Why Not Just Try Harder To Get Ahead? The Effort vs. Talent Debate

If you want to get ahead, why not just try harder? It sounds simple doesn't it? Let's see if trying harder is one key to success.

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.

Surviving Being Average

Despite my deficiencies, I've managed to survive and lead a happy life. Serves are carefully placed while lullabies are simply sung. I even managed to get bumped up to a 5.0 USTA rating, which only 1-1.5% of USTA players get to.

Why Not Just Try Harder To Get Ahead?

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 Is More Important Than 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. Just make sure if you go to Harvard you try harder too. Expectations are much greater for you!

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. They should have tried harder, but they didn't. 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.

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.

Try Harder To Get Ahead If 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.

Effort Makes A Difference

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.

For example, 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. We should try harder to get ahead. 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, why not try harder to get ahead? 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, 2013.

Post is updated for 2021. Work ethic is huge folks. Do not underestimate its power! The secret to your success is 10 years of unwavering commitment at you craft!

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42 thoughts on “Why Not Just Try Harder To Get Ahead? The Effort vs. Talent Debate”

  1. Sam Gerstein

    Hi Sam: I just came across your website now – that’s why this entry is in 2016 and not 2013. Yet I find the content of your blog as apropos now as ever. I am not sure about the exact ratio of effort and talent but I do know that both are required to achieve “true success”. I define “true success” as internal as well as external success. In the end, you have to be content with yourself – or another way of saying it, you can’t fool yourself. If someone is lucky enough to be born with incredible talent in one area of life, if he doesn’t work to fully release that talent, he will secretly always know it even though others may not notice because they are blinded by his results. Yet that will cause him much regret later in life.

    Another way to look at this dilemma is to turn it on its head. If we don’t know the exact ratio of effort and talent, why not optimize the equation by using both. In my private counselling practice I frequently see Millennials who are frustrated by their BA or other degree because even though they may have done extremely well, they have little passion for it. They pursued it as a competitive advantage, or because of parental pressure or for financial reasons. They seek my assistance because they don’t know what to do. I always prescribe BOTH pursuing their natural talents AND putting in tremendous effort. I have found this to be a winning formula for my clients. The challenge is that people often don’t believe they are gifted with any natural talents. I help them tap into a different part of their mind to help them uncover their own unique talents.
    Sam Gerstein

  2. GrandMoffHozz

    I’ve only just turned 21 and I already have learned first hand that Effort<Talent.Though Effort is by far the most important, talent is always a good supplement. This relates to your "grades don't matter" post as well. There's always second chances if you are willing to work hard. I went to community college after high school due to a middle of the road GPA (3.1 and change), a similar hatred of math, and no idea where I wanted to end up or what I wanted to do. There I learned how easy it was to succeed scholastically with some extra effort after seeing so many people around me drop out and get stoned in their mom's basements instead of coming to class. After getting a 3.83 in CC, an internship under my belt, and winning a few awards with the band I front/play guitar in- I was already offered a decent scholarship to Temple, but I decided to throw a hail mary for UPenn and was accepted. No matter how many goofy local band competitions I won, I wouldn't have even been considered without a great GPA and a bit of professional experience. They even took most of my credits, which makes my ROI for CC outstanding. Speaking of which, I have an idea for you to write a post(or hey, if you need a guest post that's fine too :D ) on financial aid if you want to send me an email sometime. Your articles mentioning tuition for top schools are missing many, many important variables and options my friend! All I'm going to say is I'm not paying $60,000 a year, not even close! This is my first comment so I just wanted to add saying I read this blog everyday. I've grown up with parents who are very poor at managing their personal finances and without your blog I'd likely end up in the same boat in the future. Xiexie dogen laoshi!

    1. Congrats on getting into Penn!

      The two year CC route then transferring to an exellent 4 year school is probably the best ROI around! There’s just the unknown of being able to transfer and also missing out on college crazy life, which can be a lot of fun.

    2. grandmoffhozz

      Wow… That should be effort>talent. Luckily I know this is not a forum where people are judged on typos… ;)

  3. thepotatohead

    I’d say that I have generally been slacking in the effort department for a lot of my post highschool and college life. Could have done way more then I currently have with my education and skills. Hoping to change that and put forth a lot more effort to get where I think I should be.

    1. The good thing about slacking is that if feels good! So even though you might not have achieved whatever potential you think, you still had a good time in your journey. Would this be fair to say? I’m trying to look at the positive side of things.


