I attended hundreds of youth hockey games when Owen was playing. One of the many rinks he played at had a large banner hanging from the rafters that said, “Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard.”
The message made sense to me because it offered some hope and a way to level the playing field for the less naturally gifted against the talented. Owen wasn’t moved as much–he just wanted to play hockey games.
“Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard” was attributed to a high school basketball coach, Tim Notke, and became widely known when repeated by NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who said this was the quote that helped him achieve his goals.
Mostly I’ve seen the quote applied in sports situations, and that’s what made me think about it again recently—tennis season is here. I’ve never been the most talented tennis player. I have average hand-eye coordination, can still move pretty well, and have a wingspan that covers a lot of court. But natural athletic ability? Not so much.
Now that the weather is fine, I’ve started up a regular game of singles with a tennis friend, who hits a much nicer ball than I do. For me to win, I keep thinking I have to work harder than he does. That means planning my shot pattern, focusing on every ball, anticipating the next shot, chasing every ball down. The truth is, I don’t really do those things, at least not consciously in the “hard work” sense. Once the point starts it’s mostly chaos, whether we have a long rally or a quick winner or error. It doesn’t feel like I’m working hard or not hard. I’m just trying not to screw up my shots and hoping maybe he does.
We split most of our sets. He wins, I win. I win, he wins. It’s the perfect situation for friendly, competitive play. But I wonder if I found a way to work a little harder I could win more often. I’m not even sure I would know how to do that. I’m not going to practice hitting a ball against a backboard or take lessons or go out with a bucket of balls and work on my serve. All that “work hard” stuff takes away the fun of just playing—except for when I play badly and the “work hard” stuff starts to nag me.
Hard work beating talent when talent doesn’t work hard applies not just to sports, but to most things any of us do. Writing is another case for me. I may have a morsel of talent as a writer, but mostly I have to show up at my desk and work hard through many revisions to get anything written.
My real interest in the quote isn’t to motivate me to work harder to become a better writer or tennis player or anything else. My interest is in what remains unstated—the subtext of the quote. It’s not as You Go Girl! and You can do it! as one might hope. Sure, your hard work can beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard, but I’ve found that talent tends to work hard too, and when that happens, you’re screwed. Because talent + hard work > hard work. Just about every time.
But if you’re not super talented, all you’ve got left is hard work if you want to achieve anything. And luck. You also need a healthy dose of luck.