This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Is purposeful effort really more important than natural-born talent? Why is our society so focused on talent? Is attributing success to talent just an excuse for underachievement?
People tend to idolize talent and credit success to natural ability rather than hard work and perseverance. However, Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, says that effort beats talent when it comes to predicting success.
Here is why effort is more important than talent or luck.
Natural Talent Versus Purposeful Effort
In Grit, Duckworth contends that even though people generally acknowledge the importance of hard work and perseverance, we have underlying biases that cause us to feel talent is more important.
She notes that we’re often not consciously aware of these biases. When surveyed directly, Americans are more likely to point to hard work as the key to success and to say that effort beats talent. But when asked indirectly, we tend to show a “naturalness bias” toward talent rather than persistence.
For example, if researchers ask participants to describe the traits they’d most want in a hypothetical worker, they usually emphasize “hard-working” over “naturally skilled.” However, when presented with two hypothetical candidates, they more often choose the one described as having a higher IQ than the one with a stronger resumé of experience.
|The Origin of Our Bias Toward Talent|
The naturalness bias that Duckworth explores here probably evolved as a way to save mental and physical energy. We assume a smarter candidate will be easier to train, even if another candidate is already more highly trained, and therefore we believe the naturally talented one will save us time and energy in the future. We thus discount the proven grit of a candidate in favor of another’s unproven potential.
The human mind has evolved many such biases—shortcuts of thinking that help us make decisions. There are solid, evolutionary reasons for these shortcuts (also called heuristics). If we had to spend time fully analyzing every choice we’re presented with, we wouldn’t survive: We’re primed to think certain things look dangerous, for example, so that we can quickly respond to threats before they get the better of us.
However, our biases can mislead us. This is because biases are emotion-based, and bypass our rational mind in order to make decisions. Psychologists have long noted how these biases can lead us to, for example, misjudge risk, and therefore bet on a hot stock without fully researching it because everyone else is buying it—only to lose money when it tanks. The same is true when they lead us to choose a naturally talented candidate over one with proven grit, even if the gritty candidate is a less-risky choice because of their track record.
Why We Focus on Talent
Duckworth explores some reasons that people tend to idolize talent and credit success to natural ability.
First, she notes that when you see a successful person, you see the end result of long-term practice and perseverance. However, since you haven’t seen that hard work in progress, but instead only see the end result, it’s easy to misattribute the success to innate ability. For example, if you watch a highly skilled athlete in action, you might think to yourself what a “natural” that person is, but in reality, what you’re seeing is the accumulated result of years of hard work.
|We Also Mistake Luck for Talent|
In his book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb agrees with Duckworth that people tend to wrongly credit success to innate talent. He argues, though, that what we’re overlooking when we do so is the hidden effect of luck, not necessarily hard work or persistence.
His argument assumes that many people have equal talent, skill, intelligence, and persistence. He maintains that what separates such equally matched people is the random effect of fortune. For example, two start-ups, both of which are run by intelligent and talented people, might have very different success trajectories if one of them gets an early contract for their product, leading to other contracts and additional business. Both companies started with equal advantages, but a bit of early luck put one on a more successful path.
Taleb does concur with Duckworth’s emphasis on hard work in some respects, though. While he focuses his discussions primarily on “wild” successes, such as becoming a superstar CEO or making a huge fortune in the stock market, he does note that run-of-the-mill success, such as developing a career as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher, depends on hard work and perseverance. For that reason, he advises his readers to aim for ordinary success, and to avoid, for example, investment trading.
Second, Duckworth references the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that we characterize other people as geniuses out of a self-protective instinct. Nietzsche believed that we mythologize natural talent because it excuses our failures: If innate talent is the primary contributor to success, we won’t feel as bad about ourselves when we see high achievers. We won’t feel we’re to blame for our failures if those failures are inevitable—if we can say, “No matter how hard I worked, I wouldn’t be able to do what that person does.”
Duckworth strongly disagrees with this fatalistic view, arguing instead that not only is grit the important factor in success, but also that (as we’ll discuss later) grit is learnable and trainable.
|In Defense of a Fatalistic View|
It might be said that there is some value in honestly evaluating your innate strengths and weaknesses so that you have a realistic opinion of your own potential. If you’re considering going into a field where only the superstars survive—for example, professional sports or academia at an Ivy League school—you might save yourself some heartbreak (not to mention years of effort) if you honestly assess from the start that you might not be cut out for it.
