“Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent… Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent” — Calvin Coolidge (30th President of the United States).
Over the years, I have noticed a curious phenomenon: those heralded as having natural talent often quit or come last. The star student, during their first couple of years, barely finishes the final year. The graduate with two-plus degrees (including from Yale) never picks up a book again. I’ve witnessed these and other ways the talented give up.
When Advantage is a Disadvantage:
As I’ve mentioned before, from a young age, my main talent was always in art, but my focus is writing. It is true, of course, that part of the reason for this is that — although the art of writing has been more of a struggle (or less of a natural talent) for me — I have been able to express myself more exactly through writing, and it has enabled me to really explore my interests through historical research — which art probably wouldn’t have done.
But, I also found that talent in art made it difficult in an unusual way. I didn’t have to worry about perfecting technique that much. Instead, I wondered why I should commit to this style versus that style, or whether I should paint portraits or landscapes, etc., rather than something else.
Natural talent, in other words, can create too many options, when to really become someone in a field requires focus — it requires, in a sense, no options except to push on with learning and practicing — with struggling, in a sense.
Although this wasn’t the case with me, I suspect, too, that, used to compliments from a young age, the “naturally talented” often find criticism of their talent, later on, much more difficult to cope with because it feels like their identity is being criticized. Some people can’t really cope with that.
When Disadvantage is an Advantage:
In his book Zen and The Martial Arts, Joe Hyams recalls commenting to his friend Bruce Lee that, “if ever a man was born with natural ability as a martial artist, it’s you.”
Bruce Lee laughed, and told Hyams that he had become “a martial artist in spite of [his] limitations.” These, Lee said, included a right leg was almost one inch shorter than his left.
But, Lee turned this to his advantage, finding a fighting stance that worked for him, and discovering how one shorter leg gave him “an advantage with certain types of kicks.”
I don’t claim to be the literary equivalent of Bruce Lee, but the fact that writing was harder for me than visual art meant, counter-intuitively, that I found it easier to focus on. I wanted to know what made a great sentence, as much as a great article or a great book. I wanted to really learn the skills of writing, and learning them, struggling with them, naturally led me along — keeping my interest and proving that I was making some advances.
Struggling and Success:
Although the possibility seems far off, there is already talk of parents one day being able to select the right genes for their babies so that they will be successful in their future careers, in the arts, and so on. They will also, we are told, be able to choose genes that mean they will not get certain diseases. Personally, I suspect this will not work.
Early exposure to germs to some germs, it now appears, may boost children’s immune systems. As we all know, although it may cause temporary suffering, lifting weights or doing push-ups strengthens, rather than weakens, the body.
You might be struggling at school and watching, demoralized, as others breeze through their classes. You might be struggling at work. Or with a particular practice you’ve taken up. Don’t be down on yourself for struggling. Be a little pleased with yourself instead. Your disadvantage may one day turn out to be the greatest advantage you had.
Difficulty and temporary suffering are part of life. But, so long as we are truly interested in our studies, our work, our disciplines — whether mental, physical, or spiritual — and want to improve in them, then difficulties and significant challenges can be the very things that push us to excel, even as the more naturally talented give up.