5 Ways to Sleep More, Stress Less and have More Free Time
July 24, 2016
The Power of Perspective: I "Want" to Practice vs. I "Have" to Practice
August 21, 2016
Failure, Success, and Talent
May 23, 2017
The Dream that Nearly Died
Meet Tom. Tom was once a young boy from San Francisco. Some of his friends affectionately called him Tommy.
Tommy always had a passion for sports. His dad took him to professional sports games in San Francisco since he was four years old. During his freshman year of high school, he started playing quarterback, but he wasn't very good at it. Tom could not run very fast, nor could he jump very high. He couldn't throw well either. As a freshman, his team lost every game with an 0-8 record, and Tom wasn't even the starting QB. He was so bad that even an 0-8 team didn't want to put him on the field.
Despite his lack of natural talent, Tom worked very hard at football. He had a great passion for it, and he wanted to become great, no matter how difficult it may be. He made some great improvements through high school. Tom had a dream just like many high school boys: he wanted to play college football and go on to become an NFL superstar. Tom's hard work started to pay off, and it was just enough to get him recruited to play college football for the University of Michigan Wolverines.
Tom started at the bottom of Michigan's QB depth chart, which began the year with seven players. But Tom kept working very, very hard, just like he had in high school, and by his sophomore year, he was the second-best QB on the team.
Then the starting quarterback left for the NFL, and Tom became the new starter. Tom helped his team win 10 games that year - an admirable feat for any college football team. Still, Tom had not won over the coaching staff, which considered benching him in favor of their newest prodigy, a young man named Drew.
The first game of Tom's senior year approached, and he knew that he might lose his starting job to Drew. Their head coach was unable to decide who he liked better, so Tom and Drew split time as the starter for the first five games of the year. Both of them played well, and Michigan won their first five games.
In the sixth game against rival Michigan State, the Wolverines got into a 17 point hole with Drew, who was not playing very well that day. The head coach put in Tom, and Tom almost rallied Michigan back to win the game. Despite the fact that he couldn't make up for Drew's mistakes, Tom played great. After having another great game the following week, Tom secured his job as the starting QB for the rest of the season, and led Michigan to an overtime victory against Alabama in the Orange Bowl, which was the equivalent of a major playoff game in college football at the time.
Despite his role in leading Michigan to another successful season, Tom was not drawing the eye of NFL teams. As an individual player, he still had major flaws that seemed to indicate that he did not have the talent to play in the NFL. A NFL Draft report on him read as follows:
-lacks great physical stature and strength
-lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush
-lacks a really strong arm
-can't drive the ball downfield
-does not throw a really tight spiral
- system type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib
-gets knocked down easily
You may not understand all of the football jargon, but you can tell the NFL scouts didn’t think very highly of him. At the NFL Combine, which is used to determine college players' skills, he had the worst vertical jump and 40 yard dash times ever for for a QB. Of the 576 QBs to complete these drills in the combine, he was the worst. Tom worked so hard to become a better quarterback, but he just wasn't a naturally talented athlete, and it showed.
Poor Tom watched round after round of the NFL draft go by with his family. Each team passed up on him time and time again, round after round after round. Tommy's family comforted him, assured him everything would be alright, but he had seen enough. After the the fifth round, as the draft was coming to a close, Tom got very emotional, stopped watching, and left the house. He couldn't stand it anymore. He didn't want to work a 9-5 job doing something he wasn’t passionate about. His dream was to play in the NFL, and that dream was about to die.
But at the end of the draft, one team took a risk on Tom that would forever change the world of professional sports. Finally, with the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected Tom Brady, who went on to win more Super Bowl Championships and Super Bowl MVP awards than any player in NFL history.
How did this happen? How was it that the most successful QB in NFL history was overlooked 198 times? Or perhaps the better question is: how did a poor athlete with so little natural talent become the best QB in NFL history? Isn’t talent quintessential to such remarkable success? Or is natural ability less important than we’re led to believe?
Case Study: NFL QBs
The position of the NFL quarterback is the most influential in all of professional sports. In no other sport is there a single player who touches the ball on every offensive play of every game. This being so, a very high amount of an NFL team's success can be attributed straight to the QB. For this reason, studying NFL QBs and their histories is a great way to determine talent’s role in equation of success.
Before analyzing this study, it’s important to ask a simple question: What is talent?
Talent is often defined as a natural or innate ability that allows someone to succeed at something with relative ease. Talent is something that you’re born with, something determined by your DNA.
If talent or natural ability is the key factor to success, we would expect all Super Bowl-champion QBs to have been top-shelf athletes throughout their careers, from high school all the way through the NFL. After all, if talent is to be defined as natural ability that you're born with, it remains a constant variable throughout your entire life. If talent is what you’re born with, then it can’t be taken away from you, or altered in any way. Talent can't change over time.
However, there are a number of other factors that can change over time. Work ethic, coaching, experience - and these are the things that explain changes in ability.
As I mentioned before, in a world where talent reigns supreme, we would expect most (if not all) Super Bowl-champion QBs to be 5-star recruits out of high school, and we would expect them to be 1st round picks in the NFL draft. But is that so??
