Hard Work Always Trumps Talent

Article by Vasily Vasinov

"He is so talented."

"We are looking for top talent."

"We've got to recognize and retain talent."

"She just received an offer from Google. She must be so talented!"

How many of those phrases have you come across in blogs, recruiting emails, and daily interactions with your friends and colleagues?

There is something creepy about how we connect one's success to their talent without giving much credit to hard work. Seeing things through the lens of talent places magical auras around successful people; it makes successful people seem like they occupy a special place unreachable by mere mortals.

The talent lens also creates divisiveness in organizations. Certain job titles, like "software engineer," put you in the bucket of employees who can reap the benefits of being "talented." Other roles, like "sales" or "management," don't get the same treatment. How often do you hear people say, "He is such a talented manager"?

Undeveloped Talent Is Worthless

Now, I am not saying that there is no such thing as talent. Rather, I think of talent as a measure of intellectual abilities (IQ, memory, and certain modes of thinking) that depend on brain features and physical abilities (strength, agility, speed, and dexterity). Abilities can drive interests and, eventually, mastery of specific skills.

Undeveloped abilities and talents are worthless. A brilliant kid without direction won't become a great engineer or the next world champion of chess. The talented are always in danger of being overconfident. It's a funny paradox: If you are gifted, you can maintain the facade of being competent by simply demonstrating things that regular Joes would consider borderline magical; in reality, you are just using your natural abilities to B.S. your way through life. Without proper discipline, talent corrupts.

What's more important than talent? I think dedication, grit, and focus are. You cannot accomplish genuinely novel and difficult work simply by being gifted. Hard work is a grind. Talent can certainly help, but more often than not, it can also get in the way. Focusing on grit and discipline is better in the long term, and it is less likely to lead to disaster than focusing on talent is.

We Can't All Hire the Top 5 Percent

Another argument against fixating on talent is that brilliant people are, by definition, outliers. If your hiring pipeline is setup in such a way that it only targets gifted people, then it will result in disappointment.

As with most things, the talent distribution resembles a bell curve, with outliers on both sides – i.e., really dumb and really smart people. Don't target the elusive top 5 percent! Focus on getting the top 30 percent of talented workers, then overlap them with the top 30 percent of hard workers, and you'll get your high-quality hires.

If that doesn't convince you, look at it from a different perspective: If every company tries to get the top 5 percent of gifted folks, then it's mathematically impossible for everyone to hire them. What makes you think that your company is the one to win at the top talent game? Are you a "top 5 percent" company?

People Don't Need to Be Talented to Be Great

Labeling some people as "talented" is really damaging to those who are working on their skills but haven't yet crossed into to "good" or "great" area yet. For some people, this gap between "needs improvement" and "excellent" is small; for others, it's the size of the Grand Canyon. When you are just getting started, it can be mentally hard to see past the gap in front of you. It is even harder when you don't have natural talent – but with enough work, you can still be pretty good, even if you aren't naturally gifted.

Sadly, a lot of people get discouraged and give up because they think that they will never be able to compete with the "most gifted." To this I say: "Baloney!" Don't give up just because you are not naturally talented. There is plenty of room for hard workers out there.

This essay would be incomplete without mentioning the overlap between the top 5 percent of talented people and the top 5 percent of people with grit. Real magic happens as the result of this rare overlap. It's the sweet spot where Olympians, principal engineers, inventors, and visionaries are created. To see those folks in action is fascinating, and it's even more fascinating to socialize with them. I've had the privilege of talking and working with a few of these people in the past, and in each case it has been a life-changing experience.

These astonishing outliers have taught me one very surprising lesson, too. It's counterintuitive, but I have really grown to appreciate it: Hard work always trumps talent. Always.

A version of this article originally appeared on 42Hire.com.

Vasily Vasinov likes writing, running, skiing, mountain biking, science, and technology. He lives in Seattle, but his soul belongs in Colorado. He creates software at AWS and Hakiri.