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Why The “Talent” Myth Is Holding You Back

By Orrin Woodward

While many think talent is the separation point between the successful and the unsuccessful in life, the truth is that hard work and focus trumps talent every time.

Don’t misunderstand me, successful people are extremely talented, but then again, unsuccessful people have plenty of talent as well, albeit unused.

Talent is given to all, but what separates people on the success journey is the willingness to focus on the critical work to get the job done.

PDCA is a great process, but is nearly worthless without the work ethic to cycle through the process again and again, improving the key skills every new PDCA cycle. Most people fail in life simply because they are getting outworked. It doesn’t matter how talented one is; it doesn’t matter how good the plan is; nor how good the intentions were, if someone doesn’t work, they will not win.

One of my favorite books in the Bible is the Book of Acts. Notice, that they didn’t call it the Book of Intentions or the Book of Thoughts, but the Book of Acts. Either actions will conquer fears or fears will conquer actions. Inside of all of us, is a champion waiting to be unleashed upon the world, through the steady persistent application of work to a given task.

Starting today, refuse to allow the excuse of ‘lack of talent’ to stop you from moving in the direction of your dreams.

Work ethic trumps talent, period.

As Malcolm Gladwell, in his thought-provoking book, Outliers, writes on the researcher K. Anders Ericsson’s study:

“The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

In fact, the number that seems to keep popping up when researchers study top achievers is 10,000 hours to develop mastery in any given field. It takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of studies, practice, actions, improvements, and adjustments to develop make the skills look natural. This concept explains why the ‘haves‘ separate themselves from the ‘have nots’ in life.

How many people are willing to dedicate 10,000 hours of continuous improvement in any profession? Some may be thinking, but I have worked for twenty-five years in my profession, don’t all people eventually reach 10,000 hours? But just putting in time isn’t enough, as it takes continuous improvement to count towards the 10,000 hours.

Most people who have twenty-five years in a profession don’t have twenty-five years experience, but only one years experience, twenty-five times. 10,000 hours is literally 10,000 hours of PDCA time, improving in they key areas on a consistent basis, until one has mastered his craft.

Anyone can do this, but sadly, few will dream big enough, building enough passion, pushing through laziness, to strive for excellence.

If someone is going to dedicate 10,000 hours in a profession, it becomes clear that focus is a key, since there isn’t enough 10,000 hours to go around in life to master all of them. One can become great in nearly any field, but one cannot become great in all fields. The question becomes what area is one going to master, defining ones life?

Gladwell gives an example of talent vs hard work using the world famous band – The Beatles. Many assume, that the Beatles were just incredibly talented musicians, and that talent alone, catapulted them to success. But reading from the Beatles, biography, Shout!, referring to the year and a half of live nightly performances in Hamburg, Germany, it becomes clear that they paid the 10,000 hour price to develop mastery:

“They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back. They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers–cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”

Just how many hours did the Beatles play during that year and a half? They performed 270 times in that period, many times for eight hours or more on stage! It’s not shocking that the musical skills, and showmanship of the Beatles, improved dramatically with thousands of hours of live performances in Hamburg.

When Beatle mania exploded upon the USA music scene in 1964, the Beatles had performed live over 1200 times, more than most band will perform in a lifetime. Simply put, the Beatles were willing to work harder than other bands, improving their skills, as the hours accumulated through the PDCA process.

Gladwell reflects, “The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.” Truthfully, every leader/performer needs his Hamburg crucible, practicing while others are playing, dreaming while others are complaining, enduring while others are quitting.

No great achievement is accomplished without great sacrifice, and, the 10,000 hours is the price to be paid for mastery in any field. People love the thought of being successful, but few love the thought of 10,000 hours of hard work in the PDCA process to achieve success. When one falls in love with, not only the dream, but the work to accomplish that dream, success like the Beatles is the reward, accomplishing greatness in an age that glorifies mediocrity.

It seems like the harder people work, the luckier they seem to get. Success occurs when opportunity and preparedness meet. One cannot control an opportunity arrival, but one certainly controls the preparation beforehand. Abraham Lincoln, amidst trials and tribulations, wrote, “I will work, I will study, and when my moment comes, I will be ready.”

Working, studying, learning, and improving are key aspects of any solid work ethic. Winners aren’t lucky, but they are prepared. They may be blessed, but they prepared themselves for the blessing by constant improvement through hard work for their moment of opportunity. Like the old saying goes, “Don’t wait until you are thirsty to dig your well.”

Winners would rather be over prepared, waiting for their moment, and, when the moment arrives, they capitalize on it. Luck is a persons excuse for a winners commitment. Prepare daily for the opportunity, because in a person’s life, real opportunity may come along only two or three times.

Sadly, most people were too busy knocking the opportunities to hear opportunities knocking. Do winners have luck? Yes, if you define LUCK as – Laboring Under Correct Knowledge – then yes, winners have LUCK.

Geoff Colvin, in his powerful book, Talent is Overrated, shares a concept called deliberate practice, a technique that ties in perfectly with the PDCA process described earlier, he writes:

“Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.”

Deliberate practice separates the amateurs from the professionals in any field. The amateurs, practicing the skills that they competent and comfortable with, while the professionals working at the limits of their skills, pushing to failure, in an effort to move their mastery of skills past their current competence and comfort levels. Only through pushing past ones comfort zones, will improve the level of ones skills.

Few, are willing to consistently endure the failures inherent in a properly running PDCA, because deliberate practice demands a level of focus and endurance, needing a high pain tolerance. Colvin writes on the importance of pushing past he comfort zone in deliberate practice:

“. . , great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice – avoiding automaticity. The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible. . . . Avoiding automaticity through continual practice is another way of saying that great performers are always getting better.”

This is why hard work is so important, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Knowing why one is willing to endure the hardships of growth is essential to success. Success is available to anyone reading this, but make no mistake, the success process will reveal what’s inside of you.

Winners will choose to get better, whiners will choose to get bitter. Success isn’t easy, but then again, neither is failure. If we are going to struggle either way, let’s struggle in the attainment of excellence, not existence. One must work hard, accepting no excuses, focusing on the long-term dreams, enduring the pain in the personal growth process, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Rewards, that go way beyond the financial, and into the satisfaction obtained when one knows that he truly did his personal best in a worthy cause, allowing one to look in the mirror and see a winner staring back at him.


Orrin Woodward is the co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company, and the New York Times best-selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution.

Named by the International Association of Business as a Top 10 Leadership Guru, he is dedicated to building leaders and entrepreneurs and promoting freedom and prosperity.

Orrin blogs regularly at Orrin Woodward. He lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida with his wife and four children.

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  1. […] Talent is given to all, but what separates people on the success journey is the willingness to focus on the critical work to get the job done. […continue reading.] […]

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