Do You Have to Have Talent to Succeed?

Drawing Talent

I see many people give up on careers and activities that they love (or might love) because they don’t believe they have enough talent to succeed. Whether it’s writing, acting, the arts, athletics, or even something more practical like computer programming or teaching, they just don’t feel like they have that magical ability that will make them “good at it.” Either someone has told them they don’t have talent, or they’ve simply come to believe it themselves through a failed effort. They give up before they even get started.

Well, in most cases, I think that’s nonsense. “Talent” is overvalued. Talent is defined as a natural aptitude or skill. That’s it. It’s not a mystical ability, it’s not your predetermined destiny and it doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. Having talent also doesn’t grant you a free pass to success without practice and training. Neither does it mean that you will love whatever you’re talented at or that you will become rich if you pursue your talent. Talent simply means you have some things that you lean toward being able to do well. Most of us have several talents. Yours may be writing, dancing, or painting, or maybe you can tie a knot in a cherry stem with your tongue.

For some reason, I’m a talented seamstress. I picked it up easily and have completed many projects that people tell me show real skill and aptitude. The problem is, I hate it. It frustrates me to no end and I always end up wanting to poke my eye out with a needle. I’d never make a career out of it. I’m far less naturally talented as a writer, yet this is how I make my living. I chose it because it’s what I really love to do, unlike sewing which is painful for me. While I may not be “naturally gifted” as a writer, I’ve managed to overcome my lack of natural talent in other ways. So if talent is overrated, what will get you where you want to go?

Practice. Practice is essential, whether you’re talented or not. Estimates are that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a success or expert at any given thing. So that’s 10,000 hours at the keyboard, easel, or gym. These estimates don’t differentiate between talented and untalented people. It doesn’t take a talented person only 5,000 hours of work. It still takes 10,000. No matter who you are, you have to practice and work at whatever you want to be good at. There’s no shortcut, whether you’re “talented” or not. Everyone has to put in the work and sacrifice other fun things in order to become a success.

Education/training. In addition to practice, you have to be trained/educated in whatever skill you want to pursue. That might mean a degree, continuing education classes, lessons, coaching, or and apprenticeship with a master of your craft. However you do it, you have to receive instruction from a qualified teacher. Nobody wakes up and just knows how to do something like computer programming without some lessons. If you pursue your education and training, find good teachers, and keep advancing when one teacher can no longer teach you anything new, you’ll find yourself slowly mastering your craft.

Dedication and drive. To succeed at anything, you have to want to do it. I’d never succeed as a seamstress because I just don’t want to. But I can succeed at writing because I want to do it. More days than not, I feel like I have to write or my day isn’t complete. I’m also driven to succeed because this is how I make my living and, frankly, I don’t think I could do anything else. So I have to make this work or I’ll starve. That drive and dedication pushes me to practice on days I don’t want to. It gets me out to conferences when I’d rather watch TV. If you are dedicated to your craft and have the drive to succeed at it, talent doesn’t matter so much because you will keep working and pushing even when you’d rather not. Some talented people rest and take it easy, thinking their talent will carry them. The “untalented” can often surpass such half-baked efforts through hard work.

Piano Talent

Passion. Loving what you do (or at least believing strongly in the value of the work) is a big part of whether you will succeed or not. You may be immensely talented at something, but if you hate it or see no value in it you’ll never put in the hours to perfect it, or have the dedication to keep working at it when you’re feeling like doing anything but. If you have a deep passion for your interest or craft, you’ll want to do it and that will lead you to perfect your skills.

Collaboration. I may enjoy writing, but I don’t enjoy drawing, illustrating, or putting together PowerPoint presentations. I’m not good at these things, either, and I don’t have the inclination to learn. Whenever I have to do something that requires illustrations, I have people with whom I collaborate. They fill in my weak spots. Similarly, if they have work that needs text, they often call me to write the words. We all work to our strengths. This means that I can take on work that I wouldn’t normally get, and they can, too. If you have areas of your craft at which you don’t excel, chances are that you can find someone to cover your weak spots.

