We are obsessed with the idea of the genius, the talented, and the genetically gifted. We think that great achievers got to their level because of their physical traits or innate abilities and that we could never do the same because we don’t have what they have.
It becomes an excuse not to pursue a craft. We think, “why bother if I don’t have what it takes?” Or even worse, “maybe I should get into something I’m better suited for.”
We overestimate the part that talent and natural abilities play in learning and mastering skills. In most cases, those advantages only account for an edge and not the bulk of elite performance—and only matter in specific fields.
But we still resist that fact.
It’s a resistance based on fear.
We are afraid that regardless of how hard we work, we’ll always be outshined by those who have nature on their side. In other words, we are afraid that even if we give our best we’ll still not be good enough. And that we would have wasted years of effort trying to.
This brings us to another obsession: we fixate on outcomes and comparisons, and we disdain everything that’s not the top.
We don’t want to get into crafts we are not “suited” for. Those in which we believe it is less likely that we will reach elite levels.
It seems like enjoyment, passion, and purpose are not enough anymore. We want to know early on if we have a natural gift for our interest before investing too much time and effort into it—when it’s time and effort that matters most. And if we believe we don’t have those “gifts”—or someone tells us we don’t have them—we don’t even give ourselves a chance. We look somewhere else. Somewhere where we think it would be easier to excel.
And so, we ignore or abandon pursuits to avoid the possibility of giving them our all and still not “measure up.”
It’s here that we need to take perspective and make an important distinction: The best, one of the best, our best.
Let’s discuss each in brief and then make a case for pursuing our craft even if we are not suited for it.
To become the best in many fields, we need a combination of hard work, luck, and yes, good genes or natural abilities. Not everyone can become the new Micheal Phelps or Usain Bolt. That’s not realistic.
The “you can be anything you want” motivational line should come with a “conditions and restrictions may apply.”
A more accurate statement would be, “Through consistent and persistent effort, we can go far in any craft, regardless of natural traits. How far? Maybe not as far as we wished, or maybe further, no one knows—There’s a lot outside of our control that will influence the outcome. The only way to find out is by doing the work.”
Of course, the latter statement is not as catchy. We’ll never see it in a motivation poster, but it’s closer to reality.
ONE OF THE BEST
Becoming one of the best is more under our control. Nature and luck still play a role depending on our craft, but not as significant. You can become one of the best in most fields. Remember: Michael Phelps wasn’t the entire US Olympic swimming team, nor Usain Bolt the entire Jamaican Sprinting team. Becoming one of the best is mostly within our reach if we are willing to work for it.
This is even more the case if we consider subdivisions. If you are in your 60’s, you may not become one of the best swimmers in the world in general, but it’s likely that—through hard work—you could be one of the best senior swimmers in the world, maybe even the best.
Subdivisions are a built-in characteristic of many fighting sports. They have categories to account for what is objectively a physical advantage: weight. So, fighting sports have champions in different categories—even though it’s the same sport. We don’t talk about the best fighter, for instance, but rather the best pound per pound fighter or the best in a weight class.
Finally, becoming our best. This is entirely under our control. Our best is about realizing our potential, given our circumstances and natural traits.
Here, we are not comparing ourselves to others, their luck, or their genes. We are only looking at how much we can improve and make the best of what we have.
Our focus is on being better than we were before, and nothing is in the way of doing that. Incidentally, if we work on becoming our best, we are more likely to become one of the best, and for some, even the best.
The problem is that we don’t even work on becoming our best. We keep our focus on what everyone else is doing, how others have “unfair” advantages and all the ways the “game” is rigged against us.
Most self-help advice tells you to do what you are good at. That’s complacent. Do what you want and become good at it, instead. Work harder and stay longer if you must.
So what if others have an advantage? So what if it takes us longer? So what if we have to put in more work than the rest? So what if we can never become the best? That should not be a reason to stop, quit, or not even try. Is it unfair? Maybe. But that’s our reality, and it’s not about to change anytime soon. We can complain and get nothing done, or we can keep working to improve and see how far we can take our skills.
Let’s imagine your passion is swimming. But let’s also imagine there exists a machine that could tell you with all certainty that you could never become the world’s best swimmer, not even top 10. Hell, not even top 100.
What would you do? Would you give up your passion? Would you exchange it for something you don’t like but are naturally suited for?
So maybe you don’t have the height and reach of Michael Phelps to ever come close to his records—even if you trained as hard as he did. But if you love swimming as much as him, you would swim, regardless of how far you would go.
You should do it for you, for your passion, for what you love. And you should do it as best you can, wearing yourself out chasing the edges of your capabilities.
Don’t you want to know how far you can take your skills? Find out where your limits lie? Is that not worthy and noble enough regardless of how you measure against others?
If we don’t have everything lined up, if we see obstacles ahead, we don’t even want to try. We don’t want to invest time and effort if we don’t know they will “pay off.”
But there’s no way of knowing. Phelps didn’t know he would become “Michael Phelps” when he started. He was just passionate about his sport and worked every day to become his best. It turned out that his best also qualified him as one of the best, and ultimately the best.
But Phelps couldn’t possibly know what lied ahead from the start. No one could. He just committed to the process and gave it his all without knowing how far it would take him.
That’s the example we must follow.
And keep in mind that even if our goal is to become one of the best, or the best, the path is the same. It starts and ends with us focusing on the only part under our control, doing the work, and striving to become OUR BEST.
“There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it.”