Janet Lowe discusses the advantages of this attitude in Damn Right, her biography of Charles Munger (Poor Charlie’s Almanack), Warren Buffett’s right-hand-man at Berkshire Hathaway. She relates that in college, Munger considered becoming a physics professor, but after watching the skill of his existing professors, he decided that he didn’t innately have what it takes to be as good as they were, and that he didn’t want to enter a profession that he couldn’t dominate. Instead, he made a name for himself as an investment trader.
It’s worth noting, though, that this attitude of “If I can’t be the best, why bother” only applies to fields that support just a select few people at the very top. In other fields where success is more evenly distributed among a wider swath of people, a person can achieve a decent level of success even without becoming a superstar—for example, there are countless doctors, lawyers, teachers, and corporate positions in which a person might be successful without becoming the very best worker ever.
The Drawbacks of Focusing on Talent
Duckworth argues that overemphasizing the importance of talent can lead to a number of problems, both in our own individual lives and in a larger organization.
In our individual lives, it can bias us against hard-working but less talented people who could end up achieving even more by leading us to ignore other important personal traits that contribute to success, like grit.
(Shortform note: This recalls our discussion of heuristics, in which we make emotion-driven short-cut decisions that ignore more rational analysis. This shows another way that such biases can hurt us—by causing us to miss out on opportunities that can help us or our company down the road. In this case, the missed opportunity would be a qualified person who might either contribute to our business’s success or might help us personally in our career.)
It can also make us place a cap on our own potential. Duckworth discusses several cases where a child who was placed in lower-level classes comes to believe that they’re not capable of achieving anything significant, only to discover later in life that they’re perfectly capable after all, if they face challenges with zeal and great effort.
(Shortform note: Duckworth’s anecdotal findings align with research showing that children with a positive, “I can do this” attitude outperformed others with a more negative, cautious attitude in math tests. Researchers theorize this is because a positive attitude shields a person from anxiety, which can decrease performance, and also primes a brain into “ready” mode, so that it’s poised to tackle challenges.)
In addition, within an organization, a focus on innate talent can cause a toxic and unproductive work environment. Duckworth discusses the insights of Malcolm Gladwell, who argues that an over-focus on talent mindset in the workplace creates a narcissistic culture where people are pushed to prove they’re smarter than everyone else.
Enron, the energy company that imploded under the weight of its false claims in 2001, exemplified this type of workplace. The company emphasized superstar talent so much that it fired the bottom 15% of performers annually, regardless of their actual performance. This culture led to an emphasis on the appearance of competence over actual substance, and an obsession with short-term gains that looked immediately impressive, rather than long-term gains that took years to manifest. Ultimately, this led to a workforce that made poor decisions, resulting in the downfall of the company. (Shortform note: Read more about the rise and fall of Enron in our summary of The Smartest Guys in the Room.)
|A Focus on Talent Can Create Perverse Incentives|
An automatic-firing policy like the one that Enron pursued can lead to a dysfunctional workplace by incentivizing people to try to keep their jobs in ways that ultimately harm the company.
Enron’s policy was a management technique based on the so-called vitality curve, sometimes called “rank and yank.” Popularized by Jack Welch in the 1980s at General Electric, the principle was to sort workers into three groups: The top 20% were the best performers and would be given the best perks, the middle 70% were the adequate workers and would be offered minimal rewards, and the bottom 10% would be fired. The practice was adopted by a number of prominent firms including Motorola, IBM, Yahoo, and Amazon in an effort to winnow their workforce down to only the best, most naturally talented employees.
Many companies abandoned the practice after finding it caused employees to focus on internal competition over anything else. Microsoft, for example, abandoned the system after finding it led people to avoid working with talented people so they wouldn’t be ranked against them, and it led supervisors to keep less skilled people on their teams to protect their more skilled workers from being cut. The practice has been credited as a leading factor that brought about a “lost decade” for the company in the early 2000s where employees were more concerned with keeping their jobs than being innovative.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Grit summary :
- How your grit can predict your success
- The 4 components that make up grit
- Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential