Talent vs. Hard Work?

I received an e-mail last week from my kids’ school on “smart kids,” also known as academically gifted, and I’ve been thinking about the concept every since.

The gist of the email was based on an article called, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise,” by Po Bronson (you can read it online here) which talks about a study done on academically gifted students.  

After scoring well on a test, one group was told, “Wow. You’re so smart.” The other group was told, “Wow. You must have worked hard.” The results were a little surprising. The kids who were praised for working hard scored much higher down the road than those who were praised for being smart. 

Why the difference?

Because the kids who were told they were smart got it in their heads that they were born smart and therefore things should come easily to them. If something started to become hard, many would quit and say, “I must not be good at that.” The risk of failure and not being “smart” enough was too great.

Whereas the other group which was praised for their hard work knew that regardless of the outcome, working hard was something they could control. They were willing to try new things and like I mentioned, ended up scoring 30% higher on academic tests down the road.


I know people are born with natural talent. Michael Jordan. Michael Crichton. Michelangelo.  (Apparently I have a thing for Michaels today.) Michelle Kwan. (Ha, threw a girl in there). And yes, natural talent is a great thing, but it’s not the only thing. In fact, I’m starting to think it plays much less of a role than any of us realize.

Michael Jordan could have been born with the most genetically-engineered basketball genes in the history of mankind, but it wouldn’t have done him an ounce of good if he’d never hopped off his couch and shot some hoops. Day after day. Year after long year. Michelle Kwan used to wake up at 3am so she could practice before school. And the second school was over, she was back in that rink. 

The Sistene Chapel didn’t paint itself. 

I guess I keep hearing a lot of “I could never do that because…” from my kids, people I know, and even myself.

Like my oldest son who told me he could never play the piano like his younger sister because she was born with more musical ability. Yes, she is very musically inclined, however, she’s also spent ten times longer (without exaggeration) on that piano bench than he has. Why doesn’t that count for anything?

But I fall into this same trap. I look at people I consider talented or intelligent and think, “Man, I wish I could do that.” In spite of what I think, I can run a marathon. I’m just choosing not to.

So maybe we should stop focusing on how talented or smart people are and start focusing on how hard they work. At the same time, we should stop selling ourselves short.

No more, “I can’t _____________ because ______________.”

I no longer buy that theory.

Because really, the best stories, books, and movies in the world are based on people who ignore the “I can’t” adage and decide it can be done.

Never underestimate the power of a little blood, sweat, and tears. 

What do you guys think? Talent vs. Hard Work?


9 thoughts on “Talent vs. Hard Work?

  1. That was most definitely the swift kick up the backside I needed today – thank you! I have been drowning in "I can't" and "everyone is better than me" over the last few days.Every time I read a book, I imagine that it just came out of someone's head that way – perfect. In reality, I know this isn't true, but when I compare it to my WIP, it makes me very disheartened. No more comparisons. More work!


  2. I think it's a little of both. My brother is a good runner, and there's probably no one who works harder at it than he does. But he's still never going to be a number one runner, because there are kids who are just more talented than he is. Some work as hard, some don't.That being said, I think hard work usually trumps talent, if the talent is wasted and the person with it doesn't work at all. And I think a person with less natural talent can still do impressive and great things if they work hard at it.


  3. Well put. I know natural talent does help and there are some things I will never be amazing in, like high jumps or tackle football, but I have seen too many people who trump talent with pure hard work. I want to be one of them. Thanks for weighing in.


  4. Hard work, definitely. Talent will come even to those of use who aren't talented in anything if we work for it :) I mean, I sucked at babysitting, and kids in general, and yet, no I have kids. I'm not mother of the year, but they are fed, clothed, and happy. And I worked hard to do that for them. :)


  5. There are some good ideas here. I'm the proud mom of a smart kid, and for a while I was afraid she'd hold herself back because she was so flabbergasted when she hit something that was actually hard. She got past it, but so often I catch myself as a parent and youth leader, thinking I'll never get anybody excited to do something that really challenges them. I'm not doing anybody any favors that way.


  6. I know. The study was very interesting for me, but now it makes complete sense. It's hard to motivate myself sometimes, but motivating others…and kids no less…yeah. Fun stuff. :)


  7. I totally believe hard work can trump intelligence. Who wants an extremely intelligent surgeon who chose not to work hard and only memorized the some of the arteries; compared to the average intelligent surgeon (who am I kidding a surgeon is going to be extremely smart) that stayed up all night working hard to memorize every inch of the human body? Obviously the one who worked hard is going to become more intelligent through his hard work. As I tell my students most of school (especially elementary) has very little to do with being smart, and more to do with working hard and following directions…Donna


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