Why Talent Isn’t Enough for Success


america's got talent

At first glance talent seems to be the biggest indicator of success in any field. Those who have it rise to the top and those without it are left behind. It’s the basic premise behind all the success stories you see in movies or TV.

But talent isn’t everything. It’s very useful and certainly helps, but it doesn’t seem to be the main underlying force behind success. And if you look at it closely, you’ll realize why.

Failure Exists for Talent Too

Most people only pay attention to those who have successfully made it in their profession. Writers, actors and businesspeople all have enough to become well known in their field. After all, the reason you know who they are is because they’ve all become successful at what they do.

But this doesn’t take into account all of the people who have just as much talent or even more who you’ve never heard of. These are people who for one reason or another have decided to quit pursuing their dreams despite having enough talent for success. And there are more out there like this than you might realize.

Everyone has setbacks and failures, but how you respond to them makes all the difference in pursuit of your goals. Some famous examples of failures include Michael Jordan being cut from his High School basketball team or Lucille Ball being told early in her career that she would never make it as an actress.

These could just be considered humorous quirks of history. But what if both of these obviously talented people had taken to heart these setbacks and quit? Everyone has to face and overcome their self-doubts. If either of these famous people had never overcome their doubts, they would have led much different lives.

Of course you don’t hear about the people who gave up despite their talent. They never pushed themselves to develop their talent further and become famous because of it. And unfortunately, people like this are much more common than you think.

No Early Support for Talent

One of the biggest obstacles you have to overcome is simply being able to recognize your own talent. If you aren’t aware of your own abilities and how you compare to others, it can be difficult to build confidence in yourself. This is especially true when you are just starting out.

For example, you could be a great actor, but if you don’t get any parts that showcase your talent, it can be difficult for you to realize how good you really are. This isn’t too far from reality either. Many great actors have to struggle for years and take dozens of bit parts before making it big.

And then there is the difficulty of getting others to realize your talent. An informal study was conducted a few years ago where researchers had a famous and hugely talented violinist, Josh Bell, play for money in a New York Subway Terminal. Despite his ability to fill massive concert halls, he received little attention from passers-by.

If more talent means more success, than he should have received more money than average. However this wasn’t the case. The money he earned was typical of other violinists who play for money in the area. There was one exception though. One person who listened for about an hour left a $20 bill. It turns out that this person had recognized him and was a fan.

Untalented People DO succeed

Then you have to take into account the untalented. People without any discernible talent do succeed sometimes. Look at the field of acting again. There are many actors who have little to no talent, but still find work.

For instance, Keanu Reeves was cast as Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. While there are a few roles suitable for him to play, Shakespeare is not one of them. Just watching his terrible performance makes you wonder why all those other actors who would excel in the role were not hired instead.

What Matters then?

So if talent isn’t completely necessary, than what is? There are many factors that seem to play their part along with talent such as confidence, opportunity and luck. All of them are very important for success, but the biggest one seems to be persistence despite setbacks.

I’ve read a lot of success stories and they all seem to be similar. The person fails, fails, fails and fails again. There are very minor victories along the way. Despite all of this, the person continues and believes in what they are doing. Eventually a lucky opportunity comes around and they succeed.

Only after that happens do people look back and think how inevitable their success really was. But until that time, you get nothing but setbacks and doubt. Despite all those failures, talented people continue to persist until they reach their goals. That’s something so few movies with rags-to-riches stories seem to realize.
photo credit: Dörnveek Märkkstyrn

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  1. Persistence and hard work are, for me, the keys to becoming ‘talented’. Even if you are talented your talented will not be enough to succeed without persistence and hard work.

    One thing you often see in successful people is that they are graceful for every little victory they have and every little goal they achieve.

    John C. Maxwell has a great book – ‘Talent isn’t everything’ – about this same topic.

    • I haven’t read that book, but I’m going to have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I think you’re right. Persistence and hard work are very important to success in anything. I will admit that there is also a good element of luck too. For instance, if you’re just not physically built to be a gymnast, no amount of persistence and hard work will make a difference. Plus, there are people who make it big just by being in the right place at the right time.

      I agree with what you say about successful people being graceful for every little victory and goal too. I’d like to point out that many successful people strike a good balance between their victories and mistakes. Too much focus on the negative setbacks without remembering the little victories can be discouraging and makes many give up.

  2. Have you seen the video of the violinist? The neatest part of the whole thing is that only the children showed any interest in him.

    Imagine that? Kids know whats good. Adults… we just learn to ignore everything.