  4. I’m a huge believer in hard work and how it can definitely move you past even the most talented people. I’ve seen this “debate” front and center during the past two years since my husband has been in med school. There are so many of our friends who go to med school with him who are so ridiculously blow-your-mind smart (it’s nuts!), and they don’t have to work nearly as hard as my hubby to get better grades. But, even though my husband claims he is not “as smart” as many of his friends and has to put in more hours, I’m confident he’s going to be an even better doctor for it, esp. because he has such a great personality (Obviously, I’m his biggest fan! :))

  5. Hi Sam,

    Been a follower for a while, first time poster. I guess you could classify me as a pretty talented person. But I never really saw it that way, in fact, I go to lengths to hide it in some cases, no one likes a show off. I think it began to hit me recently, when I started realizing just how bad people are @ things, when those same activities just seem easy for me. For instance, all the guys went golfing a few weeks ago @ a wedding, actually a driving range with targets and stuff. I don’t even play golf and certainly never with these guys, I’ve driven balls and practiced a little in my younger days so I was nervous when we were heading over there, that I’d be “sub-par”. Some of the other guys had their own clubs and stuff. First guy steps up and is whacking balls with all kinds of hook and barely 150 yards if he got lucky. I knew right then, what was about to happen. The little I did practice, I practiced hitting it straight and hard, so I knew I was going for the fence. First one off the tee, dead straight 275 yards of carry and rolled into the fence. I used to try and hide my talent but as I’ve gotten older, 29 currently, I’ve come to embrace it, I shouldn’t apologize because I’m good at things, but I try and stay modest if possible. I always realize there is someone better, smarter, faster, richer. Its not just golf, pretty much everything comes fairly easy to me, academically, financially, professionally, etc . . . People, joke that I am the luckiest person they know, I seem to win things also, like prizes and the few times I’ve gone gambling and such. But there was a major struggle I had to overcome several years back, which none of them really saw and even fewer understood, except a few close people, so they know the real person. That took effort, and everyday since then is effort and effort and effort. A guy told me once, “90% of success @ work and in life, is just showing up.” – I believe that talent is nice, but effort pulls you through when talent just isn’t enough.

    1. Don’t waste your golfing talents and start practicing! If you can hit 275 yards and straight consistently, you have the ability to be a single handicapper. I tried my hardest for one year and got down to 9.8 and quickly ricocheted higher to 11. Golf is a wonderful way to develop business relationships if you are in such a profession that allows!

  6. Ahh, just got up from a nice 1.5 hour afternoon siesta myself! Because I’ve been trained to get up way before the stock market opens at 6:30am PST my entire work career, waking up early comes easily now. I’ll probably be an early bird forever. Fight on!

  7. Anton Ivanov

    Hard work all the way. Even extraordinary talent will not get realized to its full potential without any hard work.

    I try to find things which I’m good at, which I have talent for and work my hardest to make myself better at them. This way you hard work is amplified by your innate talent. That’s a potent combination that will get you to your goals in no time.

  8. I definitely agree that, while more talent is important, it’s really determination that will actually keep the wheels turning and the results coming. I don’t know of anyone who is talented enough to just sit back, just do dribs and drabs, and make something of themselves.

    That being said, being a more “driven” person can really be more of a curse than a blessing. Your own expectations of yourself will always fall short of your actual achievement, so you vow to work even harder. But, your ambition goads you into setting bigger goals and you fall short again. The cycle continues.

    So, to me, the most successful people are the ones that can “find their comfort zone”.

  9. Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide

    Excellent post!

    Here’s a secret: Einstein wasn’t THAT smart. Really. There are several THOUSAND people around today who are smarter.

    It’s what he did with it that made the difference.

    Studies of Nobel prize laureates in the sciences, successful business people, revolutionary doctors, professors, etc., etc., prove again and again that there’s an intellectual and talent threshold in every field that MUST be met to be successful, but beyond that threshold, it’s what you do with it–not just hard work and perseverance, which are important, but creativity, too. (Yes, math and science are enormously creative endeavors! I say this as a person who worked as a professional novelist.) Creativity is also not “talent”–it’s something that’s far more honed than inborn. It’s problem solving, etc. Once you have *enough* brains for a task, being a ton smarter doesn’t correspond to better results, just like the very tallest people aren’t automatically the best basketball players.

