Persistence Trumps Talent

I just watched a Pop! Tech presentation by Malcolm Gladwell about a concept called capitalization and how it relates to success in human endeavour. It’s quite interesting, and I might just have to go buy his book Outliers: The Story of Success, which is apparently all about the idea. The summary is: persistence trumps talent, and most people who might be really good at something aren’t doing it.

An example he gives is that kids who might be really good at, say, ice hockey, don’t get selected for preferential treatment (extra training, access to better coaches, etc.) early on, so they miss out on the opportunity to be awesome. As a result, the people who were picked, but who wouldn’t have been as good all other things being equal, end up actually being the best. The kids who didn’t get all the extra training, coaching, and so on, aren’t any good at ice hockey, relatively speaking, after a few years.

This seems to be common sense, in many ways, but Malcolm makes some very interesting points about what this kind of systemic bias does to the way that people capitalize on their natural abilities. There might be some kids who would be awesome long distance runners in the U.S., but because the focus over there is on American football, those kids aren’t likely to try out long distance running, or get noticed and trained to be as good as they could be. The same goes for many other areas.

On a personal level, you can interpret this in two ways. Firstly, you could interpret it as meaning that you should focus on what you’re naturally good at. In this way, you’ll be capitalizing on your own natural abilities, and are more likely to be very good at that activity. Secondly, you could interpret it as meaning that if you do more of an activity, you’ll be better than those who might be naturally gifted, but who don’t work at it.

Figuring out what you’re naturally good at can be tricky. What if you live in the middle of Uzbekistan, and you’re a naturally gifted SCUBA diver? What are the odds that you’ll get to practice enough to be as good as someone who lives in Miami, Florida? Instead, you choose some other endeavour, like the kids who missed out on ice hockey. Maybe you choose to be an accountant.

The good news is that if you work at it, you can be a really good accountant. Better than someone from Miami, Florida, who should have chosen SCUBA diving, and who bumbles along not working very hard because they don’t really like accounting. Since you’re going to have to do it a lot to be good, it helps to pick something you like doing.

The magic trifecta is to be naturally gifted at something you enjoy, to realise this early, and to spend a lot of time doing it. That’s the recipe for amazing success. Second best is picking something you like doing, and doing it a lot. Third best is just working hard at something you’re not naturally good at, and that you don’t really like. You’ll still end up better at it than people who are gifted, but don’t work hard.

I guess I’d better stop writing nonsense on the Internet and get back to work. ;)

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  1. But what if you really want to do something and you may not be naturally good at it. I have examples of two real things that ahppened to peopledestined at young ages to be professional athletes that were super good at their sports: The girl who was on her way to become an Olympic gymnast gave that up in her teens because she didn’t really like it for Broadway dancing because she did like it. A boy on his way to a pro tennis career discovered music as a teen when he sprained his arm and became a famous musician. His dad was a tennis teacher, so most likely he was forced into tennis. So you can be good at soemthing you don’t like, but what if you’re not very good at something you love?

  2. If you want to do something you’re not naturally good at, you’ll need to practice a lot in order to get good, so it’ll help if you enjoy it.

    If you’re not good at something you love, practice more. You’ll get better.

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