Whether you want to be a successful magician, footballer, singer, engineer or pretty much anything hard to do you will need to work hard. But how important is talent when it comes to achieving your dreams?

Acclaimed magic legend Tommy Wonder described talent as being like a diamond and the cutting and polishing of that diamond is the work. You could have the biggest diamond in the world but if it is left rough and raw it will never be as beautiful as even a tiny diamond that has been cut and polished to perfection. But of course, if there is no diamond but only flint no amount of polishing will make it sparkle (and the same goes for a turd apparently!).

This idea is actually backed up by Psychological research. David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in the chart below. The vertical axis displays the level of performance the horizontal axis displays the level of talent, in this case intelligence. The two lines refer to different levels of practice: red is loads of practice, blue is very little (www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-procrastination-equation/201110/hard-work-beats-talent-only-if-talent-doesn-t-work-hard).

There are two things about this that I find interesting. The first is that being talented is definitely beneficial, the more innate talent you have the better off you are going to be. The second is that people with more modest natural talent still have a chance. The difference between the talented and the not-so-talented narrows considerably if they both work hard. So, unless you are aiming for something where only the very very best succeed, you can achieve a high level of success with minimal talent if you are willing to work at it. It is also better to be hard-working with modest talents rather than talented but lazy.

A related issue is the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a common phenomenon where people who know very little about a subject over estimate their knowledge or abilities. It’s only when people gain more knowledge and experience that they realise just how much there is to know about a subject. To quote Bertrand Russell, “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”. As a magician I regularly encounter people who know a couple of tricks so they think they know it all, which makes it even more satisfying when I completely blow them away. However, I was once in their shoes. When I first rekindled my love of magic I thought I knew loads because I’d done quite a lot when I was a kid. But the more I learned the more I realised how little I knew and it was only through hard work that I managed to get to where I am and even after being a full-time professional magician for more than 15 years there is still so much more to learn.

The belief that you are talented can actually be actively harmful. When we were at school we all probably heard someone say they aren’t a ‘maths person’ and this belief often continues into adult life. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, they assume the people who are good at maths were just born that way and they don’t put in work to improve so fall further behind (qz.com/139453/theres-one-key-difference-between-kids-who-excel-at-math-and-those-who-dont/). It is a similar story with sport thanks to what psychologists call fundamental attribution error. A belief in talent can actually encourage laziness, the logic being: ‘I’m either talented or I’m not, talented people do everything effortlessly so I don’t actually need to work hard’. This obviously leads to people quitting as they quickly fall behind their hard-working counterparts and start to believe that there’s nothing they can do as they just mustn’t be talented enough (believeperform.com/performance/are-top-athletes-born-or-made/).

There are millions of people out there trying to achieve dreams and for some no matter how hard they work, how much time they spend playing their guitars, dribbling their footballs, playing chess, solving formulae or even practicing their sleight of hand, they may never get to the very top of their profession – they just don’t have the talent. The chances are though that they will enjoy some degree of success and the harder they work the greater that success will be. Also, during the journey as they strive for greatness they will probably learn and improve in ways that they never expected.

Do you agree with my conclusion? Can you think of times when talent was more important than work, or vice versa? Let me know in the comments. As always please feel free to like and share and remember, life is a grindstone and whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you’re made of.




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