Why Not Just Try Harder To Get Ahead? The Effort vs. Talent Debate
Anybody who knows me realizes I’ve got very little talent in practically everything I do. Complex math was confusing so I stopped at Trigonometry sophomore year in high school. Who needs math, I told myself as a teenager who knew he could never become an engineer. My tennis serve is mediocre because I’m not particularly strong or tall. 205 lbs was the max I could ever bench and it’s been all downhill from there. Even after owning an acoustic guitar for over 10 years, I still can’t fingerpick quick enough to play Just Breathe, one the most beautiful songs by Eddie Vedder.
Even writing an article is often hard despite writing consistently online since 2009. My post on the recommended net worth by age and work experience took over 10 hours to write for example. Who the hell dedicates 10 hours of their life to write an article when I could be sipping a Moscow Mule on a beach in Bora Bora after an adventurous dive? An untalented writer who has to constantly double check his math and make sure there aren’t too many grammatical errors, that’s who.
Despite my deficiencies, I’ve managed to survive and lead a happy life. Serves are carefully placed while lullabies are simply sung. I argue that genetics plays a big part in happiness because when I was a poor college student studying abroad on $300 a month I was ecstatic. When I was getting Django Unchained on Wall Street, I was excited to be in the thick of the action. Now that I’ve retired, the happiness meter has stayed elevated as it should.
But what about effort? How much does effort play a part in getting ahead vs. talent? Every time the wheels start slipping, I ask myself, Why not try harder? Let’s discuss.
EFFORT > TALENT FOR SUCCESS
Imagine being 7’1″ feet tall and 300 pounds of muscle and not do anything useful with your superior physical attributes. Maybe you get drafted in the second round of the NBA based on shear potential despite only playing two years of organized basketball. But because you fail to practice your free throws, your post up moves, and your footwork you are a dud who is out of the league in five years. Or maybe you turn into Shaquille O’Neal and win four championships over a 19 year career.
Now imagine being so intellectually gifted that you score a perfect SAT score without even trying. But because you’re lazy and love to puff the ganja your grades suck and you end up going to Podunk U instead of Harvard. Or maybe you turn into one of the thousands of first generation immigrant students who overcome language barriers and constant ridicule to dominate our nation’s best universities. It’s always been a mystery to me why those who are born in the United States, who don’t have to adjust to local culture, and who’ve been speaking English since they could first speak can be outpaced by those who have no such advantages.
I’m sure everyone knows someone with incredible talent who has never lived up to their potential. In many ways, it’s a curse to have superior talent because everybody expects you to be somebody special. When the pressure starts to build, it’s easy to screw it all. But no logical person would argue for less talent over more talent if given a choice. So let’s not feel sorry for those who are gifted.
BREAKING DOWN “GETTING AHEAD” WITH SIMPLE MATH
Let’s assign numerical value 1-10 to describe getting ahead in life. Let’s also define Talent as anything that does not require effort e.g. luck, environment, being born into a rich and powerful family, etc.
1-4: Falling behind
5-7: Running in place
8-10: Getting ahead
Now let’s determine what is the percentage mix between Talent and Effort. I firmly believe that Effort plays a majority of the reason for progress, hence Effort = 51% or more and Talent = 49% or less. But ascribing such a huge value to Talent is a very pessimistic way of looking at things. These are the people who attribute other people’s success to luck instead of hard work. On the realistic other side of the equation, I believe Effort makes up 80% of why people get ahead, and Talent therefore makes up only 20%.
Pessimistic Case: Effort 51%, Talent 49%.
Realistic Case: Effort 80%, Talent 20%.
Talent also requires no Effort. Hence, the numerical value of Talent is always the FULL value e.g. 20% Talent = 2, 49% Talent = 4.9. Let’s solve the equation using the Realistic Case scenario.
Realistic Scenario: Effort (80%) + Talent (20%) = Getting Ahead (7+).
If I’ve got 20% Talent and give full Effort, my Getting Ahead score will be 10 = 10(.8) + 10(.2). If I give half Effort, then my Getting Ahead score of 6 = 5(0.8) + 10 (.2).
Now lets look at the pessimistic case where folks can give 60% Effort and still get ahead due to so much talent.
Pessimistic Case: Effort (51%) + Talent (49%) = Getting Ahead (7+).
In this equation, one only has to try HALF as hard (5) and will still get ahead = 5(51%) + 10 (49%) = 7.45. These are the 7 footers, the math whizzes, the music savants, and gorgeous people of the world.
One of the main arguments is defining what “Getting Ahead” means. We must also decide for ourselves There’s a reason why the average height in the NBA has averaged around 6′ 7″ since 1985. If you’re 5’7″, so sorry. Find another sport. But at 5’7″ you can clearly be an outstanding guard in your after work league. The same goes for your career or anything you do. There needs to be an achievable set of goals based around your realistic potential.
DEFINE WHAT YOU WANT
If we are to focus on becoming wealthy, then I argue that a path to wealth is pretty straight forward. Provide more value to someone than you cost and you’ll achieve enough riches to lead a content life. Get into work before everybody else and leave after everyone else and surely you will get ahead in your career. Consistently save and invest and surely you’ll amass a nice little fortune.
It’s the definition of rich which is the biggest variable. Some think owning five cars, five houses, and alligator shoes is the definition of rich. Meanwhile others are happy with just a backpack of necessities to their name and the ability to travel wherever they want, whenever they want.
We run into trouble where we try and mold our definition of “getting ahead” onto others. I’ve laid out my thoughts on the average net worth for the above average person, why spending much more than 10% of your income on a car is a waste, and why contributing to a ROTH is a mistake, but such views are my own. They’ve worked for me, but they won’t necessarily work for you. I’m not forcing anybody to read Financial Samurai, although it would be interesting if such a device existed. We’ve all got the power of choice.
I’ve seen how much effort plays a role in achieving goals. Consistently writing thousands of words a week on this site for the past four years takes a lot of dedication, but it’s been fun and it’s paid off. Spending several hours researching Chinese internet stocks one Saturday morning generated a decent chunk of change. Contemplating all my trading mistakes should help make better decisions going forward. Sometimes even practicing eight hours of tennis a week results in a perfect season.
Nobody is going to give us anything. We’ve got to go out and earn it. It is very rare that someone is so talented that they don’t have to try hard at all. The only profession that might come close to this scenario is if you are so beautiful and so fit that you can easily grace the cover of any magazine. But even then, a model must learn how to walk, pose, and maintain for longevity.
Let’s make the most of what we’ve got. If effort really is more than 50% of the equation, then we should feel emboldened knowing that the power is in our hands. Summer is here. Do we work while others are at play? Or do we relax like everyone else? Whatever we do, let’s just make sure the end results are congruent with our efforts.
Readers, what’s stopping you from trying harder to achieve what you want given hard work requires no skill? Is there such a thing as having a talent for hard work? What do you think the appropriate ratio is between effort and talent to get ahead if not 80/20?
Photo: Enjoying Art & Sunshine in SF, FS, 2013.