  10. Debt Freedom Plan

    It’s my opinion talent gets you in the door. I could apply myself at plumbing (something I know zero about) but until I get better (talent) my efforts are wasted (not to mention, very wet probably). But if I gained talent first and then applied the effort then I could be the baddest plumber on the block.

    There’s stuff to be said for applying yourself but you have to know how to apply yourself first.

    My 2 bits, anyway.

  11. The First Million is the Hardest

    I think early in life talent is more important. Showing exceptional skill in math, music or a sport at a young age will get you into better classes or better coaching to allow you to maximize on that talent and have a better chance of succeeding. As you age talent becomes less and less important and those that work hardest can easily close the gap or surpass their more talented competition in certain fields as the results you produce become more important than the potential you possess.

    1. I agree with this. I also think another reason is the work environment. It is often hard for people with more talent but don’t work as hard to get promoted because of how it looks to fellow workers. It can create disharmony and demotivate workers when the see somebody who works less than them getting ahead. Management are aware of this and are more likely to promote someone based on work ethic than out and out quality. Obviously it differs in jobs where things like creativity and spark are valued more.

  12. The great thing about hard work is that it’s over, but the results often keep giving long after the hard work is done.

    I feel apathetic at times too. Why bother trying harder when all is good? So frankly, I don’t many times. But, for things I do care about, such as creating sustainable passive income and writing, I’ll keep on going.

  13. MADD Finances

    For me it was either just being lazy or lack of knowledge. Doesn’t make sense to work hard and still be doing the wrong things. I believe you need to know the right things to do to make the effort count. School came easy for me but I never really took to it. Take making money online, there are a lot of people putting in effort but few get the results like others. With talent you can add effort and could be great.

  14. I’m not super talented either, just a hard worker. However, the only limitations on how hard I can work is time and my sanity. Sometimes, I just need a break! ;)

  15. I think talent probably sets the ceiling on how good we can be at something, but it doesn’t make us successful and it doesn’t meant that someone with less talent can be as successful as they need to be. Effort is always required, even if it’s simply the effort to determine what level of “success” you need to be happy. And I love the point about effort’s importance empowering us to be what we want. Talent matters, but not enough so that we can’t get what we want out of life.

  16. I like your mathematical analysis of effort and talent. It certainly is a shame when people with talent throw it away. I had a really intelligent cousin that I was worried about for a long time. He could have had straight A’s all though school, but didn’t apply himself and got Cs and Ds. Finally he started to get his act together, and now he’s managed to excel at his job and become fully independent.

    Effort isn’t easy and takes a lot of persistence, but it can get you skills over time that can certainly compete and often surpass those with natural talent.

  17. I would say the effort vs. talent debate is very similar to the nature vs. nurture debate. We argue one over the other, but in the end both are HUGE factors. You need some talent to succeed but you also need effort. Adding the VS seems to imply that there is a mutually exclusive relationship between the two, but there is not. The most talented person in the world can also be the one who puts in the most effort.

  18. Thanks for the tip. Will take a look at the descriptions in more detail during the next free museum week, which is the first week of every month. You get to know these things as a retiree :) And the early bird special deals.

  19. Classic business decision. For myself, it is a zero-sum game; my time/effort compared to results. At a certain point, an extra five hours of practice on the tennis court might not give you the results you want. Especially when you could be using those five hours for writing, researching new investment opps, scuba diving, etc. btw, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” made a great point about the people who maximized their talent with the elbow-grease and practice necessary. He found that when something isn’t producing results, the Outliers “quit early” so they don’t spend time/effort that could be better used honing a different talent/idea.

    P.S. – lullabies? Hmmmm. Well, to the right person you sound much better than Eddie Vedder ever could!

  20. I think what occasionally stops me from trying harder is a combination of cyclically intermittent laziness vs very high energy, fears of failure stemming from moderate anxiety and depression, and a pronounced disconnect in finding satisfaction from the intrinsic rewards of a job well done that the ubiquitous they contend come from within; I don’t need to be patted on the back on the days of brilliance and superhuman productivity, but I need to know that my contributions have benefited a collaborative goal and how they’ve affected others… if I don’t have a human connection and raw honesty at work or anywhere, I’m dissatisfied and will give up on something almost immediately.

    P.S.: I really enjoy your writing and hope you never stop

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Keeps me motivated to continue!

