketing machine, she can now add actress to her repertoire. Certainly, she's gifted and loves her work, but what most surprised me was her acknowledgment to work ethic.

Her speech did not promulgate the talent myth that makes most of us comfortable labeling exceptional performers (Tiger Woods, Mozart, Michelangelo) as simply having more God-given ability than their peers. It's easy in this sense to explain away our own lack of excellence or achievement. "They're just more talented," we may say.

In an emotional message, Gaga attributed her success to hard work and practice. “If you are at home and you are sitting on your couch and you are watching this right now, all I have to say is this is hard work,” said Gaga. “It’s not about winning, what it is about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. If there is a discipline, or passion, it’s not how many times you get rejected or you fall down or are beaten up. It’s about how many times you stand up and are brave and keep on going.”

All of this from a girl who was the focus of a school Facebook page that claimed she had no talent and that she'd never be famous. 

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I've written before about the 1997 McKinsey study on the "war for talent," or "battle for brainpower," where the authors depict an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees - of which, they believe, are in limited supply. I've also referenced Geoff Colvin's response to the McKinsey work in his book "Talent is Overrated," where he emphasizes deliberate practice, not innate ability. If you're looking for additional resources on this fascinating topic, the talent concept was further refuted in one of my favorite books, "Peak - Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" by Anders Ericsson, someone who Angela Duckworth cites frequently in "Grit." All great reads.

I will also leave you with this quote from my mentor and friend, Dr. Paul Elliott, "An organization's talent curve does not predetermine its performance curve." As we've seen time and time again with all of our clients, we ARE able to replicate the results of your top employees without replicating their innate talent. And it's my favorite thing to do.

So, this weekend, I wish you the "Luck of the Irish".....errr, the "skill, hard work and deliberate practice of the Irish!"

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TOPICS: Leadership Development