How to Fail, Part 3: Talent vs. Hard Work

Smart.  Talented.  Special.  Gifted.  Bright.

Stupid.  Unskilled.  Ordinary.  Average.  Dull.

If you’re not one, you must be the other, right?

No:  there’s a third set of descriptions that’s better than both of the ones above, and it goes like this:

Hard worker.  Dedicated.  Pays attention.  Asks questions.  Practices.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I am going to nag you about getting more writing done eventually, but right now I’m going to talk to you about why you’re going to succeed as a writer even if you don’t think you’re that good at it.  It’s a really easy thing to start thinking, “I’m not talented enough to succeed as a writer,” especially when you’re around a bunch of people who are more successful than you.

I have two studies that will help give some insight into how false it is to think like that.

Study #1:

In 1998, psychologists Carol Dweck and Elaine Elliott1 performed an experiment on 400 different fifth-graders in New York City schools.  They took the kids out of class and had them perform a really easy nonverbal IQ test–a puzzle.  They told half the kids that they were really intelligent; they told the other half of the kids that they had really worked hard on the test.

Then the students were given a choice of the next puzzle to solve.  One test would be harder, but they would learn something from it; the other test would be just as easy.

The majority of kids who were praised for being smart chose the easy test.

But over 90% of the kids who were praised for being hard workers chose the harder test.

There was a trick to the second test:  it was purposely designed to be so hard that all the kids failed it.

Then there was a third test, a doable test.  The kids who were praised for their hard work earlier did 30% better than they did on the super-easy first test.  The kids who were praised for their intelligence did 20% worse.

The psychologists came to the conclusion that you should praise children for the things they can control–like hard work.

What else, as writers, can we take from that?  A few things:

  • If you think (or have been told) you’re talented, you’re more likely to fail after your first setback.
  • If you think you’re talented, you’re less likely to try something challenging or new.
  • If you think you’re a hard worker, you’re more likely to succeed after your first setback than you are when you first start out.
  • If you think you’re a hard worker, you’re more likely to try something challenging or new.

People who think of themselves as hard workers succeed more, doing harder things.  People who think they have some kind of magical inherent talent fail more, doing easier things.

Looking at things from the point of view of being a talented or an untalented writer is useless.  Whether you decide you’re talented or untalented, you’re more likely to fail.  Looking at things from the point of view of being a hard worker is useful; you’re more likely to get better after a setback.

Okay, great.  So how do you change your point of view?  Especially if you believe you’re on the untalented end of the spectrum?

Like many writers, I’m an introvert with problems with self-confidence.  I’m an arrogant perfectionist who both secretly suspects that I defacate diamonds2 and that I am a idiot hack with bad back problems due to constantly having my head up my ass.  I don’t get to magically escape the ideas that I’m both talented an untalented.  I believe them; it’s not like I can just wipe those things out by saying so.  I hate it when people say, “Oh, you should just stop doing or believing stupid things.”  That’s not what I’m trying to say.  You’re never going to get rid of that talent/no talent point of view.

You’re just going to damp it down; you’re not going to let it drive you crazy.

How?  You’re going to teach yourself how to see yourself as a hard worker, whether you think you’re talented, not talented, or both, by doing hard work.

Part of you is going to doubt that hard work is going to do you any good.  That’s okay.  That part of you is a precious thing–it’s your internal editor, and it’s part of what will make you get better instead of staying at your current level.  More about that later.

Let me promise you:  you won’t just be brainwashing yourself; doing the work actually will make you better.

Which brings me to study #2.

K. Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University and an expert on being and becoming an expert.  In the early 1990s, he and his colleagues published studies3 showing that, no matter what the field, people who were national and international experts in their fields spent at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (or at least ten years) to get to that point.

These were people who started out, like you, with some aptitude for their field.  And then they worked.

Let’s turn hours into wordcount–if you’re writing at a rapid, non-nitpicky pace, 1000 words an hour is reasonable (talk to a multiple survivor of NaNoWriMo if you doubt this).  That’s about ten million words that you need to write before you become a national- or international-level writer.  Fussing with the same thousand words for ten thousand hours probably doesn’t count; it’s ten million new words that you need to accomplish.

Sound like a lot of words?

Stephen King, in On Writing, said he writes 2000 words a day, taking off his birthday and Christmas.  That’s 726,000 words a year.  We know he started writing by 1959, when he and his brother self-published a mimeographed paper.  His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1973.  New American Library bought the paperback rights from Doubleday for $400,000, of which King got half.

Fourteen years.  At 2000 words a day, that’s just over 10 million words.

Even so, he later said about Carrie:  “I’m not saying that Carrie is shit and I’m not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”

A lot of people have called him a no-talent hack, but as we saw in Part 2, he’s one of the top ten writers in the world, making $34 million dollars in one year.

In some ways, this is one of the most discouraging things I could have written:  when I said hard work, I meant it, and it’s a hard thing to have to say.  This is not going to encourage the kind of people who say, “I have an idea for a book” or “I’ve been working on my novel for years.”  I’ve been that kind of person, and it’s depressing.

However, I can provide a little additional encouragement:  before Stephen King published Carrie, he had smaller successes.  He self-published some things.  He wrote novels that didn’t sell.  He sold some short stories.  It wasn’t years of absolutely no success and then bam! here’s your $200,000 check.  He had success before that 10-million-word mark.

So, when you can and as much as you can, stop worrying about whether you’re good enough to be a writer.  It’s enough to be able to say, “I love writing, and I’m willing to do the work.”

Next Time:  You Can’t Control Success

1Elliott, E.S., and Dweck, C.S. “Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.
2Thanks, Ian.  I may have to change those metaphors for the conference, but I’m using them now.
3Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” in Psychological Review, 1993, vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406, is one of those articles.

4 thoughts on “How to Fail, Part 3: Talent vs. Hard Work”

  1. Great Blog post. Most people don’t realize how much work it takes to really get good at your craft, especially when it comes to writing. When you look at the 10,000 hour or 10 years number, it seems really daunting, but I can corroborate what you say–there are a lot of little successes we can have along the way, and it’s rewarding in itself to see vast improvement in your work year after year if you put in the hard work.

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  3. I feel like you wrote this for me. I keep hearing that (now big) voice that says, “I’m not good enough to be a writer.” That’s usually about the time I stop writing altogether. If I force myself to sit down and write, though, I feel a lot better; I feel like I can actually make my dreams come true.

    Thanks, De. I really enjoy your posts.

    1. In a way, that’s funny. I don’t write them for you, but for the person I was in high school and college. “If I could travel back in time, this is what I would tell myself about writing.”

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