Can Hard Work Beat Talent?

To achieve greatness you need a growth mindset and a little spark of inspiration.



(Bokan /

It has been said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. But is this actually the case? Can grit and determination replace natural talent? British researcher Chia-Jung Tsay set out to determine whether inspiration or perspiration was actually more valuable and she came across some surprising results.

The naturalness bias
The BBC explains, Tsay’s work revolved around the “naturalness bias.” First described by author Malcolm Gladwell in a 2002 presentation to the American Psychological Association, the naturalness bias theorizes that just like people prefer natural products to synthetic products, people respect inborn talent more than acquired skills.

As Gladwell explained in his presentation, “On some fundamental level, we believe that the closer something is to its original state, the less altered or adulterated it is, the more desirable it is.” 

Tsay conducted a number of studies to put Gladwell’s theory to the test. One study took place at Harvard University, where Tsay took a group of trained musicians and gave them two clips to listen to from Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka composition. Although both tracks were played by the same pianist, Tsay told participants there were two separate pianists, and gave the listeners divergent biographical information to accompany each clip.

One clip was accompanied by information that emphasized the natural talent the musician had, whereas the other focused on the effort they had put in to learn to play the piano. Afterwards, participants rated both performances. What Tsay found is that although the same pianist had performed both tracks, participants tended to rank the track that accompanied the biography emphasizing natural talent as better than the track accompanied by the biography emphasizing hard work.

A similar study, where participants listened to an entrepreneur describe a business plan elicited similar results. Half the participants heard the entrepreneur describe their natural ability, alongside the business plan, whereas the other half heard the entrepreneur describe their effort and determination, alongside the exact same plan. Again, participants, including investors and businesspeople, rated the clip that emphasized natural talent, above the one that emphasized effort.

Tsay even found that this “naturalness bias” emerges as early as five years old. Kindergarteners listened to two stories, one about a child who was naturally popular and one about a child who worked to achieve social skills and build friendships. The students preferred the naturally social child to the determined child. Tsay writes in the study that, “The naturalness bias is very generalizable across domains, ages and cultures.”

How do we present ourselves?
So, does that mean that inspiration actually trumps perspiration? That inborn talent is actually better than hard work? Not quite. There’s more to the story than meets the eye.

For starters, even though people tend to innately prefer those with natural talent, people also prefer to present themselves as hard workers rather than inherently gifted individuals. For example, the musicians who rated the clips in Tsay’s study above were asked what they thought was more important – hard work or talent, and nearly all of them voted on hard work being the more important factor.

Tsay’s colleague, Clarissa Cortland surveyed 6,000 business leaders on how they accomplished their business and career goals. 80 percent attributed their success to hard work, rather than natural ability. Cortland tells BBC, ““There’s an instinctive shift to ‘striver descriptions’ when self-presentational motives are high.”

These 6,000 leaders are just a few of many accomplished individuals who claimed that their hard work, rather than natural talent, got them where they are today. Acclaimed writer Octavia Butler was quoted as saying, “Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent. 

And, footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo when describing his career journey claimed that, “Talent without work is nothing.” In other words, when it comes to evaluating other’s accomplishments, people seem predisposed to prefer “naturalness,” but when it comes to describing one’s own accomplishments, people seem predisposed to prefer grit and hard work.

Growth mindset
Those people who presented themselves as being the product of effort and perspiration may be onto something. The Harvard Business Review cites the value of a growth mindset. In contrast to a fixed mindset, where one believes their abilities and talents are set in stone, someone with a growth mindset thinks they can expand and improve on their abilities via hard work, learning, and practice. 

Having a growth mindset is linked with a number of benefits, including actually being able to accomplish and achieve more. When it comes to projects that require teamwork or collaboration, companies that emphasize growth mindsets find that their employees are more committed and communicative.

Essentially, this means that whether or not the statement “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” is true or not, just believing that it’s true, and putting in the effort to achieve, can actually provide the inspiration and the perspiration needed for success.

What does this mean for you?
Synthesizing Tsay’s surprising research with the concept of a growth mindset reveals some important strategies that people can use when presenting themselves to others. Firstly, putting in the effort and believing that one’s grit and determination can get them far in life, can actually help one accomplish their goals.

Secondly, as BBC indicates, even though one may be inclined to emphasize hard work over inherent ability, that may not be the best strategy when it comes to presenting oneself. Although people can’t disregard the need for the 99 percent perspiration, people should be aware of the naturalness bias. It may be helpful in some cases to point out or focus on inborn talent.

On the other hand,Christina Brown, an associate professor at Arcadian University in Pennsylvania told BBC that the naturalness bias manifests in solo jobs — things like composing music or developing a business strategy — where there’s one “star performer.”

Brown suggests that in careers where teamwork and cooperation are key factors for succeeding, interviewers and colleagues may actually prefer candidates who emphasize hard work and collaboration.

Overall, Tsay says that nuance and honesty is probably the best strategy. She suggests that when presenting oneself, one doesn’t focus overly on either hard work or natural ability. “It’s possible that we have just been emphasizing all the hours of effort and education,” Tsay says “But there are still some things that probably came easier to us, and it’s OK to reveal those to balance out the narrative.”

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