Contrary to the very American attitude that hard work is more important than talent, I come from the school that says hard work only begins to matter if you have talent to start with. As some endeavors take only a minimum of talent to accomplish, hard work is more of a determinant than talent there. But for many desirable accomplishments, no amount of hard work means anything unless there is significant talent to begin with.
But first, stories. I read many years ago about a man checking into his hotel room, noticing a man with a cello checking into the room next to him. He recognized the man as a famous concert performer. It wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma, but it was a figure like that. (We should be immediately alert to the notion that the story is probably not true. As with spotting hoaxes, things that look too good to be true usually are too good to be true.) The man was pleased, wondering if he would get to hear the great musician practice, and get a free concert. Music did indeed begin to be heard on the other side of the wall in about a half-hour. The cellist was playing scales. He played nothing but scales for an hour, took a fifteen-minute break, and then played scales for another hour. He heard the door open and close, and heading downstairs himself, saw the man taking an early dinner in the hotel restaurant. The musician left without his cello after dinner, played a scheduled concert, and when he returned – played scales for another hour.
Bill Whitman, a college bandmate who now plays blues piano on Beale St in Memphis for a living gets frustrated with people who come up and marvel at his natural talent. No matter how much he tells them that no, he practices very hard and has for years, they seem determined to believe that it must be talent and knack, not hard work, that has brought him to this level of skill. It irks him.
Athletes run into the same attitude. LeBron James works very, very hard at his craft. Tiger Woods put in hours of directed practice even as a child, coached by his father. And Joe DiMaggio, who Zachriel linked to and used as an example, did indeed spend hours practicing his batting. My stepfamily had many athletes – DII All-Americans and such like – and they not only played sports year-round and constantly, but would hit years where they wanted to take their game to another level and would put in the hours lifting weights or attending expensive clinics. They worked hard, and sometimes I got to see it.
At the very highest levels you have to work hard, because there are other people with similar talent.
That said, the idea is mostly crap. The highest levels of music and sports are not populated by the people who just worked hard, they are populated by the 1% most talented people who also worked hard. Yo-Yo Ma’s talent was recognized when he was very young. I watched Bill Whitman pick up a lap steel guitar at an old country musician’s house one Sunday afternoon and play it passably in a few hours. For myself, I have a good ear but poor fine-motor coordination, and always said I had to work twice as hard to be half as good as others. LeBron James was being followed by sportswriters when he was in sixth grade. Joe DiMaggio was not joined in the major leagues by guys from his neighborhood who played ball with him every day growing up but with his brothers, who shared his genetics. There were a million kids born his year, and 10,000 of them worked as hard at baseball as he did. I watched my youngest stepbrother become competent at table tennis at age seven, playing against our less-athletic side of the family, with brothers five and nine years older than him. The only games he played were against us for those first few years, and he was better than us fairly quickly. Not to mention shuffleboard and waterskiing. He wasn’t secretly practicing these things and working hard when we weren’t looking.
I loved playing with numbers as a child and got very good at it. I would spend secret time in elementary school working out square roots, multiplying large numbers left-to-right, or even in my head while we were supposed to be doing something else. Even as an adult I used to try and factor the odometer mileage before it changed to the next mile. Just because it was fun. Yet when I went to summer studies at St. Paul’s I met Larry David, who was more obsessed by chemistry and physics and only liked math because calculus was useful to him – and he was far better than I was. He wasn’t the only one there who could just do things I couldn’t, despite the years I had put in.
Yes, there are immensely talented people who waste their gift through lack of effort. We see them all the time. But much of this is because those stick in the memory. People of only moderate talent, or charm, or beauty, or wealth waste their talent and it passes out of memory.
There are secondary considerations. Sportswriters, coaches, and managers are often made out of those who tried desperately hard at the sport but did not have the talent on the field. Yet they found success, perhaps even greater success, largely because they didn’t give up and stop trying, but just changed tactics. Effort and discipline are good things. But they just don’t do it all.