Why We Should All Stop Talking About Natural Talent

I just finished reading another Brian Tracy book. I love to read these kinds of books and so many more like them. Ever since I was fifteen and a kind woman gave me a box of self-help, leadership, change, and management books, I have been devouring these kinds of books. I grew up on Ziglar, Covey, Dodson, Maltz and more. I am so grateful for the principles of self-care, self-management, and more I learned from these books.

At that sensitive time in my life, I decided I wanted to make something out of my life. I wanted to feel, act, and be confident. I wanted to be in control of my life and destiny. I knew, even at fifteen, that my life was unorganized and chaotic. Wading in the wisdom of the greats of that day, I clearly recognized I could do something about it. I created my personal plan and got started

I began with time management. I started with learning to plan my day, organize my week, and focus on key goals. I also learned to create master task lists and how to prioritize the key and high leverage activities. I practiced these things every day. I may have been the only 15-year old you know who had a planner and a daily, prioritized task list. I worked hard at it. I was learning to focus on discipline.

Well, it has been many years since I was a teenager with a Franklin Planner. However, I am still reaping the bounteous results of those early efforts. Those little changes came together and continued to grow. I have come to love goal setting, working toward my vision, and seeking to do the best things in the best order. I am humbly proud of the results of many years of working toward being disciplined in my use of time. I am surely not perfect, but I feel a sense of mastery over my time.

Over the years, it has been so interesting to me the responses I get from others when they see some of the fruits of my time management efforts. Most often people say, “I just was not born with natural talent for time management” or “I wish I had your natural talent for organization and getting things done.” I am almost reluctant to say it here, but I am almost offended by these statements.

I cannot say for sure, but I do not believe that this skill (and so many others) came from natural talent. I have worked at this for well over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. I have given over 30 years of my life to working on this (and I still work at it and revise and edit my approach often). I still read, I still use a planner, I still set goals, and I still review my progress and schedule to make refinements. In short, this is a steady process of diligent and persistent effort and some amount of sacrifice to get it!

What is going on when we attribute the strengths in others to so-called natural talent? While I do believe some of us seem to be more naturally gifted in some areas, I do not think it is wise to just arbitrary assign talents and gifts to the category of “came naturally.” Making such characterological attributions runs the risk of undermining our own confidence, demeaning the virtues of perseverance and hard work, and discouraging others around us.

The best people I know work hard at their goals and dreams. One friend of mine is an incredible athlete. He works hard day in and day out. He gets up early to run, he trains for marathons and other competitive events. When the weather is bad, he is down in his basement on the treadmill making it happen—seeing himself on the course. Would it ever be right to praise him for his natural talent as an athlete and runner?

I have another friend who is a genius on the piano. She practices for up to 6 hours some days to master her profession. She has tackled the likes of Chopin and Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach, and every other master composer she can find. She makes sacrifices of time and money to perfect her skill. As near as I can tell, she has been doing this every day for over 30 years. That is significant investment in a skill. Would it ever be fair for me to praise her for her natural ability as a musician?

You can see where I am going here! This is clearly not just natural talent! I suspect that most of the things we hang on the hook of natural talent in others are really the result of hours, days, weeks, months, and years of efforts. Natural talent may be present in some sort of embryo form, but it takes a master to nurture it and cultivate it over a lifetime of growth and development.  I have come to strongly dislike the phrase, “I wish I could (insert skill or ability here) as well as you do.” I want to reply, “Well, you could do (insert skill) if you are willing to (insert amount of effort and time required)!”

So, how can we make sure we do not make the mistake of crediting so-called natural talent and instead, strengthen and recognize effort in others? Moreover, how can we encourage and build a work ethic to create and build on talents whatever their source—natural or cultivated? Here a few thoughts to get us started:

Praise Effort Not Talent

When it comes to accolades we give to others, let us be quick to praise the work ethic that made the master. If you see good results in someone, comment on how hard they must have worked! Express admiration for the energy they must have expended. You could say things like, “You must practice hard! You are obviously devoted to your trade!” Let’s make sure to commend the hidden struggle and hard work of the ones we admire. Some researchers have even connected this to feelings of worth in young people—praise the work ethic that produced the result, not the so-called talent we often credit. When we praise the talent, we may give credit to an amorphous “talent” rather than the individual who cultivated it.