      I worked very hard in my 20s a lot due to fear of failure. I didn’t want to turn 30 and be nowhere. I also fear having regret, so I know that if I try my best, even if I fail I won’t have much regret.

      Good luck on your journey!


    what about the view that effort **begets** talent? Are you talented in financial analysis? Would you be so talented if you never thought about finance, ever?

    What is easy for you is likely very difficult and requires much effort for others, but only because you already put in that effort. So from the perspective of others, you are “talented”.

    So what do you mean by “talent”? The ability to do something now without much effort? Or some innate quality? If it’s the latter, there’s the whole problem of demonstrating that nothing between birth and the current instant influenced development with any modicum of effort.

    To this end, I’d say this whole “argument” is conceptually unsound and still in “discovery” phases of a real, logical thesis.

  22. I think the only time talent is really rewarded is in school. Things like perfect SATs and high marks distinguish us until we start a career. Then results is valued much more. The people who worker harder generally get better results. I often see bright students who do nothing with their talent and lesser students who do so much more.

  23. I think its an issue of putting effort in the right direction. Many people put effort towards things that if they thought about it really wouldn’t get them ahead even if they were successful with it. You can work as hard as you want at your minimum wage/dead end job but you won’t get as far as fast as a guy who can figure out how to get himself into a situation with a higher ceiling regardless of how hard the second guy works or how talented he is.

    Impossible to put real numbers on talent/effort. I would throw in a third factor you’re forgetting and that’s dumb luck, right place right time. Sometimes random things happen to advance your situation that would be impossible to foresee.

    1. Great point. Work on the right things that have larger upside. I could have been the hardest working egg Mcmuffin cooker, and it wouldn’t have got me more than $40K a year.

      Talent is defined in this article as everything but Effort e.g. Dumb Luck included.

  24. I think that for most people, in most jobs and career paths, effort is what matters most. That is, as long as somebody is talented and skilled enough to enter the game, it’s effort that will take the person farthest. Unless somebody is truly exceptional, maybe a few standard deviations from the norm – in that case, I’d say talent can overcome effort.

  25. I think it’s what you put forth into it. Sure there are scenarios where things don’t line up, but for the most part anything can be achieved if one plans, and then acts.

  26. I tend to believe that we have more influence over our future than most people care to believe, but I feel like there’s a variable you’ve left out, environment. The son of a ceo might not have any talent or put firth any effort, but he’ll probably be alright his whole life thanks to daddy. Maybe 70% effort, 15% talent, 15% environment.

  27. Unfortunately I would describe myself as someone who has not lived up to their potential. I always had high grades in school without having to put much effort in. As you get older though its harder to grasp things as quickly I find and cramming is no longer good enough to get the best grades in uni. I did okay and got a good degree in Finance and Spanish and went on to do a Masters in Finance but I have not pushed on since. I’m 27 now and have been sitting in a job for over 2 years now that only pays a mediocre entry graduate level salary and starting to get frustrated. But when I look at things I have nobody to blame but myself. I do have self confidence and issues that have held me back from promoting myself and going for really good jobs. I almost feel like I don’t deserve them because I haven’t fulfilled the talent I was given so dont even apply for them.

    I look at other people who I went to school with who were not as talented but have put in the effort since then and are reaping the rewards. It’s hard not to feel downhearted at this stage but I guess it’s never to late to take control of your own future and overcome the things that are holding you back.

    I’m glad I found this blog (even though I know it’s primarily aimed at Americans and I’m from Ireland) because I need to use it as motivation to push myself forward

    1. Hi Brendan,

      Welcome Irish friend. The great thing is that when we are agitated enough about our situation, we try harder to improve our situation. 27 is still very young. You’ve got the whole world waiting for you!

      Good luck.


    2. I agree with Sam. 27 is very young and you have a whole lot of potential left. Keep working toward what you want and put A LOT of effort into it.
      If you’re not happy with your job, keep looking for a new position. It might take a long time, but just keep pushing. Good luck!

      1. Thanks guys, great advice! I was born in the States so have a passport. Maybe a visit could kick start my career, more options to consider!

  28. Daisy @ Young Finances

    Great question. I have actually never found something that I’m very talented in. I’m one of those people who is just okay in everything I do. But I do believe in hard work. I could make a billion excuses as to why I’m currently just “running in place”, because I definitely am doing just that. But excuses aren’t going to help!

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