When I used to live in London, I had three words written on my kitchen wall: talent, concentration, and determination.
This was so that every time I ate breakfast, I would see them and I could reflect on what it takes to live a successful live, a life where one achieves the goals that you want to achieve.
Then I could just keep this in the back of my mind for the rest of the day.
Why did I do that? Well, it turns out that if you want to achieve any measure of success, in any field, you’re going to need all three characteristics, and perhaps not in the way that one might expect either.
Generally speaking, I think we all put too much emphasis on natural talent versus actually getting out there and doing the work.
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to review what talent, concentration, and determination actually are.
Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
~ Stephen King
Everybody talks about talent.
You have probably heard many people say “so-and-so is talented..” but when you ask exactly what talent is, most people cannot quite pin it down.
Is it excelling in something? Perhaps it is having an incredible skill or attribute. Is it the natural gift at a skill that makes it look almost effortless?
I think it’s more complex than that.
The best analysis that I have read on what talent is was written by the Dutch magician Tommy Wonder (click to see the master at work!) in his books “The Books of Wonder”.
He states that talent is a diamond and everybody has a diamond for every art, sport…for everything!
It is just that some people have bigger diamonds than others for any given activity but what is really important is how polished that diamond is. The shape of the diamond cannot be changed as that is to do with your inner attributes, but the polish and finish of that diamond is something that we can definately work on. More on this point later.
After all, most people would prefer to wear highly finished diamond that fits on a ring to an uncut dirty diamond the size of a phone. Mozart and Leonardo Da Vinci are two great examples of what happens when people start to polish their diamonds in a given art and discover that they have a whole mine inside them!
Sometimes the word talent is used when actually, we should be praising that person’s work ethic. Often those at the top of their field are not the ones with the most talent, but those who actually put in the concentrated hard work and developed their passion.
Another way to think about it is that if you don’t develop your talent, it’s almost as if that diamond is still buried miles underneath the ground, and it is still waiting for it to be unearthed.
There are many talented people who have never ended up polishing their diamond due to lack of focus, don’t be one of them.
So how do we go about polishing our diamonds, no matter what size they are?
Here comes the second key to success.
Concentration is the secret to getting more out of less. That’s it, there is no secret.
This is all about getting rid of distractions and focusing on our goals so that we home into them like a cruise missile.
Forget the multi-tasking, it means doing one thing at a time, and well.
When we start to do this, the benefits start coming in thick and fast. You spend less time working, and get more results. This is one of the core principles of the 80/20 rule.
I’ve written a lot about the 80/20 Rule because it epitomizes this approach. The 80/20 rule states that 20% of our actions contribute to 80% of our achievements.
I actually came to the conclusion that, in some cases, we can be up to sixteen times more productive when we follow the 80/20 rule. That may seem ridiculous, but it’s true, especially over the long term. In your day to day life, you may not notice incredible improvements stragiht away, but over the course of a year the results may well impress you.
So how do we become great at concentrating on our goals?
The answer is simple: Practice.
I remember that when I was in my teens that just the word practice immediately bored me.
The premise doesn’t seem amazing – spending time away from other people doing school work wasn’t my idea of fun, and in fact I rarely did it. I was lucky that I had enough talent to get me through some of my exams, but I was hardly a model student.
However, if you find something that you’re passionate about, then suddenly you’re eager to practice, it’s what wakes you up in the morning.
“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Later, we will discuss how we can learn to boost our concentration and work effectively, but the basics idea is this:
Do the minimum possible right now, and slowly build up to the amount of work you feel you should be doing. This is the building block of Kaizen, the idea of never failing. If you take the smallest action for the smallest possible incremental improvement, it’s so damn easy that you can hardly fail.
What if I asked you to do one pushup a day? That’s so ridiculously easy that you couldn’t possibly fail, and yet it is actually building a small amount of strength, and also a daily routine and that goes a long way to eventually doing 100 pushups a day.
“If you have a strong enough why, you can bear almost any how.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Determination is the ability to continue when most would normally quit. It’s the ability to grit your teeth and finish the race, regardless of how much pain you’re in.
I used to have the above quote written on bedroom wall and I feel that it really sums up how to be determined.
You must give yourself reasons.
Your reasons cannot be plain and boring, they need emotion. This is because our minds don’t work with simple facts and numbers, after all, we are emotional beings.
So if you want a certain result, don’t view it in a bubble, but let your emotions help you. Let yourself be inspired, tell yourself how important this is.
There is a wonderful passage in Epictetus’s Enchiridion about how now is the time:
…realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day. That’s how Socrates got to be the person he was, by depending on reason to meet his every challenge. You’re not yet Socrates, but you can still live as if you want to be him.
So not only do you have to be determined, but you have to be determined on a daily basis, otherwise you’re just a one-trick pony, someone who can occasionally perform. That’s simply not good enough.
Of course, we must not be so obstinate to ignore the warning signs of when we are going down the wrong road.
The Problem of Talent.
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work”
~ Émile Zola
If you want to be awesome at something in life, you’re going to need all three characteristics. Strangely enough, most people place the biggest emphasis on talent, when really that should be the least of our concerns.
After all, talent is an in-built thing. I don’t believe that we can change the size of our diamonds, and so there is little point worrying about not being talented as it’s out of our control.
I’ve written an aptly-named essay called “On Control” discussing exactly why we should stop worrying about what is outside our control.
In a nushell, we can only control our thoughts and actions, and so we should focus on those when we seek improvements.
Concentration and determination are built from our actions and thoughts, and so we must be able to control them.
Also, often you may not even be aware that you have a certain talent because you’ve not applied yourself at that field yet, or you have applied yourself but without enough concentration and determination.
Hey, nobody said this wasn’t going to be easy.
It is said that the world’s greatest natural athlete is probably hidden away somewhere, watching TV on a couch, eating crap and is covered in fifty pounds of extra fat.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking of talent will carry you without hard work. When you’re starting out, sure, talent in enough, but soon enough those hard workers will catch up and surpass you if you don’t put in the time and effort.
Conversely, we also need to recognise when it is a lost cause.
When we truly lack the talent to do something well, then we should focus our energies elsewhere. Every skill has a certain baseline of achievements that one should aim for in the first weeks and months. If you find yourself completely useless, and way behind on this baseline, then perhaps you should consider doing something else.
It is tempting to view this as an epic failure and feel down, but actually you should just view it as an experiment, and a successful one at that. You’ve tried, and learnt, that you’re no good at something, and you actually had the intelligence to recognise that and move on.
Think of the opportunities that you’re gaining by switching your focus to something where you have inbuilt talent that will amplify your concentration and determination.
I’ve also suspect that talents generally align with the things we are passionate about, and for that reason, that we should only work at things that inspire us.
By doing this, I think it is possible to almost solve any problems to do with concentration and determination.
This has a certain logic to it: if you only work at things that you’re passionate about, you should struggle to put in the effort required to finish the work well and if any problems arise you will see them as challenges, not nuisances.
Of course, we cannot always work on things that are exciting. Sometimes, to get to where we want to be, there will be some boring job, or something less than inspiring to do. It could be a boring corporate design job, mindless paperwork, or simply working for an uninspiring company while you save up enough money to start you own business.
As long as you keep the long term goal in mind, working through these situations is not too much of a problem, but it does require taking a step back and viewing life in a higher time frames.
So if there is anything to keep in mind it should be this:
Find your diamond, and then polish away like crazy, but be smart about it, working hard does not necessarily mean pulling eighteen hour days seven days a week.