What is the real secret to success? Is it hard work or raw talent? Natalie Bagnall from The Leadership Rooms investigates.
Asking whether hard work or raw talent is the better element for success is a bit like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. There is real merit in the question but it’s the answer that gets us a bit confused.
For example, would Lionel Messi be as successful if he trained only one day a week and played pool for the rest of the time? Would Oprah Winfrey feel so close to us all if she said ‘yaddy yadda’ in response to every guest who poured their hearts out to her on her show? Probably not.
These two shining examples demonstrate how raw talent and supreme dedication combine to create success and prove what Frank Sinatra croons in Love and Marriage: that you can’t have one without the other.
I sometimes view the yin and yang of talent versus hard work as being akin to driving a car from your starting point (A) to the place where you ultimately want to go (B). Simply because you are a talented driver who knows the route and has the desire to get there quickly does not guarantee that you will effortlessly reach your destination.
A myriad of other things can hinder the process – the weather conditions might be treacherous, your car made not be roadworthy, the traffic may be bumper-to-bumper, the road itself may be impassable or you might even be pulled over by the police on the way.
But, if you plan for your journey, bearing in mind your strengths and weaknesses; if you do your homework in advance by finding out when rush hour is, making sure you’ve enough petrol in the tank, reading the weather forecast and listening to the traffic reports before you set off, being aware of the speed limits, and evaluating alternative routes in advance, your chances of getting to point B without a hitch will undoubtedly improve.
The same applies to career development and success. Your raw talent will certainly put you in a good position to reach your potential but the combination of knowledge, experience, nous and patience that working hard brings is the crucial factor that transforms your potential into your reality.
Confidence is key
Working hard is the thing that will get you there because it is the thing that gives you confidence; and confidence, as we all know, is the key to success.
Confidence – that inner belief that you can deliver what is required better than anyone else – is not gained simply by charisma, by talking the talk and fooling people into thinking you are the right person for the job.
It’s achieved by walking the walk and showing them that you are the right person to lead, the right person to achieve. To be confident is to believe in your own ability and to have to scars to show it.
Take the example of Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, who famously said that she wanted to be more famous than the biggest brand of washing powder in the world.
With no real musical credentials or instruction in fashion design, she became a member of one of pop music’s most iconic groups, and from there went on to create a high-end multimillion-dollar fashion brand that ended up winning Designer Brand of the Year (2011) at the British Fashion Awards.
With her insatiable ambition, she mixed with people she knew could help her, learned from them and used her force of ambition to become an internationally recognised style icon and fashion designer, resulting in the ‘Posh and Becks’ global empire estimated at £508m.
Or, conversely, take the example of former ice skater Tonya Harding, who famously became the first woman in American figure-skating history to land a triple axel in competition, a rare skating move that is coveted by most skaters but achieved by few.
Harding had the natural talent as well as the sort of work ethic that real Olympic champions are made of. But even so, in 1994, her husband and her bodyguard hired a hitman to break the leg of her fiercest rival, Nancy Kerrigan, to increase Harding’s chances of getting selected for the Winter Olympics that year.
Harding’s admission that she knew the attack was a possibility shows that sometimes, even rare talent and enormous dedication cannot compensate for a lack of confidence. Having no self-belief, indeed, can often make us our own worst enemy.
Practice makes perfect
While the debate about talent versus hard work has its chicken-and-egg dimensions, the bottom line is that most people become successful because they crave it, whether they are gifted or not.
With that as your starting point, all you need is to work hard, and your chances of succeeding will increase.
It’s true, too, that some people have all the luck and that stars always seem to align for the lucky few. They are blessed with success without having to lift a finger to achieve it – the famous for being famous, the writers of unreadable books, the two-left-footed footballers, the all-thumbed musicians – the list goes on. But such is life, and foaming at the mouth over their lack of talent gets us nowhere.
For most of us, success is all about graft in a world where the scope for development is limited. No matter where you work or what you do, the formula for success is to marry your talents to a solid work ethic, and to do the best you can under the circumstances.
The key, however, is to do your best with a confidence and aplomb that garners notice from those who count. And remember, if someone still managed to get to the place that you wanted to go ahead of you, it might just be because they practised a little harder.
But there’s always next time!
Natalie Bagnall is co-founder and director of The Leadership Rooms.