Why passion and resilience are more important than talent

“With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be. Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”


The philosopher Nietzsche took issue with Wagner after being complimented as a genius. Nietzsche disliked the idea of genius and inborn talent because he believed it masked the reality that most geniuses and top performers are exceptional because they worked incredibly hard on their craft. Not only does the idea of ‘genius’ take away from the incredible human effort of the individual but it excuses us from trying because we believe we could never achieve what they’ve achieved as we’re not naturally gifted. “Michael Phelps massive feet are like flippers!” Yes, but he also practises for 5-6 hours a day and swims a minimum of 50 miles a week!

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has spent her career demonstrating that whilst talent is useful, grit is more important. What is grit? Grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; their advantage is stamina.” So whilst intensity steals the limelight, it is steady consistency that is effective.

Okay, that’s lovely Matthew but what do I do with this information? Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. Don’t put your idols on pedestals. Look instead at the effort that went into their achievements. At the same time, don’t run other people’s races! You’re not competing with Serena Williams on the court, just try to do something you couldn’t do yesterday.
  2. Use growth mindset language when giving feedback. Rather than saying “Great job! You’re very smart.” instead say “Great job! I can see you worked really hard”. Praise the process, not the person. After all, they did work really hard on it.
  3. Be kind to yourself and don’t just focus on the output (the result), focus on your input. Compliment and reward yourself for putting in effort, for learning and for sticking with something. You absolutely do get points for trying.
  4. Foster a psychologically-safe environment where trying is encouraged and failure isn’t seen as negative but as an opportunity to learn. Ask the person to explain their process and to think of ways they can improve it next time.
  5. Build up your grittiness. Take on difficult hobbies where you’re a beginner again and stick with them for a while. No-one thinks you look silly, we think you look fucking badass for making yourself vulnerable and trying something new.

I’ve obviously simplified this a lot and there’s not an easy 5-step plan to any of this so if you want to learn a little more I’d recommend listening to Brené Brown interviewing Dr Angela Duckworth. (They also discuss the dangers of oversimplification – how ironic given this post!)