You probably know a genius, someone who is naturally smarter, quicker, stronger, or more flexible than the rest of us. Do geniuses need to work hard like us? In Hard Work is Not Enough, I wrote that deliberate practice1 or what I call smart hard work is the difference between ordinary and top performers in school or work. Now natural talent does count as an advantage but it still does not guarantee success ultimately.
Does a genius need to work hard, too?
Yes, a genius indeed needs her 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become successful above her peers. Genius, natural talent is only valuable where you put in the effort to refine your talent into growing skills. Recently, I read a research paper2 on the background and work of Magnus Carlsen the reigning world champion in chess in all categories since age 23. Yes, he sure practices like all grandmasters but they do not call him the “Mozart of chess” for nothing. However, this is the same guy who “is a keen sportsman, with a penchant for playing or watching football rather than practicing chess intensively.”
Do you stand a chance competing with them? Here is what I think:
1.Talent is cheaper than table salt.3 No one works for it. It is a gift. Talent is only rewarded up to a certain extent and then the allure fades. There are gifted acrobats, dancers, footballers (some say better than or as good as Messi and Ronaldo in Nigeria) but whatever happened to them? You must add to your talent work, that is, study and practice, and other elements of physical, emotional, and even social efforts.
2. Many geniuses never attain their true potential. These may be due to a lack of exposure or opportunity or just a sense of pride and entitlement. The world may only sympathize with those who fall in the former category but I can relate to the others because, well, I have been there… somewhat. Talent can sometimes be an obstacle, knowing that you have many options can stop you from taking the necessary steps to work. You cannot rely on talent to bring you reward in life for very long. Skills, hard work become more important as you grow older and the world expects more from you.
3. Finally, smart hard work beats mere talent any day. Applaud the geniuses who may outrank you on the medals table or in your profession when you meet them but always remember to work hard in a smart way. You will rank among the best at the least even if someone mercurial outranks you by all points. This reminds me of Neymar’s words:
“For all modesty, today I am the best player in the world — because [Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi] are from another planet.”
My advice to the rest of us:
- Seek ways to work hard smart. Learn to make this deliberate practice thing work for you.
- Get a coach or someone who can review your performance and provide critical feedback without fear.
- Enroll in a system, or school or course or academy to provide you structured learning.
- If you choose self-study, make sure you can track your progress properly.
- Participate in contests. Stretch yourself.
- Be true to yourself. Keep learning. Keep doing.
The miracle of deliberate practice over 10,000 hours only makes sense in hindsight. Do not live your life aiming to clock 10,000 hours of practice in your career. Live instead to do your best daily, learning, practicing, stretching constantly, improving, and doing better than the last time. Leave the business of time recording to the success watchers and historians to determine if you attained your 10,000 hours or not.
1 Deliberate Practice: https://jamesclear.com/deliberate-practice-theory
2 Checkmate to deliberate practice: the case of Magnus Carlsen: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4132259/?inf_contact_key=3fc32eb2f9294f27b9145945be80238608d4de38d482b48a4672a392e56adf8e
3 Here is one of my favourite quotes from Stephen King. It is heavy with reality and keeps me humble.