Talent vs Effort. How Can You Be More Successful?

Last updated on August 28th, 2020 at 11:59 am

Have you ever found yourself questioning how certain people become so successful? They exude a magical quality, a certain “Je ne sais quoi”. Maybe they possess natural talents which make their work effortless and error-free. Do you wonder why other people have to struggle through embarrassing errors to get to where they need to be? I am here to dispel the myth that you either have a talent or to put in the effort. Today I will share stories and research which show that successful people use effort to earn their success.

First of all, we will need to head to America. You might assume that Colonel’s Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was an instant success given its international recognition. Surely he created a delicious recipe that was snapped up straight away? Actually, Colonel Sanders had to get through many setbacks to become the household name that he is today. At aged 65 he went door to door, selling his now-famed chicken recipe. His recipe was said to be rejected 1,009 times before anyone accepted it! When I told this story to a group of high-school students I was teaching, they were amazed. It seems like we assume success is only gained through talent and that someone who is talented should not have to put in the effort.

Credit: My incredible artistic interpretation (!)

We see someone at school who is getting consistently great grades and think “They got lucky, intelligence is wired into their DNA. They were born like that”. Around 40% of the population have this “you’ve either got it or you don’t” fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006). So if you relate to this then you definitely are not alone. Actually, intelligence may only account for a small portion of success.

In the classic study by Ericsson et al., (1993), expert violin students were studied to determine why their ability varied within the group. All of the students attended a prestigious music school, but the musicians could be divided into three skill categories. The first group consisted of “the best” violinists, who were predicted to be the most likely to have elite careers in international orchestras. The second group contained “good violinists”, these musicians were not performing at quite the same level as the first group, but their practice was still excellent. The third and final group were labelled as “violin teachers”, as this was the most probable career prospect for them given their skill level.

Ericsson et al interviewed the violinists over three sessions, asking them when they begin to play their instrument, how did their career history develop, rating how often they completed a range of activities in a typical week (such as music-related: solo practice, music theory, or taking lessons) and estimating the number of hours alone per week they had practised the violin, every year since they had begun playing.

The results were groundbreaking. It was found that the “best” and “good” violinists practised alone for almost three times longer (24 hours per week) than the “music teachers” (9 hours per week). It seems that daily practice makes the difference between being average at something and being excellent. But what made the difference between the two best groups? Long-term perseverance. The researchers calculated how much individual practice time the students had completed since the age of 18. They discovered that the “good” students had accumulated less overall hours than the “best” students. Talent did not predict greatness, but effort did.

Go forth and practice! Snow is optional. (Credit: Pexels)

What is the moral of this study? If you want to become great at something, then you need to start grafting now and putting the hours in! Specifically, you need to dedicate time alone to honing your craft and deliberately challenging yourself to keep making progress towards your goals. The research calls this “deliberate practice”. For example, when I was much younger, I would write something and feel like that was enough. Now I am much more critical of my work and open to adapting it when I identify areas for improvement.

But let’s be honest, sitting in a room alone and practising a skill can be effortful, uncomfortable and difficult. Echo’s of my frustrated guitar teacher lecturing the 13-year-old me about practice springs to mind (oops!). That’s why I have included my motivational tips below.

How can you put more effort into what you do?


“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” by Pablo Picasso. Flashback to myself as a university student. Trawling the internet for an inspiring quote to keep me focused on work. I stumbled across the famous painter’s wise words. They have remained permanently stuck onto my desktop screen ever since. It reminds me that I should not wait to feel inspired to work, even if the work involves being creative. Rarely do ideas come out of nowhere like a bolt from the blue. Ideas come when I am practising my craft or developing my knowledge. Not just blindly through “inspiration” and “natural talent”. Try finding your own source of inspiration to look back to when times get tough.

Small Steps, Gigantic Progress

Credit: Pexels

You can define effort in whatever way suits you. It could be the number of hours of work spent on your project per week. Effort is just like any other habit, it can be built up in small steps. Stretch out of your working comfort zone, little by little. This idea can be particularly hard for me to implement myself, as my natural instinct is to go all out and do something perfectly the first time around. But perfectionism can rob you of opportunities. It can put you off integrating good behaviours into your life in the long-term. In the past, my new extreme workout regime was so different from my typical routine, that I quit after a few weeks. Or in a couple of days (thanks Ministry of Sound Pump It Up DVD, easy it was not!). Now I try to incorporate new behaviours slowly until they become an ingrained part of my day to day life.

