Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite recurring conversations between myself and some of the athletes I work with…
ME: How is the training going?
ATHLETE: It’s going “okay”.
ME: What do you mean “okay”?
ATHLETE: Well I am following the plan and I feel really good. I just want to know…
ATHLETE: When am I going to get faster?
I recently read a book called Bounce by Matthew Syed. If you like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point or What the Dog Saw, Bounce is right up your alley. In fact the author quotes Gladwell several times when making the argument for the book’s main thesis, which is essentially that there is no such thing as talent. The theory goes something like this: people are not born phenomenal runners, incredible swimmers, amazing cyclists or even exceptional pianists, computer programmers or chess masters. People win the Masters, become Olympians, and develop into world-famous cellists not because of talent but because they have put in a lot of work doing what they do best. Gladwell and Syed quote scientists who have actually quantified the mind boggling amount of work these so-called talented people have put in. The number of hours? Ten thousand. Think about that. You want to be good at something? Really really good at something? You have to put in… Ten. Thousand. Hours.
As athletes we are always comparing ourselves to one another, standouts in our sport, or older versions of ourselves. We want to get faster, stronger, and smarter now. The rub? We will never be Michael Phelps unless we put in the time that he has put in. This thought can be extremely daunting. He’s been working so hard for so long to be a phenomenal swimmer. We could never do that, why even try? But if you think about it, the idea that talent is not born but instead created can be incredibly empowering. If you commit yourself to the process and commit yourself to purposeful practice, with time you will improve. Curious about when you are going to get faster? How about chipping away at those 10,000 hours.
When talking about this blog post idea with a few friends, I couldn’t help but notice that this theory didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Some people are just talented they contend. According to them, no matter how hard we try or how much time we put in we could never, ever be like these superstars of sport. As a professional triathlete muscling her way through her rookie year, I am not afraid to admit that I don’t want to believe that. I am where I am, not because talent was bestowed upon me, but instead because I have been running since I was eight years old and training is one of my favorite things to do. I am going to get better through work, not some gift from the heavens. So how do I argue with someone who says, “Some people have talent and some people just don’t”? Take a look at the circles below.
My coach and I mulled this over and came up with an idea: Environment, purposeful practice, and genetics can all contribute to our success or lack thereof. When these three things come together, you get amazing ability. Michael Phelps was born with an incredible “wingspan”, was lucky enough to train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club under Bob Bowman from a very young age (so he could start logging those hours) and he has put in lots and lots of hard work. Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over our environment and genetics. The good news? When we are old enough we can often choose an environment that nurtures our abilities and body type isn’t always a limiting factor. The great news? The amount of purposeful practice you put in is completely under your control. So we’re back to those 10,000 hours.
Too many people give too much credit to the genetic and environmental advantages they think talented people benefit from and I suspect the reason is simple. The idea that we can create talent is scary. It means a lot of hard work. And it means a lot of time. Remember that feeling you would get when your college professor gave you the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester and you thought, “How the heck am I going to do all this? I don’t even want to start.” The feeling you get from the idea that talent is created is like that… times 10,000. But if you don’t think you have the time to create your “talent”, remember this…