Have a positive attitude. This doesn’t mean that you have to be sunny all the time. No one is. However, you have to be able to see the positives in your progress. I get rejected. A lot. But I learn something from most of them. That’s the positive. Sure, the rejection hurts, but I have a positive attitude about it and realize that I’m learning and that I’m at least putting my work out there. A lot of people never even get that far. When I get criticism, I try to take that positively, too. If I got down about every negative thing that was said about my work, I’d never write another word. Fortunately, there are more positives than negatives so I’m able to tell myself I’m not a failure. Keep a positive outlook and you’ll keep moving forward. Get mired in the negatives and you’ll never succeed.

Excel in other areas. You can probably name a bunch of people who are hugely successful, yet their work is mediocre (and worse than yours, if you do say so yourself). How did they succeed? It may have been being in the right place at the right time, but chances are it’s because they excel in other areas. Maybe they aren’t a great painter, but they are a savvy businessperson who is able to get their work shown in the right places and make sweet deals. Maybe they can’t write their way out of a paper bag, but they tirelessly (and shamelessly) marketed their work until it found an audience. Maybe this person is just so professional in their conduct (never misses a deadline, treats everyone with respect, turns in work that doesn’t need more work, etc.) that people seek them out just to have the chance to work with them. If you worry that your “talent” isn’t enough, make yourself skilled in other, complimentary areas. It might make you stand out in a sea of mediocrity.

Patience and perseverance. Nothing comes overnight, not even for those who are “talented.” Nobody wakes up one day and paints a perfect piece of art, or writes a publishable novel. Even overnight successes are usually anything but. Most have put in years of effort at something. They worked, they failed, they worked some more, maybe they finally had a moderate success, and then, bam, one day it all came together and now they’re a sensation. They were patient and kept working. They didn’t give up or try to rush something that wasn’t working. They waited, watched, learned, and worked some more. They paid their dues or networked until, finally, all that patience and perseverance paid off and they achieved “success.”

Talent is largely a myth. What matters is how hard you work and how much you want to succeed at whatever you’re doing. If you’re willing to put in the hours, make the sacrifices, and get proper training, you may find yourself succeeding when you don’t have “talent.” You can have all the natural ability in the world, but without work and dedication, that talent will remain dormant, which makes such a person no different than someone with no innate talent. What separates successes from failures isn’t talent, it’s work.

(Photos courtesy of kpgolfpro, Didgeman)


2 thoughts on “Do You Have to Have Talent to Succeed?

  1. Evelyn Chartres

    The 10,000 hour mark has been somewhat debunked. That number was normalised and is based on a specific field who were tested at a certain age. Essentially it serves a good number to say that to become good at something you need to dedicate time to it. However that number is not the same for everyone, the truly gifted will need a lot less time.

    However, your article did make me consider a certain aspect. Becoming a great at something does not mean you are great at all aspects of it. You mentioned you are good at being a seamstress, however that alone would not make you a great designer. Sure you can mend clothing, or follow a pattern but could you create a new line of clothing on your own? Alternatively, does a good designer need to be a seamstress? The answer is likely no.

    When it comes to being a writer what elements are required to be successful? Do you need to be a great wordsmith, an awe inspiring editor, excellent at assembling realistic dialogue or just creative? Writing like being a clothing designer requires many elements to be successful in my mind. You may have not be able to go toe-to-toe against the worlds foremost Grammar-Nazi, however you can create a world which compels people to follow your works.

    Even the above fails to take in every aspect. You may be a great wordsmith and be able to create worlds that people fall in love with, however if you cannot reach your audience then you will not gain traction. So that means there is also a bit of luck thrown into the mix, and the requirement for people to grow their brand. Especially if you self-publish, authors cannot afford to be arrogant or alienate their followers.

    Just my opinion of course!

    As for people giving up on their dreams? I find that people will tend to avoid doing something because they cannot be the ‘best’ as it or cannot handle the competitive atmosphere. In a way being a nameless cog in the corporate machine is healthier (so some) than being constantly in survival mode.

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