in Lifehacks, Self-Improvement

Tenacity vs. Talent

It’s interesting to watch people react when I tell them I’m learning to play the guitar at age 44. Some folks are excited, but most people say something like: “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I have no talent for music.”

I usually just nod my head and move the conversation along, but what I’m really thinking is, “Talent has nothing to do with it.”

You see, I suck at music. Kim and Kris will tell you that I cannot carry a tune. My rhythmic sense is almost non-existent, which makes it tough for me to keep time. (That’s also why I’m a bad dancer.) I haven’t done anything musical in 25 years — but that hasn’t stopped me from diving into guitar.

There are two reasons I’m willing to tackle this project despite my lack of talent:

  • First, I’m no longer afraid of failure. It used to be that fear prevented me from pursuing all sorts of things I wanted to try, even simple things like learning to play an instrument or speak a foreign language. I didn’t want to look like a fool. Today, I don’t care. Do I have a thick American accent when I talk with the shopkeeper in Quito? So what? At least I’m making an effort. Does my rendition of “Amazing Grace” sound like the song was written only in quarter notes? So what? I know that I have to sound bad today to sound good tomorrow.
  • Second, I know that successful people are successful because of their effort, not because of their innate ability. For this insight, I have to thank Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers, Gladwell offers numerous examples of people — Bill Gates and The Beatles, for instance — who succeeded not because they were born gifted but because they spent tons of time honing their abilities. Gladwell popularized research that shows it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. That’s a long time.

So, I’m happy to pluck away at the guitar despite a lack of innate talent. The failure doesn’t bother me, and I know that the more time I spend at it, the better I’ll become.

In fact, further reading has revealed that while it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill, it usually takes just 500 hours to become competent. (And then continued practice to maintain the skill.)

I’ve spent about 500 hours learning Spanish. No surprise then that I can carry on a conversation with a native speaker, even if I’m not great at it. I’m only about five hours into my guitar journey, but I hope to reach 500 hours by the end of this year.

The bottom line is this: If you want to learn a new skill, tenacity matters far more than talent. And if you disqualify yourself before you begin because you think talent’s the most important piece of the puzzle, well then you’ll never get good at anything, will you?

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  1. My difficulty comes into really committing to something like this. The first 5 (or probably 10-25 hours) are exciting because everything is new, you are learning constantly and you expect to be terrible, but then you have to live with being really mediocre and the pace of learning slows down. For me, this stretch of time that is the most difficult to get through. How did you work through this period during your Spanish learning?

    On an unrelated note – I’m sorry but I find the font on MTM really distracting, would you consider something easier on the eyes?

    • Great point! This is why so many high school students give up learning a foreign language after they graduate, and why an immersion program abroad was required at my college to major in Spanish. It helped push us over that ‘mediocre’ hump from competent to proficient.

      Now that I’m a new mom and I know it will be awhile before I can travel abroad again (saving our pennies!) I volunteer with Spanish-speaking moms in my community one per week. Perk – my daughter is hearing native speakers when she plays with the other children!

  2. Awesome, you will like playing. I have played for years now and honestly cannot
    imagine what it would be like if I didn’t. I always dislike it when I stay at someone’s home that doesn’t have a guitar hanging around for me to pass the time. I think it can be very relaxing and almost therapeutic. If I have a guitar to play I am basically happy wherever.

    One thing that might be able to help you if you ever become stagnant early on is to learn a power chord. It’s essentially the basis to most rock music and is pretty easy to play. But depending on your instructor, they may not want to show you that right away. I just know it helped me keep playing in the early years.Good luck!

  3. LOVE IT! So excited for you. Same thing goes for me and dancing. Enjoying the state of “don’t care if I look like a fool.” Wish I could have gotten here sooner than 40, but maybe that is 40s gift!

  4. I’m learning to play guitar right now too, though I haven’t yet sprung for instruction. I am using YouTube as my main source of learning and falling back to my dad when I need feedback or a specific question.

    The current struggle is the pre-callus finger pain….

  5. Have you read The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman? I’ve got it on my desk at home, about ready to start. It supposedly shows you how to learn things faster – it specifically mentions the 10,000 hour rule in the book sales pitch. I eventually want to pick up the guitar again (started learning in high school, quickly gave up), so I’m interested to hear if anyone has applied the book.

