Natural Talent vs Hard Work And Desire

I have become a Conor McGregor fan. I don’t know much about MMA, and I haven’t really been interested in boxing for a long time. In fact, I probably haven’t had a genuine interest since Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank were pummeling each other and Mike Tyson was brutalising anyone who stepped in front of him. They were the days. McGregor though has inspired my imagination for one reason: He has belief. He has unstoppable and contagious belief. I’m a McGregor fan, not an MMA or boxing fan.

Back in the 1930s (before the world of psychology had a code of ethics), a psychologist named Dr. John Watson (not Sherlock’s side-kick) conducted a famous study on a child named Little Albert. During this study the child was shown a white rat, of which he had no fear. Albert was then shown the rat while a loud noise was made, scaring him and making him cry. This second scenario was repeated multiple times until such a point the child would show fear simply at the sight of the rat. Eventually it was discovered he had fear of anything with white fur, including a dog, a rabbit and a fur coat.

Now here is the real meat of his research and where it led him. Watson was so confident that behaviour could be trained that he stated that if he had a dozen children at his disposal he could develop them into any career or his choosing, or from a doctor to a thief (Watson, 1930). I suppose this would also include MMA fighter turned boxer. But is it true what McGregor says? Can literally anyone achieve what he has achieved? Well, no. Sorry. Hannah Montana gives the best analysis on this:

Hannah is in a school giving a talk to kids: How many of your parents ever told you you’d grow up to be president?

Everyone raises their hand.

Hannah: There! Now see not all of you are gonna be president. Odds are, none of you will be president!

Everyone starts crying.

Hannah: Errr… who wants free CDs? Free CDs, people. C’mon!

It’s not possible for everyone to achieve their dreams. Can’t happen. No matter how hard someone tries, it just won’t happen. It takes more than belief. I once had a manager who made me hire someone for a position I knew they were wholly unsuited for. The person wanted the job, and the manager wanted to give them the job. He is a really, really great person and wanted to give the person a chance. The person is a really nice person, and I wanted it to work out for them, but I worked with the person daily and knew they had nothing like the ability required for that particular position. Our conversation went like this:

Him: A good coach can get someone where they need to be. You can do this.

Me: You’re a Packers fan aren’t you?

Him: Yes.

Me: You’d probably love to play for them, right?

Him: Yes.

Me: Is their coach good?

Him: Yes, very good.

Me: So you should go live the dream. They have a great coach and you want it bad enough. Why don’t you go do it?

I won the point. He won the decision, the person was hired. Everything went as expected.

Another point in the talent vs hard work discussion comes from Deco, one time team-mate of both Christiano Ronaldo and Messi who has this to say about the two best players on the planet:

“They are completely different. Though Messi takes care of himself like a normal athlete, Ronaldo is unbelievable. It borders on sickness because he always wants to be the best at his job. He competes in everything.

I think it’s great to see both players in action, it’s almost impossible to compare them. If you look at one’s game it’s totally different from the other’s. There are no parameters for comparison.”

If it is only about hard work, how come Ronaldo is working harder to compete at Messi’s level? Why is Messi the best in the world, and arguably the best ever if he is training to the same level as his peers? The reality is that we are not all able to achieve the same goals, no matter how hard we work. My old boss is never going to play for the Packers. Ever. Won’t happen. There are others, people who are exceptional at what they do, but they simply lack the competitive edge to push themselves. They will always, through talent, be somewhere above average, but will be overtaken by those who work harder and want to get to the top.

The reality is that the nature vs nurture debate is null. It is impossible to take one side over another and answer all of the arguments against, no matter which side you take. Why? Because in every facet of life there are Messi’s and Ronaldo’s. There are people who are just naturally good, and people who are driven to be the best.

Here are the three take-aways from today:

1 – You see it a lot in youth sport. A kid is bigger, stronger, faster than their peers and so they are “better”. Because they are better they don’t feel the need or aren’t encouraged to keep getting better. Why get better when you’re the best? Because the others will catch up. To stay the best, you have to train like the best.

2 – Just because you don’t have the natural talent at something, it doesn’t mean you can’t become great at it, or even the best. Hard work will always be the differentiating factor between those who achieve and those who do not. It may not be enough to take you to the top, but it will take you above those who have talent but don’t work at it.

3 – Set your own goals. Don’t judge your success by the success of another. If you are an athlete don’t train to beat the person in front of you, train to beat their time. Train for the things you can work on achieving. If you play soccer you can’t train to score more than another person, but you can and set a goal of 20 goals in a season. If you run, you can’t train to beat Usain Bolt, but you can train to beat a world record time. Winning is, and always will be the by-product of performance.

Here is where I will put my hat in the ring, as someone who leans towards the behavioural side: No matter how talented you are, if you don’t work hard you will achieve little. Messi could be sitting at home eating chips and watching Ronaldo on the TV and he wouldn’t be the best. He has to work hard, not just hard, but to the same standard as his elite athlete peers. Talent will take you so far, but the harder you work, the further you will go regardless of your talent level.

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (Revised edition). Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Picture: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

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Categories: Development, Goals, Mental Toughness, Performance, Sport

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