Talent might be the biggest threat for your success

Have you ever seriously considered running a marathon or learning to surf big waves? But you decided not to give it a shot, because you thought ‘well I am just not talented enough’?

Perhaps this sort of thinking held you back from starting your own business or mentioning the innovative idea at work. Well here is some good news for you: Your lack of talent actually might be the building block for lasting success!

Michael Jordan is one of the most decorated and celebrated athletes of all-times. His achievements and trophies are too numerous to mention. He is considered one of the most talented sportsmen of all times – while Jordan himself has always focused on improving on his failures.

Jordan once said, ‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ This is not the attitude of a man who takes his talent for granted.

Hollywood giant Will Smith says ‘I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic. You know, while the other guys are sleeping, I’m working. While the other guys are eating, I’m working.’
The attitudes of these two men got me thinking. If Michael Jordan and Will Smith do not consider themselves to be supremely talented, what does that mean for us mere mortals and our own talents, dreams and ambitions?

It leads directly to the key question: Is talent important?

The talent factor

Do you remember the incredibly talented kids at school? They got the best marks. They were great at sports. They were popular. And all of their successes were put down to innate talent. Any idea where they are now?

In many cases, those shining stars at school end up living in the land of mediocrity. Most of them do not reach the stars, like everybody expected.

The question is why?

Talent is no guarantee for success

Michael Jordan was not one of those school stars. As a skinny 15 year old he was actually dropped from the varsity basketball team. That experience motivated him to work harder than ever before and has influenced him to work like a fiend to this very day. Being dropped from the team is something burned so deeply on his psyche that he referenced it at his Hall of Fame induction more than 30 years later.

There’s an important lesson for all of us

It is an undeniable fact that Jordan was tall, athletically built and somewhat talented. But this is not the reason for his success. His determination, work ethic and perseverance set him apart from his peers. Would he have been 5 foot tall, he might not have made it in basketball, but I am pretty sure, we would know him as a super star in another sport.

In other words, nothing comes free, you have to work at it. Talent without total focus, dedication, hard work and continuous self-development isn’t worth much after all.

Why talent is our worst enemy for success

Imagine yourself as a ridiculously talented person. At first, because you are so talented, everything comes easily to you. You excel over your peers by simply using your talent. You like it. Soon you start expecting to excel without investing too much time and effort. The reality, however, is that true success cannot be bought with talent alone.

Success requires learning from your mistakes and how to handle setbacks. You will need to develop the ability to cope with adversity and obstacles. If you are slightly talented, you have successes every now and then, but you often need to cope with setbacks. Those will either make you quit – or you start your life long journey of learning from setbacks, mistakes and disappointments. A skill which will be your foundation for success in sports, business and life.

With too much talent on the other hand you face these obstacles very late in life. Maybe too late. If you never experience setbacks for a couple of years, how do you want to cope with them? You never learned to cope, because you never had to. That’s why being extraordinarily talented is in fact not a gift, but a burden.  

Because to remain on top, whether you are gifted with great talent or not, takes time, focus and a strong work ethic.

What does this mean for leaders?

The significance for leaders is twofold:

1. Your personal success depends much more on yourself, your attitude and your work ethic than your talent; and
2. When you lead people, don’t look only for the employees for which everything is easy. Rather look for the people who are willing and motivated to improve every single day, not because they have to, but because they want to.

I suggest companies should not only focus on ‘talent management’ but rather on ‘potential management’, where not only the most talented people are developed, but also the people showing the biggest hunger, will and interest in developing themselves – because they will drive the company forward into the right direction, instead of driving it into the direction where their talent pays off.

Become as successful as you want to be

So, how can you harness your inner-self and reach for the stars?

First, never rest on your laurels. Maybe you are extremely talented, maybe not. With focus you can achieve almost anything. As any sportsman will tell you, the competitor with the most willpower and persistence wins the race, regardless of physical strength, fitness or natural talent. These attributes all are important, but they are only ingredients in the final mix.

Second, never let the opinions of others bring you down. No matter your goal, whether it is in business or life, in your family or your community: It is your dream. It’s within your reach. Only you can realise it, and if you get yourself some support like a mentor, a coach, seminars or a mastermind group, you can accelerate your progress.

Third, every setback is taking you closer to your dream – if you learn from it and persist.

Axel Rittershaus is the Executive Coach, Co-President ICF South Africa.

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