  6. I’ve found a similar thing through my own pursuit of sports (and other things, but I realized it through sports). I’m not really naturally talented at sports. I have been surfing for, oh, 20 years now. Depending on whether I go to a beginner spot or an expert spot I might be a better surfer than 90%-50% of the other surfers in the water. This makes me “above average” as a surfer, but not elite in the sense that I could, say, pursue it professionally. This used to bother me. I wasn’t as good as some of the people in the water and, well, I sort of knew I would never be. After a while though, I started looking at it a different way. Even with no particular natural talent for something, with perseverance and practice, I could be better than 99% of the general population and 50-90% of other regular practitioners just by trying.

    If you put your mind to it, and dedicate the time and effort required, you can be good at anything. Sure, you may not win the world championship, but you probably don’t need to. Top 10% is really pretty good, and you can get to that level of expertise by pure effort.

    • Love this concept! I do something similar – I have been training as a distance runner for the past 10+ years despite no obvious athletic ability (couldn’t even run a mile in high school, zero coordination). Now when I run races (10 milers, marathons) I typically finish in the top 30% of my gender/age group (and given that the comparison group is people who train for and run things like marathons, likely I too am better than 99% of the general population). So, without any natural talent, just by putting in the work, I am able to have a good showing for myself. It used to bother me that I would never be among the elite, but now I’ve flipped that thinking around and am much happier because of it.

  7. My favorite tenacity story is about a friend who asked her parents if she could get a horse. She lived in the suburbs of Seattle. Her parents said, sure, if you can make enough money to pay for the horse, thinking, I’m sure, that she would never save enough or get bored with the idea. Because she was only 13 or so, she babysat and did odd jobs and made enough money to purchase one of the wild horses that are routinely rounded up in eastern WA. She found a boarding stable a bicycle ride away from her house and went every day to take care of the horse. She learned how to tame the horse by reading about horse taming.

    I’m in my 60s and started taking line dancing classes in the fall. I don’t care that I sometimes trip over my own feet, run into my neighbor, or turn the wrong way. It’s fun, and at this point, I want my life to be about having lots of fun.

  8. I’m such a believer in this too. I think people get very bogged down in ideas of “needing to be a genius”, and “if it’s not perfect, it’s not worth putting out there”. The people who work the hardest often find mastery, but it’s not necessarily just because they have some sort of innate talent. So lovely to be reminded of that from time to time!

  9. Of course you will hit 500 hours by the end of this year!!!
    I love your tenacity; this is a great post.
    I’m learning violin at 40, as you know. Who cares if we ever sound great!? Let’s make a “joyful noise” together!!!

  10. First time I read about 10 000 hours research in the book of Geoff Colvin “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from EverybodyElse”, couple years prior to Gladwell’s book. It presented there much wider and deeper.
    I was surprised. Wanted to proove it.

    Just short time before that I’ve started similar to yours project – I’ve decided to learn how to play scottish bagpipe. I was 39 then. Young and foolish!
    I’ve joined as a vounteer military band in my area-they provided free lessons. Since then, I am slowly climbing up the hill of perfection.

    From my own experience I can only agree with your point. I know that I cannot reach to the top of the world piping – for that I should’ve started before age of 12, but I am sure, in the few years I will be good enough piper to play comfortably in the big events. There is a saying-” Seven years makes the piper”, means – you need to practice 7 years to be called a piper i.e. to be good enough to perform for public. I have 4 more years to go – no stress, just keep practice.
    So far I think 10 000 hours idea is working for me.

    On the side I want to note.
    Band, as a learning environment, provides two distinct fatures. First – you constantly feel the pressure from old members to improve your playing and not being unwelcomed distraction with your noise to band’s performance. That pushes you to practice more.
    Second – if you not strong with your playing skills at certain time, you can always blend in to the bigger sound of the band and feel not ashamed for your mistakes.

  11. Outstanding article, JD. You’re really back in top shape all of a sudden with your writing, delivering the groceries to your readers once again. Anyway, Dave Ramsey made a statement that I love:

    “Talent is cheaper than table salt. Work hard and even without talent, you will beat out 95% of those with talent and no work ethic.”

  12. While I agree with everything in this post I have a very different perspective on the subject of tenacity vs. talent. I like to look at how they play out as success in the professional world. I work in theatre and it is my experience that at a certain level, the talent is there. But what separates those who achieve great success and those who don’t, is tenacity. Being at the right place at the right time is a major factor in this business (as I’m sure it is for others), but you have to be willing to show up enough times to get to that moment.

  13. Let me start by saying I loved the blog. I completely agree that successful people don’t become so just because they have great abilities. I have seen many successful entrepreneurs who are just average but they succeeded just because they had perseverance and kept doing the work again and again until it’s perfect. In fact, many times talented people are too reluctant in doing the works just because they have talent. They believe success will come to their doorstep and this thinking keeps them waiting for success lifelong.