Natural talent is rare. I recently read an article about an 8-year-old girl, who deadlifted 80kg. I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that she is naturally talented. That her genetics have gifted her with strength. It is impossible to read this and not be struck with amazement. People know this. They know how impressive natural talent is. Yet, when asked, the majority say that they find hard work more impressive. Why is this?
At a glance, it may seem obvious. We are told that to be successful, we need to work hard. All the way from our years in education, when we are told that to achieve good grades, we need to do our homework and revise for exams. I completely agree with this not, by the way. I believe hard work is crucial to long term success. As do the majority of people. This makes it clear why people say that hard work is more impressive. We admire the self-made individual. The rags to riches story.
However, our actions suggest an alternative belief. In studies, when people are presented with candidates of equal achievement, they tend to prefer the ‘natural’ over the ‘striver’. Essentially, there exists a ‘naturalness bias’. It also highlights a key paradox in human behaviour. What we think we believe is not always true.
Causes of the Naturalness Bias
It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of this bias, but I would like to present you with some potential reasons. Firstly, could it be the result of the fixed mindset of many business leaders?
Recent history has seen business leaders focus on providing maximum value to shareholders. In the 1970s, Milton Friedman declared that businesses had no social responsibility, and their sole responsibility was maximising shareholder value. As a result, managers began to be judged by their ability to give back to shareholders.
This is a bad strategy for the long run, as a business is an ‘infinite game’, as Simon Sinek says in his book of the same title. Maximising shareholder value is a short term strategy as they are the most mobile stakeholders in the company.
I could go into more detail about the flaws of this theory, however, I want the focus to remain on the debate between hard work and natural talent. This short term, the finite mindset of business leaders may contribute to the bias, employers show towards natural talent, as they care more about short term success.
Therefore, it makes greater sense to employ someone, who requires less training and development, hence the bias. The good news is that this is shifting. We are now seeing leaders, like Elon Musk, show less care for their shareholders’ approval. I mean, Elon Musk publicly stated that he smokes marijuana. That couldn’t have gone down well. Leaders, like Musk, seem to care more about having an impact on the World through business, taking more social responsibility.
This has potentially come from public backlash towards businesses using cost-cutting strategies, like sweatshops in less developed countries. In the world of social media, there is a lot more coverage on businesses, and it is not enough to make a product, the company has to share the value of its customers.
This bias may also be due to the image of hard work. Think about it this way. How often do people share clips of them practicing? I would say it’s rare. It’s certainly rarer than people sharing clips of themselves competing or succeeding. Now, ask yourself, why is this? The reason is that the practice isn’t as pleasant on the eye. When we are practicing, it requires far more effort, and we make mistakes. This could be a reason for the bias, as natural talent looks more effortless, and therefore we appreciate it more.
The final possible reason for this bias is that, as a society, we place too much of an emphasis on talent. We have, at schools, for example, exclusive clubs for those we deem to be the most naturally gifted. We don’t have clubs for the hard workers. Similarly, if I was to present to you a list of Beyonce’s accolades, including 24 Grammys, what would you say: ‘Wow, she is so talented’, or ‘Wow, she must have worked so hard’. I think the majority of people would respond in a first way. This isn’t to say that we think Beyonce, or other similarly successful people, have achieved what they have through natural talent alone. Everyone would agree that she must have worked hard to get where she is. But talent comes first to us when we hear of success.
What does this mean for you?
This bias is real. Now that you have a greater understanding of it, I want to discuss how you can use this knowledge to improve your life. We know that managers prefer talent over hard work when hiring. What does this mean for you? When attending interviews, you should focus more on highlighting the innate ability you have in this field.
A simple way to do this is by focusing on your achievements, which required less effort. It seems counterintuitive, I know because many of us assume that the achievements, which require tonnes of effort and hard work, are more respectable and impressive.
The human brain is a strange beast, though. We can’t change that, we just need to learn how to appeal to it. This is one way. I have experienced this myself. This is meant in the least arrogant way possible, but at school, I was always a high achiever. Sometimes I got good grades with little revision, whilst sometimes I got them after hours of revision. When do you think I got more praise from my peers? I think you know the answer.
There is more to it though. Natural talent may be more impressive, but that doesn’t mean you should only pursue things that you have innate ability in. Yes, I recommend that you place emphasis on effortless achievements when interviewing for jobs, but that doesn’t mean you should live your life in an effortless manner.
In the grand scheme of things, what we want in life is an achievement. We want greatness. To be remembered and leave a lasting impact. Natural talent may be more impressive, but in the long run, hard work will be far more pivotal in your achievements. For you to understand this, we need to break down achievement.
Skill x Effort = Achievement
The formula above comes from the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth. She claims that achievement is the result of taking your skills and using them, via effort. Skills, however, are not innate. Skills, such as playing the piano, or public speaking are the product of more effort.
The exact formula, again prescribed by Angela, is Talent x Effort = Skill. This means that in the process of achievement, ‘effort counts twice’. As we have discussed, some people are more naturally talented in a given area than others. But what does this actually mean?
By Angela’s definition of talent; ‘how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort’, it simply means that this person will develop the skill quicker. Does this matter in the long run? No, of course not. What will really determine your level of achievement is the hours you put in. This is why we see people, like Kobe Bryant, who ‘will never be outworked by anyone’, achieve amazing things. It is not because of an innate ability. It is because they are willing to put in the hours that no one else is.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve greatness (or to become an expert). This makes sense right? As I just said, hard work and effort is the most important factor in achievement. I would disagree. I think it can be used as a rough guideline to show the cosmic effort required to achieve greatness.
But, as I mentioned, your level of talent affects how quickly you develop skills. Therefore, for someone more naturally talented, this number may fall to 9,000, while for others it may be even higher. My point is you can’t put an exact number on the hours required to achieve greatness. T
his is important. Many people think that the key to greatness is to work as many hours as possible. This is not effective. If the 10,000-hour rule is used as a guideline, this means you would need to work 8 hours a day (9-5), every day for 3.4 years, to reach a level of expertise. Even if this doesn’t seem long to you, I can guarantee you, burnout will come along this path. When you just work hard, your rate of improvement will slow, which will inevitably demotivate you. Instead of working hard, you need to work smart.
The best way to work smart is through ‘deliberate practice’. This involves self-analysis to find your main weaknesses. Then, once you have found these weaknesses, work on them. This is what the greats do. The aforementioned Kobe Bryant. Do you think he was just shooting aimlessly when practicing, with no defined goal? No chance. He knew exactly what he had to improve, and he worked on it.
Every day, until he developed this part of his game. Over time, deliberate practice will turn what was previously a weakness, into something you can do unconsciously, with little effort. Once you reach this point, find a new weakness, and then focus on that. The beauty of deliberate practice is that you don’t need to work for 8 hours a day.
Researchers have found that 2-3 hours a day, with maximum concentration and effort, is enough. Over time, you will become increasingly effortless with what you do. Your weakness will start to disappear, one by one. All of a sudden, you will look like a natural.
So, what is more impressive: hard work or natural talent? The answer is neither. Yes, we love naturals, and the bias certainly exists. But without hard work, you will never achieve enough for people to see this talent. Your focus should be on working hard now until you become a natural