Talent -> Skill -> Work ethic

Watch a bunch of 5 year olds playing a new sport and you’ll quickly be able to spot the ones with natural talent.

8 years later, however, it’ll get harder to tell which ones were the talented ones from the group you first saw. This is also because 9 out of every 10 who started out at 5 are probably not even playing in this group. The differences observed at this stage become less about talent and a lot more about skill.

A further 8 years later, you’ll be hard pressed to remember if the survivors (again 1 out of 10 you saw 8 years back) were among the original talented 5 year olds. In this group, everyone has above-the-threshold talent and skill. It is work ethic that sets them apart.

Talent is what we are born with. It has a lot to do with our mental and physical make up. Some bodies, for example, are just a lot more suited to long distance running. Skill is when we wrap process around that talent. We use that mental and physical make-up and coax it to do a series of counter intuitive things that enable the individual to perform that skill at a certain level of consistency. For a soccer player, it is often learning collect the ball and make a difficult pass/take a shot in one fluid movement. Talent helps speed up the skill acquisition process. And, the speed of the skill acquisition process determines if you have what it takes to become a professional in what you do. However, skill alone doesn’t do much in a professional’s life. Sure, prodigious skill could result in a brief spell at the top. But, again, it is work ethic that makes a top top professional.

You’ve seen this in every field. Michael Phelps is a great example of natural talent (he was born with an abnormal wing span) who was able to learn the basics of swimming very quickly. But, it is when his coach coaxed in an unmatched work ethic that the became a machine that won a record number of Olympic medals. Whether it is Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Rice, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, you’ll be hard pressed to find a superstar who doesn’t have an awe-inspiring work ethic.

And, while we are at it, I’d like to call attention to two important points. First, talent isn’t completely overrated. It helps greatly in the first stage. But, the irony is that we often see above-average talent triumph prodigious talent because they have to work a lot harder on the process. I once met a ticket collector on the DLR in London who used to be a teenage player at Chelsea football club. He said John Terry (Chelsea’s captain and legend) was among the least talented and skillful players as a teenager. All the others, however, just lacked the discipline and work ethic he had.

Second, notice how being professional involves mastering yourself and things you control. Talent isn’t in your circle of influence. Skill sort of is. But, work ethic? It is completely what you make of it.