“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done, but didn’t” — Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
As Duckworth points out in her new book Grit, the West puts what it calls “natural talent” on a pedestal, most obviously in TV shows as “America’s Got Talent.”
As a three-time published author (whose latest book has been singled out for a lot of praise), and as an artist whose work has been shown in galleries and a couple of small museums in the USA and Britain, I think I understand something about achievement.
Duckworth argues that what really counts is persistence and passion. Of course, there are other factors, such as having at least a minimum of ability, and access to necessary tools (e.g., a future champion swimmer will need acces to a pool). But persistence and passion are the deciding factors. This is true between people of equal natural talent, and is often the case between those with differing levels of talent. The talented often give up, leaving those with more staying power or “grit” to achieve.
My own observations are in line with Duckworth’s. I’ve never liked being described as “talented” because it seems to dismiss the great deal of time I’ve spent honing my craft, whether that’s writing, art, or even martial arts.
Over the years, I’ve seen talented artists give up. Interesting thinkers with something worth saying have talked to me about writing books or articles but have never written a sentence (or much more than that). In martial arts, I’ve seen some physically strong men give up, exhausted, during exercises, while women half their size and strength have pushed themselves to continue. Many physically capable individuals simply quit within a couple of months.
One of the big excuses is that they have become interested in something else — another type of art, another type of spirituality, another style of martial arts, etc.
Styles vary, of course, and some may be more or less suitable to the individual. But what really matters is turning up and sticking with something even — or especially — as it becomes more difficult and demanding. A few months of Karate, a few of Kung fu, and a few more of Jujitsu and Aikido probably isn’t going to give you as much as if you had simply stuck with any one of these for the same amount of time as you practiced all of them together.
Likewise with spirituality. A few months of Chakra meditation, followed by a short period of Sufism, and then perhaps Western esotericism isn’t going to lead to much. The constant jumping from one thing to the next allows us to avoid what is truly initiatic — facing the challenges and obstacles that give us a chance to grow.
To become extraordinary means, paradoxically, to become ever more ordinary. It means to practice diligently, to practice for long periods with no reward except our own progress (and sometimes not even that). It means to routinely focus on the little things, and to face the challenges without worrying about how we look at that moment.
Yet, regardless of the amount of talent that we started with, if we persist long enough, we will eventually exceed our expectations and the expectations of others. Through persistence, we will discover excellence.