“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic… The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s 2 things – you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”
– Will Smith, Actor
A good friend of mine in coaching sent me that quote from Will Smith. I appreciate that Will Smith works really hard. I’m sure he’s put in a lot of time and effort to get where he is today. But I sent him a text back, playing devil’s advocate. I asked him “Do you believe that? Do you think it’s true?”
Hard work is really important. It’s the message we try and get across to young people all of the time. Your work ethic, your commitment, your dedication – that determines your level of success. Highly successful people – like Will Smith – love to talk about how hard they have worked. All kinds of books have been written about how hard work and commitment is what separates high achievers from everyone else. I’ve read “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle, and I liked it. I’m a big Malcolm Gladwell fan. I’ve read all of his stuff, and in “Outliers” he talks about the 10,000 hour rule – how to be elite in any field you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice to get there.
But is that really the truth? Is it hard work and commitment that really separate us? I think with all of the self-help, leadership and culture books out there today about how to be great, we forget about one thing – talent really matters. I think we overlook natural talent, and it affects our point of view.
I don’t think for a second that if I worked as hard as Will Smith that I could be where he is today as a global superstar. I think he’s more talented than I am. If I was born in Liverpool and I practiced playing the guitar and drums for 10,000 hours, I still don’t think I could be a member of the Beatles. I think they have ability that I don’t have. I love to play golf, but I don’t for a second believe that if I had put in 10,000 hours practicing when I was a kid that I could play golf for a living. There’s a talent gap there. It’s trendy to write about how work ethic and commitment are really what makes the difference, and it sells a lot of books. It would be hard to write a book about how elite performers are the result of natural talent, of being born with ability that most others don’t have. How does that help anybody?
Barry Bonds was once asked about his ability as a hitter and he said “Don’t ask me about hitting. I have a gift that I can’t explain.” I believe this to be true. Bonds is probably the best hitter I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure he worked hard to get to an elite level (steroid snark aside). But I also think he has some natural ability – hand-eye coordination, strength, athleticism, speed – that are just different. You can’t tell me that Barry Bonds became an elite hitter just because he put in so much time.
Ryan Gomes is the best player I’ve ever coached. Ryan is a great kid and he put in the time. He worked extremely hard. But what made Gomes so good was natural ability. Talent. He reacted quicker and more comfortably at a fast pace in a game than most other players. He picked things up quicker. When he had to adjust on the court, he was able to do it. He was just better than other guys. He was a natural.
Natural talent is underrated. We don’t talk about it that much, because we really can’t control it. We can’t improve our natural talent. We can work on our skills, our conditioning, our mentality – and put in those 10,000 hours to get better – but we can’t really improve our natural talent. We are blessed with it, and we either take advantage of it or we don’t.
I’m not dismissing the value of work ethic and commitment. I think it’s extremely important, because it is what we can control. But I am tired of reading so much about how work ethic and commitment are what separates the great ones. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and it can skew our perspective. You hear coaches say they’ll take work ethic and dedication over talent any day of the week, and I think that’s just nuts. I’m taking the guys who are more talented. It’s my job to teach them the stuff they need from an approach perspective to be great. When I’m recruiting and evaluating players, of course I want to see guys who are committed and are competing hard for their team. But the the most important thing I’m looking for is natural talent. The ability to make plays at speed, to stay composed, to produce consistently and to do it all with a general comfort level – that’s really important to me.
I appreciate Will Smith’s perspective on what’s made him great. I’m sure he’s put in a lot of time. You can absolutely separate yourself with a relentless work ethic and dedication. But there’s a certain level of talent that needs to be there first. Talent level is the first things that separates us. It’s okay to say that, even if you can’t write a book about it.