Forget Talent, Focus on Hard Work

First published in The Huffington Post 18 May 2016

It’s still written on the whiteboard next to where my static bike lives. The previous night I was sitting at the dinner table, despondent, complaining about how hard it was to complete the training necessary to achieve my cycling ambition – to be the fastest tandem team from one end of the UK to the other. The next morning once again I was grinding out yet another training session. My 15 year old daughter walked into the room, picked up a pen and wrote on the whiteboard “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” and then walked out again.

This quote from basketball coach, Tim Notke, sits in the back of my mind irritating my accepted wisdom about people and organisations. I have been involved in a great many ‘talent development’ programmes, and yet what is talent? Talent means you haven’t done it yet. To be called talented means people think one day you could be really good. But today you’re not. A talent programme is a group of people somebody, somewhere has placed a bet that if given the right opportunities, the people on the programme might deliver a greater return than others. It’s a gamble. I am deeply suspicious of the selection process.

In sport, children are screened, selected, coached and developed to become the stars of tomorrow. Almost all will be born between January and March. The selection year begins in January and ends in December, so a child born earlier in the year is likely to be more physically mature than someone almost a year younger born in late December. Unsurprisingly, the older child will be able to do more than the younger child. As a result, they are seen as more talented and get ‘special’ treatment. They attend more training sessions and most importantly, do more work. The selection process creates an illusion of credibility where little exists. It’s more to do with the fact they did more work than any notion of being talented.

Think of any skill – the more you practise, the better you get. When Dave Brailsford started on his now famous journey to achieve the phenomenal success British Cycling managed in the Beijing and London Olympics and the Tour de France, one of his earliest actions was to determine which of the athletes were putting in the hours and doing the work. Bradley Wiggins was in a league of his own. He had a phenomenal capacity for hard work.

In contrast, defining someone as talented in an organisation is a snapshot in time of their potential. It conveniently ignores whether they are in the right role for their potential to shine through, or whether those around them allow them to be seen as talented. It is far too dependent on so many other variables, most of which are subjective. The notion of talent is after all about trying to predict the future. Hard work on the other hand is tangible. For example, has the person done what they were asked to do? How much effort have they put into developing themselves? How many relevant books have they read recently? With work done, you can measure quality. If someone was asked to undertake a number of audits, we can examine how well they were done. How accurate? How fast? Were all the right areas covered? It is not subjective. It is quantifiable. Best of all, hard work is universal. It can be defined and measured in any circumstance.

Today, we seem to have lost sight of the importance of hard work. For all the talk of Millennials wanting a better balance of work and non-work activities, there remains the elephant in the room that if you want to be really successful in what you do, there is no way around the need to work hard. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to be very good at something, i.e. better than others, you will need to do more work than others and spend more time practising. How successful you will be will depend in part on luck, the quality of the work you do and your innate ability.

This week, I have read reports by the top consulting firms in which they articulate their view on the things organisations need to do to ready themselves for the future. They are insightful reads. The key message seems to be to develop the right people in the right culture in the right functions to become trusted business partners of their colleagues and customers. A key theme is the need to develop talent. The one thing missing from them all is the short and simple statement – if you want to be good at this, you are going to have to work very, very hard. As my daughter so wisely reminded me, hard work does indeed beat talent when talent doesn’t work. She was right.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted.