Part 2: Aptitude - the Missing Piece in How to Win
You have heard the saying that “hard work beats talent, but only if talent doesn’t work hard.” If talent works hard, hard work (attitude) alone cannot beat it. This is why I believe aptitude is the missing piece in our discussion of how to win. To reach the top, it is important to maintain a winning attitude, but it is also necessary to have the aptitude to accomplish your goal.
I asked, in the introduction to this series, the question of why Usain Bolt gets to the finish line first, even though his competitors are also fit, able-bodied, highly trained, confident athletes. Attitude alone cannot be the answer, because you don’t get to the Olympics final with a wimpy attitude—surely his competitors have winning attitudes as well. The most positive person doesn’t always get the prize; we all know that. I believe the answer lies in a potent mix of attitude and aptitude. Unfortunately, while the former is often talked about, the latter is almost never mentioned—or praised. Please note: Even though I am using an Olympic event as an example, the dynamic discussed here applies in any competitive field of human endeavor.
One man’s journey to making history
Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, started as a baseball player. The story goes that his baseball coach noticed how fast he ran despite his tall frame and asked him to try track instead. He did, and he kept improving, and the rest, as they say, is history. I believe Usain Bolt won back to back to back Olympic gold medals—the first human to win a gold medal at the 100m event for three consecutive Olympics—because of the winning combination of his can-do attitude and his natural ability to run fast. Would he have made it to the top of the baseball world had he not switched sports? I doubt it. He may have turned out to be a decent baseball player, but probably not a history-making one, his can-do, positive attitude notwithstanding.
Attitude is still king, but power cannot exist in a vacuum
I wrote last week about how to develop a winning attitude because I believe that attitude is the most general and accurate predictor of success. That said, attitude is only one factor. Aptitude—natural ability—is another. This is not a popular topic among motivational speakers and life coaches because, while attitude is fluid, aptitude is relatively fixed by nature. Aptitude can be improved with a lot of practice, but there’s still a limit there: you cannot grow taller than your DNA have been programmed to, and the same goes for your ability to process and store different kinds of data, your musical ability, and just about everything else.
I believe that attitude is the most general and accurate predictor of success. That said, attitude is only one factor. Aptitude—natural ability—is another.
I think that, in the quest to tell people that they can be anything and be anything they want to be, self-help gurus deliberately downplay or even ignore altogether the obvious role that talent plays in determining success. This confuses us all, because every day we see people who break records, sometimes without breaking a sweat, and we wonder if they just have better attitude than us! It is wrong to omit aptitude in the equation for success. Every student knows that there’s just that kid in class that grasps math faster than anyone else…but does that mean she has the greatest attitude? Not necessarily. But she may have been blessed with genes that predispose her to understand complex concepts in a fraction of the time it takes her peers.
10,000-hour rule meets “Good Enough” theory
I think leadership coaches and experts have gotten away with preaching attitude as the only factor needed for success because of what I will call the “Good Enough” theory. This theory, a result of decades of personal observation, says most of us are already naturally equipped to be a professional in many fields if we work hard toward it. To explain this theory, I need to first introduce you to the 10,000-hour rule. Plenty of research has been conducted into how people achieve mastery in a field. The studies conclude that, to reach world-class level in a field, one needs to put in about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. I agree, you need that much time to differentiate your skills from the rest. Now, let’s go back to my theory.
“Good Enough” theory says that if you put in an insane amount of time, like 10,000 hours, in any field, you will, at a minimum, be good enough to make a living out of it (or impress your friends, if it’s just a hobby.) And you can’t put that much time into an activity without an excellent attitude, so it makes sense why attitude is highly praised. However, given a field of people who have all put 10,000 hours into their work, the best will usually be the person who has not only put in the hard, grueling work but is also naturally adapted to it. As I said in the intro, “Hard work beats talent, but only if talent doesn’t work hard.”
How to succeed—a way forward
What then? If we can only push the boundaries of our natural talent with difficulty, are we just to give up trying to be better? Should we just hang up our boots? I hope not. My advice is to find what you are naturally inclined to do and then work hard at it to be the best in it. You will be a round peg in a round hole when you find your thing. This is why is it important to do what you love because often times you love it because you have been made for it. You still need a good work ethic to make the most of your talent, but the journey will be so much easier when it is your own. Move to the area of your calling, and shine. If you are unable to do so, be comforted with the “Good Enough” theory: you are already good enough for any field you find yourself in provided you keep a winning attitude.
I want to hear your take on this complex topic. Do you think attitude alone overcomes all or that talent is indispensable as well?