Encourage Work Ethic and Perseverance

If we seek to really build talent in others, we would do well to focus on cultivating effort and energy in those we lead. Praise your children’s efforts and give them opportunities to work on and practice new things. When they find some thing they seem to enjoy and have skill at, let us encourage them to work on it.

If you are seeking to build the talent of those you supervise, find the things they seem to be exceptional at and look for opportunities to develop those skills. I recall a time where a supervisor saw something in me. He spoke to me about it and asked me if I would like to develop that more. When I responded affirmatively. The result was an opportunity to do something I will never forget doing. That experience put me on a new path in skill development. Give others the opportunity and room to grow!

Please recognize perseverance too! We should look for those who demonstrate stick-to-it-iveness! When we see it in children, friends, and colleagues, we should make a big deal of it. We should find ways to recognize those who are determined to keep trying. There is something of incredible merit in the one who never gives up. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons is a whistling man happily pushing a wheel barrow in hell. Satan turns to another and says, “I just do not think we are reaching that guy!” Classic! Let’s shine the spotlight on those who never stop, who never give up, and who keep going when it is difficult.

Stop Participation Prizes

We live in a society that emphasizes making everyone feel good about simply being there that we miss the opportunity to boost real effort. Gone are the days of field days where a child earns a third-place ribbon for the three-legged race. Now, kids get participation trophies for simply being there—whether they really participated or not. We have created a culture where because everyone gets an award and is told that they are special, no one can even tell what is special anymore. No one can tell what they are skilled at or what abilities may be sitting in embryo form.

Giving an award to everyone may be a nice and generous thing to do—and maybe we need to do that. However, what if we searched inside and really found something worthy of recognition and strengthening? I will never forget a teacher who told me I was good at something I was about ready to quit. That encouragement sent me back to the work table and resulted in accolades for me later in life. Even more, that “talent” has become a source of incredible joy for me in my life.

Let’s encourage and award what we see in others and support them in acting on it. Let’s recognize the best in all of us. We may have been blessed with something dressed in what we call “natural talent,” but most likely that stylish outfit was stitched by hours and hours of hidden practice and determination. I, for one, would rather praise and recognize that work! I am no longer talking about “natural talent” in others. I am praising all I see that people do that is wonderful and I am assuming they deserve praise for the hidden energies that put them on that stage in the first place!


Jim R. Jacobs
Jim R. Jacobs
Jim R Jacobs is a brave creator who strives to do mighty things! Jim is a Certified Daring Way Facilitator helping others to live more brave and authentic lives! He is the author of Driving Lessons For Life: Thoughts on Navigating Your Road to Personal Growth. Jim speaks professionally, and coaches others to success and living with integrity. He is a counselor, educator, innovator, father, and friend. Please check out Jim R. Jacobs and Driving Lessons For Life and find Jim on social media! Let's connect and dare mighty things!

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  1. Yes – rewarding certain behaviors do work. Rewards work even better when the person is not rewarded all the time. This add an added feeling when they are rewarded because they feel that they won the reward (won as in winning the lottery.)

    Us people have odd wiring.

    • If you want to dive deep into incentives and motivations, look at sales contracts and sales incentive packages. They really get into the deep and dirty.

  2. I believe that “natural talent” is largely limited to how the brain is wired. Rather like are you naturally left or right handed. After that, it is all about effort and consistency. I doubt that anyone ever succeeded at being good at anything without a lot of work.

    I’ve had great concert pianists and sopranos tell me that they practice 8 hours per day to look like they have a natural talent.

    • But I totally understand that when I play drums always practiced nonstop all the time. I always felt I could get better. I did know intuitively how to play right from the start but that doesn’t mean I was great at it. It took a lot of practice

  3. Exactly! Great article and wonderful story Jim 🙂 Recognizing genuine talents – gifts we all possess (but might be hidden under layers of doubt) will help unveil the strength needed to capitalize on what could otherwise be left dormant. Helping others discover these, just as your teacher did – is sometimes all we need to realize that it takes work – hard work and continuous improvement efforts to truly excel. No renowned scientist or leading athlete arrived under the spotlight without endless hours of practice, training, and continuous learning.

    • Thank you Dr. Beaman for your wonderful additions here! It is so important that we learn to harness the potential within all of us and then help get to work! Thank you for reading!