You are so talented! You have a gift. You’re a natural.

Have you ever heard those words? Ever said them to someone else? On the surface, they seem like positive, encouraging words. But the question is…what did they have to do to earn them? Well, if someone is talented, they have a gift, or are a natural, the answer is nothing. They simply had to be born.

So if someone is born talented, how do they get better? Get born-again? Of course, the answer is practice, but why should they practice? They are, after all, a “natural.” Undoubtedly, talent can help, but there’s nothing anyone can do to improve their talent. They can only do things with their talent.

Psychologist Carol Dweck, among others, suggests that when you offer someone feedback, positive or negative, it should be about the process not the person. A person, to some degree, is fixed. Their process, of course, can change.

If you say to someone, “you are”. That is a fixed statement. And it connects to what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. If you focus on the process and “how” they did something, that leads to what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.

Think about it in terms of sales. Someone is told they are a natural salesperson. They have “the gift”. Seems positive enough right? But what happens when they don’t make a sale? Who is to blame? Themselves. If this happens enough, they either question their identity as a natural salesperson or worse, they start to avoid anything that will challenge that identity.

The classic example is a child learning piano. They play with the piano and they do really well for having not taken lessons and their parents applaud their natural talent. The child learns that it is good to learn quickly and if you have to work it, you’re not good. Of course, as everyone knows, to become proficient at anything, including piano, what do you have to do? Practice. But practice takes work and if you have to work at it, you’re not really good.

See the conundrum?

So what’s the solution? Focus on the process, not the person. Instead of “you’re a natural,” you could say, “I appreciate how hard you worked on that” or “I liked how you thought through the various options before deciding what to do.” It’s not the talent that makes someone successful; it is how they use their talent through the process.

I remember as a teenager when I first picked up a guitar. I’d always wanted to play one and my first chance was at my friend Brian’s house. Unfortunately, I was awful and my “friend” told me I was the worst guitar player he’d ever heard. Well, I rejected his label, saved money to buy a guitar and started practicing every day. Years later, I had the opportunity to perform with different bands and people would often say, “You’re so talented.” But I knew it had nothing to do with talent, it was all about the years of daily practice that I put into it.

Now, if I try something new and I don’t succeed right away, I’m thankful. Because if I’m successful right out of the gate and I didn’t struggle to figure it out and learn, then I have no idea what to do when something goes wrong. Similarly, the best coaches are not always the best players. The best coaches are the ones who struggled to be successful because they had to work it by focusing on improving their process.

If you happen to be a “natural,” that’s okay…just don’t get caught up in the identity. Focus on the process so you can handle setbacks and turn good to great!

Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work.
– Albert Einstein



John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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