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Future Mistakes #3: Overemphasizing Talent

 

There’s a classic icebreaker question: What’s your bizarre talent?

Mine? I can’t sing, dance, or twist my tongue weirdly. I can juggle, whistle, and make drip noises with my mouth, and my elbow skin is freakishly stretchy, but other than that—not much. If I looked from a different perspective, my bizarre talent is perhaps not zany or qualifying for the circus. I’m good at public speaking, which is rare when comparing myself to the general public. I can stand up in front of any audience, communicate an idea, tell a story, and probably win most people over. 

A talent, by one definition, is any activity where your skills develop quickly when you put in some effort. Something comes more easily to you than it does to someone else. 

Typically, when we think of talent or someone naturally gifted at something, we think of athletic feats or artistic abilities. When you think of someone talented, you probably think of a sibling who can play the guitar around a campfire or a friend who played tennis in college. 

(I might be the outlier here. My older sister was invited into the GAT program when she was little—the special education path for students who were “gifted and talented.” When I wasn’t selected at the same age she was, I had to accept that I was neither gifted nor talented, at least in comparison to my own flesh and blood. 

But we don’t typically associate the concept of talent with work, except, of course, when we work at companies who have ‘Talent Recruiters’ or when we give future career advice to kids. 

The best research on talent reveals a truth that, in one part, is common sense staring us in the face: when it comes to long-term success and achievement, talent is NOT as important as effort is. According to Angela Duckworth, a famed author and TED talker, effort is twice as important for achievement as natural talent. 

In other words, people willing to maintain consistent effort with less talent will always beat a talented person unwilling to put the effort in. 

I am not very talented when it comes to public speaking. Before I started speaking, no one in my life would’ve thought or said that. But in college, I was once asked to give an announcement to a few dozen other students during a club meeting. I could practice a joke in advance and rehearse the timing in my head. When I was up on stage with a microphone and delivered my joke, about two people chuckled out of maybe seventy. When I was finished and sat back in my seat, I remember making a solid commitment to myself: I will get better at this. So, I got to work. 

There’s no way I could count up the thousands of hours I spent over the next decade working at public speaking. I listened intently to my favorite and most popular speakers, noting what made them engaging and effective. I took public speaking courses and read multiple books on communication. I practiced, practiced, and practiced, raising my hand every chance I could to get in front of a crowd. I drove hundreds of miles once just to give a fifteen-minute speech and got paid precisely nothing for the opportunity. 

As a result, I’ve squeezed out as much as possible of my little talent by applying enormous effort. I make a living by speaking publicly. 

Why? Why did I put that much effort into improvement? Because I wanted to. I felt compelled to impact people’s lives, and I loved the challenge of getting great at something I had little in the “Gifted and Talented” category. 

This comes back to the point of this message: rather than make future decisions based on your talents, reflect on what you’d be willing to invest your energy and time in. What are you willing to sweat for? What do you find yourself spending more time doing, more than required?

You might think outside of the typical school structure, too. Avoid looking through the lens of the subject area, like math, writing, or science. And don’t look through the lens of selecting a major in college, like business, humanities, or engineering, either. Reflect on the activity itself. 

My son will spend hours researching something before making an informed decision or purchase. He will figure out how something works, is made, and what ingredients or components of one product make it superior to another. Me? I would never. Tell me the best and cheapest, and put it in my cart. 

What about you? What activity do you invest in? What about your kids or students? How will you help them pay attention to their unique wiring?


 

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