Friday, May 29, 2015

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard

Today’s culture often idealizes individual people, usually emphasizing some natural trait they were born with: “the talented actress”, “the shrewd businessman”, “the genius scientist”. While I agree that natural talent is useful, I believe it is sometimes overrated as a strong prerequisite for success. It’s amazing how far you can get with perseverance, dedication and hard work. Why is that?

Let’s start with a simple model of value creation:

Value ~ Work x Skill.

Imagine a carpenter making chairs: the more time he labors - the more chairs he makes, and the more proficient the carpenter - the faster he can make each chair - producing more value for the same amount of work.
Next, we deconstruct skill:

Skill ~ Talent + Experience x Talent

The carpenter started at a certain natural skill level - and then got better by spending time honing his craft - whether it’s training, learning or just doing. His natural tendency towards woodworking makes his learning more efficient (he “gets it” faster) - so we multiply his accumulated experience by his talent. Note that this model probably puts too much weight on talent (for example - even someone with “zero talent” can probably learn to do something basic).
Experience is created by investing time and effort into a specific area of expertise, so experience is proportional to work:

Experience ~ Work

Finally, the amount of work done is obviously a function of time, but also of how much of a hard worker our hypothetical carpenter is:

Work ~ Work-ethic x Time

Combining all these bite-size claims, we get a formula for value creation as a function of time:

Value ~ Talent x ( Work-ethic x Time + ( Work-ethic x Time)2 )

We are interested in the rate of value creation - not total value over time - so let’s derive by Time:

Rate of Value Creation ~ (Talent x Work-ethic) + (2 x Talent x Work-ethic2 x Time)

What can we learn from this result?
The first part - Talent x Work-ethic - is perhaps what we would guess at a moments notice. The second, time dependant, part is somewhat more surprising. Not only you’re getting better with time (which is to be expected), but work ethic is more important than talent in the long run. Over time the second element of the equation will always overtake the constant part, and since the work ethic parameter is squared it has more impact than the talent parameter.

According to this derivation, what you have to do in order to defeat an opponent of superior skill -  be it at the university, at your workplace or any other situation - is to work harder than they do, and then simply outlast them. Have faith in the math - you will prevail.

I'll conclude with a quote (that I swiped from my Brutal Motivation blog):
"... Distinctly different about me is I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, but if we get on a treadmill there's two things: you're getting off first, or I'm gonna die. It's really that simple." Will Smith.

Until next time, may you endure to victory.


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