Talent: Real or Illusion

One phrase I heard over and over during the Rio Olympics from sports commentators to explain the speed, the power, the endurance displayed by an athlete was “talent”, namely that an athlete’s “natural talents” explains their abilities and their success. Repeatedly, the term talent was used to imply that the capabilities of athletes are not obtained through training, but by random acts of the universe bestowing upon athletes the ability to win, effectively choosing who wins, who loses.

The successful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus.
Bruce Lee

If Bruce Lee was serious, then that means he could not have believed that he was born a martial art grandmaster, that he was born “talented”. Instead, he would have had to believe that he decided to become a grandmaster, that he started out average but with a laser-like focus became un-average. In so doing – because many do not believe that his level of ability could be learned through training – Bruce Lee became a “natural talent” in the martial arts instead of being respected as a student with the unnatural desire.

According to Bruce Lee’s perspective, anyone, absolutely anyone and everyone is capable of becoming a successful warrior. It is for us to decide, to train, to train to change, to become.

Herein lies the problem…

If the decision is mine to succeed or not succeed, and if I have not succeeded, then what does that say about me? It would suggest that I have failed to decide to succeed, or worse, have decided not to succeed. Who wants to be looked upon as having decided to fail in life? Who would accept that they have decided not to succeed? No one. At least, I hope no one.

So we have a decision to make: either deny that the decision is indeed in our hands and develop a narrative to explain away the success of others, or decide that there is no such thing as “natural talent” and agree that success is a decision, a burn-the-boats decision, but a decision which is fully within our scope. With the polarity distasteful, the reality that the results we have are the results we decided to have, the alternative is to create a compromise which gives us an escape for giving a half ass effort, allowing us to put on a display of having tried, but failing in our attempt to ensure that we get a good at-a-boy pat on the pack.

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this:
You haven’t.”  Thomas Edison

Instead of challenging our narratives, confronting ourselves honestly on our decision not to succeed, we defer to a half truth (i.e. a full lie)… we agree that training is necessary for success, but we disagree to the extent that training leads to success. Hence the ideal escape clause is created. Having earned our at-a-boy pat on the pack for giving it a good ole try at success, we decide to believe that there is an element of “talent” required in order to truly succeed.

I do not believe in talent.

I do believe in generational momentum which can set an expectation of success, but like Bruce Lee, I believe that laser-like discipline, dedication, commitment and focus are the pivot points.

I believe that what is called talent is nothing more than countless repetitions performed in training day after day, month after month, year after year, with abounding enthusiasm, eagerness, and focused energy.

The problem for many though is that this explanation is far too simple.  Success cannot be that simple, because if it was… the assumption goes…  we would all be “successful”.

Simplicity is no guarantee nor indicator of ease.

We prefer complex explanations.  We want DNA samples, a thorough analysis of our genes, a comparison of power to body weight, arm length to torso ratio, lung volume, max heart rate, lactate threshold, and VO2 values in order to identify who can be an athlete, who should be an athlete, and who shouldn’t. Meanwhile, 2x Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s simultaneously high VO2 and high lactate threshold (i.e. high aerobic efficiency) confounds exercise physiologists as their theories preclude both in the same athlete. Yet instead of tossing out theories that do not reflect observation, we are bent on retaining theories bending observations to fit our theories. The result is that we learn nothing, and prove nothing in the process, in fact it can be argued that we dumb down science by doing so, and dumb our own understanding of our potential.

What I have found reading and studying the lives of consistent peak performers that Bruce Lee is right: we are all born average, with the equal right to become un-average.

Consider a pattern found amongst top track and field athletes, specifically runners:

  1. David Rudisha – 2x African, World and Olympic Champion in the 800m, David Rudisha is a Masai tribesman whose culture involves repeating hopping, bouncing, and jumping as part of ritual dances.
  2. Jackie Joyner Kersee – is ranked amongst the greatest female athletes as a result of her athletic career as a heptathlete and long jumper which spanned 4 Olympics, yielded 6 medals of which 3 were gold, plus another 4 gold medals at Worlds because as a child she jumped from the porch of her house for hours daily. Why? Because it was fun. To see if she could jump farther than yesterday.
  3. Andre De Grasse – is a rising Canadian track sprinter, who won Olympic bronze in the 100m, and silver in the 200m at the Rio Games, played basketball in high school, entering the sport of track and field by racing a 100m sprint in basketball shorts and shoes on a dare from a friend, only to clock 10.9secs and catch the attention of a developmental track coach.

Now consider the number of sprinters who excelled as long jumpers:

  • Carl Lewis won Olympic medals in the 100m, 200m and long jump between ’84 and ’96
  • Tianna Bartoletta doubled in the 100m and the long jump in Rio
  • Tori Bowie won one of each medal in Rio across the 100m, 200m and 4×100 and in college competed equally in the long jump
  • Florence Griffith Joyner’s 100m record of 10.49secs still stands today, even after the Rio Olympics.  She too started her track and field career as a sprinter and long jumper.

To the masses who want to believe that success is complex, suggesting that the repetition of simple activities like hopping, skipping, bouncing, or jumping has anything to do with becoming an Olympian is laughable.

To suggest that simple childhood activities are the basis for Olympic performance would relegate science to the backseat, placing play, fun, and games on the front seat simultaneously destroying the ego of exercise physiologists, biomechanists, sport psychologists, and coaches who have taken to believing that it is their expertise alone which transforms shapeless clay into a world champion.

To all those who believe like Bruce Lee, that success is a decision, that success is the result of laser like focus, that success is the byproduct of simple day-in day-out repetition with unending enthusiasm, then this pattern should motivate you.

Success is tangible, real, and is available to anyone who decides to be successful. Best of all… it says that the journey to success can be fun, provided you make it fun by hopping, skipping and jumping all the way.