The key to a great, successful career is not talent.

By Ross Coverdale

There seems to be a common misconception around the importance of talent when it comes to being successful. Talented individuals are capable of excelling at the things that they are gifted in doing, so it seems reasonable to say that in order to succeed you must first of all be talented. However, this is not really the case.

Truth be told, there is no singular secret to being successful, as there are obviously lots of variables – and we won’t even get started on personal circumstances – but there is one thing that will result in everything else falling apart, and that is determination; the capacity to work hard and push yourself. Grit.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, studied this idea of grit in public schools in Chicago. She found that while there are lots of talented individuals in the world, many of them simply do not follow through on their commitments, and, according to her research, this sense of drive is typically unrelated or even inversely related to talent.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.” (TED Talk: The key to success? Grit – April 2013)

The concept that success isn’t derived purely from talent, and that learning through hard work and determination have a far more considerable bearing on levels of achievement, is a way of thinking developed by Dr Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, which she calls the ‘growth mindset’. This is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed and that it can change with your effort, which is opposed to the ‘fixed mindset’, whereby a person’s abilities and intelligence are innate and never change. People can still be talented, of course, but that does not equal success – you can have a talent for music, or agility, but that doesn’t make you a world-class composer or gold-medal gymnast. It still takes a lot of work, and a lot of time, to be successful in something you are talented at. Talent may be a head start, but you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to, if you’re prepared to put the work in.

The problem with the fixed mindset and its impact on success is that if you fail, you accept your failure and give up – ‘I can’t do this, it’s beyond my capability‘. With a growth mindset, failure is still an option, but it’s not a permanent condition. Failure is an opportunity to learn, and taking the fear of failure out of the equation makes the idea of achieving one’s goals far more within the realm of possibility.

What is success?

So, we have established that in order to be successful you have to have drive, but what exactly is success? There are lots of possible answers to this, but it is reasonable to say that most people would perceive success as being relative to a financial wealth and happiness.

A lot of people will map success as being something like this:

The problem with the above view is that you may be rich, but you might also be unhappy. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘money can’t buy happiness’, and with this in mind, the same can be said in that money can’t buy success. If you’re unhappy, can you really say you’re successful? If you view success as being far more heavily weighed on happiness, than being rich, the map would look more like this:

Now obviously the preference for most people would be to be sitting tightly in the top-right corner of the box, but I would much rather be poor and happy than be rich and miserable.

Bringing this concept back into careers – if success is derived from happiness, this changes the way that we look at what we do than if the focus is on financial goals. In a nutshell, if your goals are aligned with the things that make you happy – the things you are passionate about – rather than the things that make you wealthy, true success is achievable (and you’ll love what you do).

Finding the ingredients to this formula is not an easy task; it’s all about your perspective and figuring out what is important to you – but without adopting a growth mindset, abandoning the fear of failure, and working hard to reach your goals you can only hope to just be lucky and stumble upon real success in your career.

Larry Smith, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada sums this up beautifully:

“Your kid will come to you someday and say, “I know what I want to be. I know what I’m going to do with my life. I have decided I want to be a magician. I want to perform magic tricks on the stage.”

And what do you say? You say, you say, “Umm … that’s risky, kid. Might fail, kid. Don’t make a lot of money at that, kid. You know, I don’t know, kid, you should think about that again, kid, you’re so good at math, why don’t you — “

And the kid interrupts you, and says, “But it is my dream. It is my dream to do this.” And what are you going to say? You know what you’re going to say? “Look kid. I had a dream once, too, but — but.” So how are you going to finish the sentence with your “but”? “… But. I had a dream too, once, kid, but I was afraid to pursue it.”

You could have said, looked the kid in the face, and said, “Go for it, kid, just like I did.”


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