State it until you make it!

How do you want to view yourself? Does this match your inner monologue? Think back to your vision. If you have a fixed mindset when it comes to effort, you might have an internal storyteller that says things like “I shouldn’t bother trying, I’ve made mistakes doing that before” or “you are either good at something or you’re not”. Rubin (2015) suggested that our identity is established through our inner thoughts about ourselves. It’s part of who we are. So if you want to adapt your mindset, you need a new catchphrase.

Currently, my statement is “I strive for resilience, not perfection”.

I have this saved onto a note in my phone. When I look back at this, it reminds me why I am working so hard. It prompts me to put effort into my work, rather than waste time worrying if the work will be perfect. Using it already has given me the boost I needed to get started on projects that I was too afraid to start.

Other examples of great, growth mindset statements include:
” When I started [insert your project here], I suddenly became a hard-worker. “
” I don’t waste time, I get things done”.
“When I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it”. (Oakes & Griffin, 2016).

Final Thoughts

Are you interested in learning more research-backed tips for being more productive? Then take a look at my FREE cheat sheet!

Let me know in the comments section below how you maintain the effort to reach your goals.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Oakes, S & Griffin, M (2016). The A Level Mindset: 40 Activities For Transforming Student Commitment, Motivation And Productivity. Wales, UK. Crown House Publishing. ISBN 13: 9781785830242.

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11 thoughts on “Talent vs Effort. How Can You Be More Successful?

  1. Thank you for the information! Indeed, people tend to wave away greatness and blaming it on luck, genetics, or timing. In fact, I’ve experienced that people often mean well when they say “you have such talent”, “a born violinist”, etc (perhaps to find an explanation). You point it out well, rather than talent, the results often come from years of practicing and perfecting. But that’s not an easy hack.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. This is wonderful! That’s true, practice makes perfect, as they say! We have to keep working on what we love. Really entertaining captions on your photos, by the way, they made me smile! 😀

  3. I choose effort over talent. Your words “If you want to become great at something now, then you need to start grafting now and putting the hours in!” are great and that’s what I always tell myself. Nice article, looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  4. This is such an interesting article! The skills I need for my line of work has always come easily to me, but to get to where I am hasn’t. Effort is the step so many people miss out on. Really enjoyed reading this!

  5. Thank you for sharing this research, I am always interested in learning about new studies. It is interesting the resilience training effects did not last in this case, although it appeared to be helpful in some cases in the short term. From Beth @BehaviourBabble

  6. Hi Nadeem, thank you so much for sharing your story! It does make you wonder how far you can get with just pure determination and effort. Glad you found the KFC anecdote to be interesting too. From Beth @behaviourbabble

  7. My friend and I joined guitar classes a few years ago. In a couple of months, I got to play some simple songs with a couple of hours of practice every day. However, my friend was struggling to even to where I was, not that I became pro, but you know just to be able to play one or two songs. It gives you boast.
    However, after some time I got complacent and practiced mostly on weekends. So I continued to stay average at playing and didn’t really progress that much. On the other hand, my friend continued to practice 3-4 hours every day, without fail and got to some of the difficult songs that I could only dream of.
    Of course, my response was exactly the same thing you mention which was, Well, he was natural at it just hadn’t realized it at first. At the time, what I had failed to notice was the effort that he had put in going through frustration every day but still not giving up. Swollen fingers, callous at fingertips, you name it.
    At one time, it did strike me that all this time I had discredited his hard work and blamed my failure to his natural ability to learn such things.
    I think that we have 2 minds, one that is rational and another one that is ego. In most cases, the ego is strong that it manipulates us into thinking that we were not at fault. Whereas, somewhere deep down our rational mind is telling us the truth that we don’t like and choose to go with the ego.
    At the beginning of my career, I worked for KFC. So we have heard that story during our training and orientation programs. It never made sense that it did just now.

    Thank you so much for writing some different and a very realistic point of view. We need to burst the bubble and come out of our cocoon sooner than later.

  8. You might want to look at…

    Challen, A. R., Machin, S. J., & Gillham, J. E. (2014). The UK Resilience Programme: A school-based universal nonrandomized pragmatic controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(1), 75–89. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034854

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