    • I watched the video of Joshua Bell playing in the subway, but I don’t think that this is the video you’re referring to. But it is interesting that kids see the world differently from adults. I wonder if it is because adults push things into the background more. We are much more focused and can ignore things happening around us that kids notice.

  3. You can’t control luck and trends and all that stuff. So you need persistence. That’s a constant if you’re willing to grind everyday. Keep at it or make changes until the fight formula comes out of it!

    • To a certain extent you can’t control luck. There are some things you can do to become more lucky. In fact, I wrote a post about that. But there’s only so much you can do to be lucky. And often those persistent enough to succeed can be thought of as lucky by others even though luck didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s a matter of finding a way that works for you and keep moving towards your goals.

  4. Steve,
    Makes me wonder sometimes how people with less talent make it to the top and why some talented people never seem to get a break.

    • I wonder that too. Sometimes I think it comes from poor decision making by people who can control who makes it to the top. It’s like a story I read about J.K. Rowling. She sent her first Harry Potter book to many publishers and kept getting rejected. Fortunately, she didn’t give up. Imagine how many people did give up and now the world is worse off because of it.

  5. Sometimes it’s just knowing someone too. I think that’s how many actors and actresses get roles in Hollywood movies. There are way more talented people for the role but that one person may have a connection that lands them the role.

    Also reminds me of athletes. Very talented high school players get recruited and sign with a major college football program. Then they suck. Why? Probably laziness. They have the talent that the coaches saw but something else was missing. Then those who did excel get drafted to the NFL. Tons of talent in the eyes of the teams but then there’s so many that are busts. For one reason or another, they don’t succeed on the next level, despite having talent.

    And I’m sure Jordan would say he wouldn’t have been the best player in NBA history if he just relied on talent alone. It took way more than that.

    • Networking really helps. That’s why so many people recommend it in job-searching. The same applies to Hollywood. Harrison Ford became a big movie star because he did some cabinet repairs for George Lucas who went on to feature him in American Graffiti and Star Wars.

      You make a good point with your football analogy. Some top prospects fizzle out. The same happens in other sports too. It’s interesting that many players can do well in High School and not be able to make it in college. I think that when the competition becomes more fierce and they realize that they aren’t the top player anymore they get discouraged and frustrated. If you can’t overcome that frustration barrier, you’ll never get better and just quit. Maybe all you need is something like a drive to improve yourself no matter what.

  6. One of my favorite famous stories about someone overcoming setbacks is Fred Astaire who heard during a talent screening: Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances. Just goes to show that sometimes talent can be misread by someone responsible for making decisions. This should be required reading whenever I encounter an obstacle. Nice post Steve.

    • I’ve never heard that story about Fred Astaire before. For someone who has so much talent, it’s interesting that someone would say that about him. But you’re right that it just shows that decision-makers can make bad decisions that keep people with talent away from the top. After all, they’re human and, like all humans, make mistakes.

  7. Steve,

    Great post. I have tried to rely on my talent for years to get me to success and so far all I have is an upset stomach and some credit card debt. :-) I think in life the people who are the most successful are the people who can endure through their challenges and overcome difficult situations and finish better than they were when went into them. Talent is never enough. Thanks for this insightful post.

    • Everyone has to go through challenges and difficult situations to get where they want to be. But coming out of them in a better, stronger position is important. That’s something to keep in mind the next time a setback happens.

  8. Just read the post (with Jason Bell). Awesome read.
    I think part of the techniques nowadays is to have good marketing strategy. It’s all business nowadays which is pretty sad.

  9. Doesn’t it suck to know that sometimes success is simply determined by being in the right place at the right time? It’s all about putting yourself out there over and over again and hoping for the best. Great article Steve.

    • I agree that putting yourself out there over and over again helps out a lot. It’s not glamorous to think that repeated exposure will get you to where you want to be, but it works. A part of success can sometimes just be a numbers game.

  10. The title alone caught my attention on this one.

    This post makes me think of the Steve Jobs quote, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking back.”

    We have no idea what our future holds. Talented or not that is only one of the variables to success. And when I hear all these success stories most have similar frameworks how everything leading up to their success, good or bad, was necessary for them to be where they are standing right now.


    • Great Steve Jobs quote. It’s only after everything has been done does it all seem clear and inevitable. But in the moment, you don’t have that same sense of certainty. The present and future are unpredictable. Even with talent, you can’t predict success.

  11. I like this post and must say that I agree with you. Having talent is not enough. And for some of the partially talented, having a great marketing team–and money–can help with making it. And who they know, of course.

    I feel for those who are super talented and don’t make it and/or aren’t recognized for it. It’s a shame.

