The Key to Success is Not Competence, but Persistence

Misconception Month – Persistence, not Competence. An article about how the dangers of talent and how persistence leads to a better, sustainable success.

Persistence Not Competence | Cover photo

The unholy obsession that we as a people have with genius, competence, and ‘natural talent’ is a toxic mess. We often don’t realize it. It’s an ingrained part of our culture (or at least, across popular and easily accessible cultures) to emphasize talent in children as a focal point of their worth.

We appreciate children for being talented, but there are pitfalls in that appreciation that we disregard. As adults, our praise is conditional. We mean to say that children are well-formed or skilled FOR THEIR AGE. But a child cannot possibly make that distinction.

There is no such thing as an overnight success. It takes years of hard work to be able to take advantage of timing and opportunity.

We also make a habit of black-boxing talent for children and adults alike. There is a concept in computer programming called ‘Data Abstraction’ which states that you should reduce your main program to its essential features, and hide away all other functionalities. We do that with effort. Because we are not privy to the lives of others, we see their successes as pure talent or luck, based on whether we want to be encouraging or disparaging.

Competence and talent are not traits we should put on a pedestal. Like race, gender, class, and wealth, talent is another circumstance of birth. Notice how our societies are obsessed with all of those – we have an unhealthy obsession with what someone had before they were even born. A rich white cisgendered male noble is the ultimate being – or at least used to be, before we started fighting that conditioning.

Pokemon |  Persistence, Not Competence
Pokemon the Movie captured it best.

Take the time now to talk to someone whom you consider successful. They can be wealthy, or have a good job, or be athletic, or just happy. Call that person and ask them about that success. Chances are they’ll tell you about their effort and persistence, if you prod them enough.

Why is persistence better than competence?

Competence and talent limit you if you haven’t earned them. They shut you off from learning and growing more, because you already think you know everything. Persistence keeps your motivation running. You fail regularly and become equipped to handle that failure. Hence, you are able to appreciate the difficulty of your task and the effort you put into it. A fellow blogger, Chris Brecheen, wrote a great article about this, which you can See Here.

Competence is achievable through persistence, but you can never become persistent or dedicated through being good at something. You get the best of both worlds from passionately putting hours into your craft.

There’s a reason it is difficult to be consistent with a task – because A) we are building expertise through mistakes and experience, which is hard to track and appreciate, and B) because we respect effortlessness over effort. We prefer our heroes to slay dragons AND look cool while doing it. Nobody wants to see the sweaty, chafed, and tired hero, because we’ve been told that sweat and fatigue are bad things.

If you are a parent, I would encourage you to focus on building the skill of commitment and persistence in your children. Allow them to throw themselves into whatever they do – academics, art, sport, or communication. Whatever they choose, lift their spirits when they feel like quitting. Your child will appreciate it when they’re older. The best bet for a successful career and life is to build that habit as an integral part of your character.

Examples of Wasted Potential

The entertainment industry is much more demanding than we sometimes think. One school of thought says actors have easy lives because they don’t work with heavy machinery or in dangerous environments. However, the stress of public life, coupled with the need to constantly grow as a versatile performer (and audition every time) is not the easiest path to take – it’s a cutthroat industry.

Along with sports, the acting industry is full of examples of talent versus persistence. Lindsey Lohan (Freaky Friday), Amanda Bynes (The Amanda Show) and Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone), among others, were some of the most promising talented performers the acting world had ever seen. But they fell by the wayside for various reasons.

It would be cruel to play down their drug addictions or family trouble or other personal issues, and pretend that all they needed to do was believe. That’s not what I’m saying. However, there is no doubt that they had all the talent in the world, but solely relying on it cannot be sustainable.

On the other hand, performers like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are poster-boys of persistence. They are successful because they put effort into their craft, carved out niches for themselves, and ran with it.

Adam Levine of Maroon 5 once stated in an interview that he was glad Maroon 5 got mainstream success late because he felt they were better equipped to handle success as they became older.

If you’re going to chase success, the best thing you can do is believe two things – that you know nothing, and that you can learn by trying.

This post is the first of four in a series called ‘Misconception Month’. Every Thursday in April (12 PM IST), I’ll be releasing another post from the series, and they’ll all be about a common misconception that we might not really give its due attention. I hope you enjoyed this read and found it worth thinking about.

Do you agree or disagree with the ideas in this article? Tell me below.