Mike's Mailbag: Does Hard Work Beat Talent? Does it Matter?

Mike's Mailbag: Does Hard Work Beat Talent? Does it Matter?

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, August 14, 2017

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country.  If you have a question to ask me, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com, and I’ll do my best to answer your question online atsftest.usaswimming.org or in Splash Magazine.


Dear Mike,


I’ve been swimming all year round for almost 6 years now, and I really enjoy all parts of the sport: the practices, meets and my teammates. I’ve improved a lot since I first started, but I haven’t been improving that much these past few years, even though I go to practice every day, work hard, and even go to the optional morning practices to work on my strokes and technique. I care a lot about swimming, and really want to do better, but I don’t have that much talent, just the will and drive to work hard.


I know there’s this saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” and I used to think that was true, but now I’m not so sure. I have talented friends who don’t come to practice that often, and when they do, they don’t drive half the time, and they don’t really care about the sport, but they keep improving and getting faster than me. This frustrates me as someone who is dedicated to the sport and tries their best to do well in every practice, even though I’m not improving that much.


I was wondering what your thoughts were on this subject, and if you had any advice on improvement,


Thank you,


Frustrated Swimmer




Hey Frustrated Swimmer,


I like that saying about hard work — it’s a nice thought. I’d like to believe that hard work will always beat talent. It makes it seem like everything we do has an order to it. That our endeavors and pursuits will always have fair results.


But you’re right.


Pure talent sometimes wins. Sometimes, naturally-gifted people who don’t work very hard will beat a competitor who wanted it more, trained harder, woke up at 5 a.m., worked, and worked, and worked — and still lost.


I have never considered myself talented at anything, including swimming. Swimming never came naturally to me. Some have a “natural feel” for the water. /that was never me. I worked hard, every day, every practice. I attended morning practices, ran before school, lifted weights on weekends, and worked hard.


Along my journey, I met many types of swimmers. Talented. Not-so-talented. Some were very talented and beat me all the time. Others were not talented, but trained harder than I thought possible. Along the way, I beat hard workers, and I lost to hard workers. And, sometimes, lazy, naturally-gifted swimmers kicked my butt, and I’d so get mad and frustrated. And, sometimes, I won, and lost, and in the end, I ended up somewhere in the middle of the pack, where talented people and untalented people and hard workers and not-hard-workers ended up, too.


Those types of sayings you quoted in your letter give people a sense of order. They make this big, messy world of ours seem like it isn’t so messy. “If you work hard, then you will win.” But they can be a little misleading…


Will hard work beat talent that doesn’t work hard? Sure, but not all the time. Will talented people beat people who work hard? Absolutely, but not all the time.


Instead of worrying about sayings and other people’s successes, failures, talents, and work ethics, worry about yourself. Worry about your own path. If you swim, will you stop swimming because a naturally gifted athlete beats you? If you’re an architect, will you stop designing because someone who put less time and energy into a design gets a certain contract? If you’re a jazz pianist, will you stop playing because someone who practiced less is the band you’ve wanted to be in?


I used to think “more talented” swimmers who “trained less” didn’t deserve to win.


But who are we to judge? If someone swims fast, they’re fast. If they win, they won. It’s not up to us to judge their path. Judging them will not make our own path to victory arrive sooner.


Just live your own life. Let go of envy, jealousy, and expectation. Work hard because you like to work hard, chase your pursuits with every ounce of passion you have, and appreciate having the opportunity. And if someone else beats you, tip your hat, and continue on. In other words: Don’t let anyone else stop you from living the life you want to. Don’t just follow your heart — chase it, work hard to chase it, and if you do that, no matter where it leads you, despite who beats you, you will find contentment.


I hope this helps. 



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