Is Talent Overrated? Yes! Focus on Grit Instead

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 talent overrated? Why is grit more valuable and more likely to predict success than talent?

In the book Grit, Angela Duckworth answers the question “is talent overrated?” According to Duckworth, Grit is much more valuable than talent.

So is talent overrated? Read more to find out.

Is Talent Overrated?

Even though grit is so important, as a culture, we collectively obsess so much over talent. But is talent overrated? Here’s why we place too much emphasis on talent.

When surveyed directly, Americans are more likely to point to hard work as the key to success, rather than talent. But when asked indirectly, we tend to show a “naturalness bias” toward internal talent rather than persistence.

A few illustrative research studies:

  • Professional musicians were given profiles of two pianists. One profile described the pianist as a “natural,” with early signs of talent. The other profile was described as a “striver,” with early signs of high motivation. The musicians then listened to recordings for each pianist (even though the recordings were actually different parts of the same pianist playing the same piece), then rated the two pianists on a few factors. 
    • The talent-based pianist received significantly higher ratings for “talent compared to other professionals,” “likelihood of success in the future,” and “value as an employee.” The effort-based pianist won only on one factor: “ability to overcome obstacles to career.”
  • Study participants were given one of two profiles of entrepreneurs. The profile was identical, save for this sentence: “From the very beginning, Charles was able to demonstrate a keen sense of the market.” (talent) vs “From this experience, Charles was able to gain a keen sense of the market.” (hard work) Study participants then heard the same recording of a business pitch. 
    • The talent-based entrepreneur was given higher scores for achievement potential and business pitch quality.
  • Participants were given randomized profiles of entrepreneurs that varied in five dimensions (e.g. an IQ of 160, 130, or 100; leadership experience of 8, 5, or 2 years; source of achievement as “natural” or “striver”). They were then asked for their willingness to invest in the entrepreneur.
    • Participants rated these in declining order of importance: investor capital raised (30.5% importance), IQ (20.9%), management skills by percentile (24.6%), leadership experience (13.7%), source of achievement (10.3%).
    • Even though natural vs striver had the lowest importance, it still had a large effect: seasoned entrepreneur subjects were willing to give up 4.52 years of leadership experience, 8.95% in management skills, 28.30 points in IQ, and $39,143 in invested capital to invest in a “natural” entrepreneur.

Thus, the studies show a significant bias toward talent that can tip the scale in a decision. 

Duckworth gives the example of comparing Hillary vs Bill Clinton. Bill seems to be a naturally gifted politician, while Hillary is competent but has to work hard to fit the role. The implication is that she’ll never be his equal without the talent. So when asking “is talent overrated?” the answer seems to be yes. Plus, when it comes to grit vs. talent the people with more grit find more success.

Why Do We Obsess so Much Over Talent? 

Nietzsche argues, “our vanity promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.” 

But is talent overrated? In other words, if talent is the major contributor to success, we shouldn’t feel worse about ourselves when seeing high achievers. “No matter how hard I worked, I wouldn’t be able to do what that person does, so there’s really no point in trying.” By thinking this, we’re excused from effort. This is a fatalistic view, as though results were granted to us by fate, based on what we’re born with.

This is a warped view of reality, however. As the rest of the book discusses, grit is a vital component of success, and it’s trainable – you can develop more grit over time. This is part of the difference between grit vs. talent.

There are other problems with an obsession with talent. First, it can cause a toxic and unproductive work environment. Malcolm Gladwell critiques the talent mindset in employment as contributing to a narcissistic culture where people are pushed to prove they’re smarter than everyone else. At Enron, this encouraged short-term performance and showing off but discouraged long-term growth. Similarly, Enron had a practice of firing the bottom 15% of performers annually, which rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.

Obsessing over talent also implicitly sends the message that other factors like grit don’t matter as much as they really do. This can bias us against hard-working but less talented people who could end up achieving even more.

 “The human individual lives far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. Men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.” – William James

So is talent overrated? You can certainly make the argument that it is. After all, grit is a much better predictor of success. Remember that when it comes to grit vs. talent, grit will help you achieve.

Is Talent Overrated? Yes! Focus on Grit Instead

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Angela Duckworth's "Grit" at Shortform .

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

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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