    • I feel bad for those with talent who don’t make it too. There is something to be said for great marketing teams and money. I think that if you have enough of both, you can often squeeze your way to the top despite a lack of discernible talent.

  12. continuous improvement works for me… your competition will easily catch up on what you know.. evolve and be on the forefront of the game :-)

  13. It’s true, I think. Talent isn’t enough. The movie star example is a great one and something that’s bothered me in the past. So many actors whom I think are far less talented than others are famous for years, getting role after role while the actors I like just melt away. I think it’s less a matter of talent and more a matter of poor managers, publicists, networking and whatever besides talent that an actor needs to survive.

    One painful example of not quite seeing success despite having talent and many other powerfully positive attributes is Al Gore. He’s brilliant, politically talented if there is such a thing and would be an awesome leader. Unfortunately, he seems to have given up running for the presidency after many tries. I don’t think he’s going to try it again. I can understand this now, as sometimes you just get so wiped out you can’t stomach trying anymore. Maybe this is along the lines of what happened to him. His lack of success in this area, though, is definitely multi-faceted.

    • I think the people supporting you can make a big difference too. Poor managers, publicists and networking can all help in becoming successful. Even the most talented of people need people to take care of duties around them. And if you don’t have anyone competent helping you out, you’re going to be at a disadvantage. This could help explain why some bad actors keep getting high profile roles.

  14. It seems that many folks seem to think that talent and hard work is what is needed to be successful at the goals and dreams they pursue. I often hear people proclaim that they “work hard” and yet success still seems to be out of their reach. Folks need to persistently work hard at deliberate practice that is explicitly intended to improve performance. I think why most people do not achieve greatness is because hard work and deliberate practice year after year is just too demanding.

  15. I’d just like to note – not as a critique but for improvement – that Joshua Bell’s experiment was in Washington, D.C. and not New York.

  16. The extremely talented British actress Daniela Denby- Ashe is not recognized by the Hollywood so far. Daniela Denby-Ashe gave an astounding performance in North and south, Tourchwood. Keira Knightley does not it for the role of Anna Karenina . Daniela Denby Ashe would have been perfect for the role of Anna Karenina. Daniela Denby Ashe is incredibly talented. she is the most underrated actress. Daniela Denby Ashe has a charm and can act whereas the actresses Jennifer Aniston, Cate Blanchett. Rosamaund Pike cannot act.

  17. I’m going through this big time with my animation dreams. Been wanting to have my own series since I was two, I’m 22 now and I’ve got a YT page that’s got some semi-popularity to it (click on name)-but it feels like I’ll never be as big as the giblet heads like RayJohnson or AnnoyingOrange.

    I also lose every animation contest I enter, period. But do I stop? Hell no, I know there’s a higher purpose to all the struggle, and I know I’ll be there someday.

    On the side my musical theater career is also moving along at a similar (though slightly faster) pace. I’ve finally experienced my first set back (losing a principal character to a new highschool face-this comes after having two leads at the same theatre…gotta give new blood a chance just like I once got mines right?) but I know roles factor in a lot of other things besides voice and acting, namely looks, weight, height, etc.

    The hard part though is GETTING SEEN in either field. I notice big animators like HarryPatridge got recognition to where big sites or celebrities would reference their work, and I wonder HOW their work was found/seen. Of course there’s always the broadway star who nailed that audition for their big break (with all the stuff Equity requires GETTING that audition is the hard part).

    Alas, no such thing as giving up, just going. 2011-2012 has been fail, fail, fail, fail but this article has really put it all into perspective for me-making me feel like I’m NOT a stubborn idiot for still going. :-)

  18. German Man says:

    Remember that the only person who won’t give up on you is yourself.

    I have been at my photography craft for almost 14 years now and still have yet to get paid well for it. I still shoot film and refuse to compromise my purist values in the ever-changing disposable world we live in.

    Keep up the good fight, respectively.

  19. john kennedy says:

    i think that if you are really talented…that talent will eventually rise to the top.Talent is talent even if you dont have a large audience to appreciate your talent. Maybe like Van Gogh you will be recognized & appreciated after your death. So never give up & continue to live your life & make your life a work of creation & art. There are also many mediocre talented people that make it due to hard graft & a bit of luck etc.(in the sense that they can make a career of their talent ). You also need to be born in the right place & have the right environment to nurture your talent. Evonne Goolagong became a world class tennis player because she had a wonderful talent but also she was supported in a special way. Now she & her husband devote their time to nurturing aboriginal young people to realize their dreams.


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