Having a talent for a specific endeavor does not insure that you will do it. You must exert effort to transform the talent into a skill. Turning the talent into skill does not insure that you’ll achieve your objective. You must exert more effort to transform the skill into achievement.
A Failed Dream
I was 6 years old and excited to have the chance to take piano lessons. I loved music and dreamed about playing – hymns in church or songs for my family to sing together. Although they didn’t have a lot of money, my parents bought a nice new piano and had it placed in our living room. A friend of our family, Miss Pritchard, who played piano at church, agreed to give me lessons.
The first book was a breeze. Simple songs to start my understanding of the techniques of the piano. My teacher wrote numbers over the notes and then numbers on the corresponding keys of the piano. It was a simple matter to match the numbers on the page to the numbers on the keys.
Miss Pritchard also gave me scales to practice. But for this part, I wasn’t as diligent at practicing as I could have been — I found it boring to play the same 8 keys over and over. But I practiced my songs and when we had our first recital, I was a star! I performed the best and Miss Pritchard gave me a big hug when the recital was over.
Then, reality hit. When I finished the first book, the numbered notes went away. I was supposed to begin learning to read music – to associate the notes with their proper keys – and I hated it! What had been a breeze was now drudgery. And hard!
You see, I had never learned to practice. I thought things should come easily without having to work at them (because I was so smart, you see). Therefore, I never made the effort to transform my talent to a skill. And my dream of playing the piano never became a reality.
A Fixed Mindset
Not being a student of psychology at the time, my 6-year old self didn’t realize that I had a fixed mindset. (In fact, the concepts of “fixed” and “growth mindsets” wouldn’t be articulated until many years later.) I thought I was so smart that learning new skills should always come easy to me. I didn’t understand about the need for effort and practice.
Many of us have been held back from accomplishing our true desires by this mode of thinking. We think we’re “smart” or “talented” and so we should easily achieve our dreams – with little or no work required. Because of our upbringing or our child’s way of understanding the world, we don’t realize that dreams take work. We may have talent, but talent is only the starting point.
Talent, Skills, and Achievement
Angela Duckworth is the leading researcher in the field of “grit” – in fact, she invented the field. Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance that leads to high achievement. It isn’t enough to have a deep and burning desire for a goal, although that is a necessary element. You have to stick with it long enough – sometimes years – to achieve it. That takes grit.
Talent is necessary, of course, but talent isn’t enough for accomplishing your dreams and your goals. You must invest effort into honing your talent into a skill.
But skill isn’t the same as achievement. You must further exert effort to use the skills you have worked to acquire. That’s when achievement happens.
“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your inner potential.” Angela writes in her book, Grit. “Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” [Duckworth]
Effort Isn’t Everything
Effort is critical in shaping talents into skills into achievement. Without effort, achievement will not be won. But while it is necessary, effort by itself isn’t enough. Other factors come into play.
Malcolm Gladwell, in the best-selling book Outliers, examines the elite hockey players in Canada – the best of the best. And he discovers an interesting and crucial fact.
Because hockey is such a popular sport in Canada, youngsters begin playing in leagues around 8 or 9. The cut-off date for the age limit is January 1. This means that a kid born in January and one born in December of the same year will play in the same group. But as Gladwell points out, an eight-year-old born in January or February is almost nine. An eight-year-old born in November or December is barely eight. At that age, nearly a year’s worth of growth and development makes a huge difference.
The older players, the players born in January, February and March, are generally stronger and faster than the younger players. Therefore they get more attention from the coaches. More attention means better training and makes these players more likely to be selected for the better teams.
And so, according to Gladwell’s research, a majority of professional hockey players in Canada are born in January, February, and March. [Gladwell]
Effort is essential – “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” said hockey great Wayne Gretzky (who incidentally was born in January). But other factors – money, education, resources, environment, birth date, etc. – come into play as well.
Angela Duckworth herself says “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” [Duckworth]
But she continues on to say that, all other things being equal, the people who give the most effort are the ones who will achieve. And while we don’t control most of the other factors, we have complete control over the effort we give.
All Effort Is Not Created Equal
On most Thursday mornings, I teach a financial foundations class for folks entering the Employment Readiness program at United Ministries. One of our major focal points is the importance of saving money and building an emergency cushion.
When we talk about setting a savings goal, I encourage them to start small. “Instead of trying to save $50 per week,” I tell them, “start with an amount so small – say $10 or $5 or even $1 – that you’d be embarrassed not to do it. At this beginning stage, the amount is not as important as becoming consistent and in making saving a habit. You can always increase the amount but your focus right now is on consistency.”
Effort is crucial for achievement, as we’ve said over and over. But all effort is not created equal. More important than the amount of effort you make today is that you come back tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next and make the effort again and again.
Saving $50 every now and then is not likely to grow into a savings cushion. Putting aside $5, week after week, and watching it grow is much more likely to get you to your savings goal. And so it is with any endeavor. Small, consistent steps almost always win over the rare and occasional giant leap.
“Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often.” says Duckworth. “Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day, what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to . . . keep going.” [Duckworth]
Without effort, achievement can’t happen. Without consistent effort, you won’t develop the skills necessary to reach your potential.
Consistent effort gives you grit.
Passion and Perseverance
“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.” [Chambliss]
Effort – consistent effort – turns talent into skill and skill into achievement. All else being equal, effort counts twice. And effort is under our direct control.
Do you have a dream, a BIG goal, that is languishing for lack of effort? Or limping along because your efforts are hit-and-miss, not consistent?
Maybe you want to learn to play the piano. Or save 3 months expenses in an emergency fund. To compete in a triathlon. Or be a better mother, father, spouse, brother, sister.
Although there are factors outside of your control, there is one crucial factor over which you have complete control.
Passion and perseverance. These are the components of Grit. Decide on your BIG goal, your passion. Then decide to commit the effort required to hone your talents and skills until you achieve your dream. Start small. And start today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the next . . .
That is embracing the Excelerated Life™!
Excelerated Accomplishment™ — achieving meaningful objectives — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Chambliss, Daniel F. “The Mundanity Of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report On Stratification And Olympic Swimmers.” PDF file.
Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance. New York: Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story Of Success. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.