Here is a list of 21st century Super Bowl Champion QB's and their NFL Draft Position:
2000: Kurt Warner - Undrafted
2001: Trent Dilfer - 1st round
2002: Tom Brady - 6th round
2003: Brad Johnson - 9th round
2004: Tom Brady - 6th round
2005: Tom Brady - 6th round
2009: Ben Reothlisberger - 1st round
2007: Peyton Manning - 1st round
2008: Eli Manning - 1st round
2009: Ben Reothlisberger - 1st round
2010: Dress Brees - 2nd round
2011: Aaron Rodgers - 1st round
2012: Eli Manning - 1st round
2013: Joe Flacco - 1st round
2014: Russell Wilson - 3rd round
2015: Tom Brady - 6th round
2016: Peyton Manning - 1st round
2017: Tom Brady - 6th round
Interestingly, we find that the QBs drafted in the 1st round have not won more Super Bowls than QBs drafted in the later rounds, or who weren't drafted at all. It's a tie: 9-9.
Furthermore, it is necessary to point out that not all of the first round picks were deemed as “talented” players either, and they faced a lot of challenges to become rising stars by the time the entered the NFL Draft.
Coming out of high school, Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was not recruited by a single Division I college, and began his college career at Butte Community College in northern California.
Steelers QB Ben Reothlisberger was recruited by very few big name schools as well, and the schools who did show interest wanted him for other positions. They didn't think he was a fit to play QB. Reothlisberger was forced to play his college career at the University of Miami in Ohio, which has never had a strong football program.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco was only a three-star (out of five) recruit coming out of high school. After his junior year of college, he asked the head football coach at the University of Delaware (a mediocre program at best) for permission to quit football and pursue baseball, thinking he had no future in the NFL.
The media often glorifies these athletes after they have reached their prime, but we rarely hear about the stories of tremendous failure and hardship that preceded success. These athletes faced every ounce of fear and doubt we do. They had numerous "experts" say they weren't cut out to make it - and yet they became the very best in the world. Not because they got a lucky draw in the gene pool, but because they recognized their weaknesses, experimented with solutions, and refused to give up chasing the vision they had for themselves.
The Untold Stories: Failure
Nearly all people of great accomplishment have faced incredible failures and shortcomings. For example:
Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he “lacked imagination”
J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected for publication 12 times
Oprah was fired from her first television job
Abraham Lincoln lost political elections for 14 straight years before finally being elected to the US House of Representatives
Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected 28 times
Steven Spielburg was rejected from the film school at the University of Southern California
Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times in creating the electric light bulb
Henry Ford went bankrupt multiple times before successfully founding the Ford Motor Company
It can be easy to assume J.K. Rowling was always a gifted writer, or that Steven Spielburg was always a talented filmmaker, but the reality is that when they started, they weren’t very good at all. Nobody is. Being an expert doesn’t mean that you never fail. In fact, these experts failed more than anybody, because they had to get through a rough stage of failures before they could become incredibly successful. Everyone must go through these challenges at some point, and the legends are no exception.
The Unorthodox Experiment
The other aspect of incredible success that is sometimes overlooked is the role of training. When looking at the elite professionals in any field, whether it be sports, music, writing or acting, the one thing that everyone has in common is an incredible quality and quantity of training, often from a very young age.
In the late 1960’s, a Hungarian psychologist named László Polgár had a crazy idea for an experiment that would forever change the science of expertise. After studying numerous world-class professionals and child prodigies, he formulated a hypothesis that what made these people so extraordinary was not necessarily that they had a special talent, but rather that they started training at a very young age. To test his hypothesis, Polgár wanted to have children and raise all of them to become world-class experts in the same field. Furthermore, in a developing world culture where very few women achieved world-class expertise in anything, he hoped to have some female children, who would prove his hypothesis even more convincingly. But first, he needed to find a wife willing to entertain his unorthodox ideas.
Fortunately, László Polgár met his future wife, Klara, who agreed to his marriage proposal (and all of the strings attached). They had three children - all of them girls. László was delighted.
László believed “that any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday, and they begin to specialise at six.” However,, for the purposes of his experiment, he wanted to choose a field that was very objective and easy to measure. László and Klara decided that chess would fit the experiment very well, and so it was decided that every Polgár child would be raised into a chess prodigy. Furthermore, though Polgár knew how to play chess, he was by no means an expert at it. This would serve him well to defend his experiment against claims that he passed a special “talent” for chess on to his children.
The first Polgár child, Susan (in Hungarian, Zsuzsanna), was born in April 1969. Following Polgár’s model, she started studying chess as a toddler, and she won the Budapest Girls’ Under-11 Championship with ten wins, zero loses and zero ties at just four years old. To say Polgár was thrilled would be an understatement: this was absolutely unheard of! Young Susan was too young to start Kindergarten, yet she went undefeated in a tournament against opponents who were nearly in middle school, all thanks to László’s formula. At 15 years old, Susan became the #1 ranked female chess player in the world and she went on to become the first woman to ever achieve the coveted distinction of grandmaster through the same path that the males took (two other women had been named grandmasters, but did so by winning female-only tournaments).
The second Polgár child, Sofia (Zsófia) was born in 1974. Sofia also had a successful childhood career, which peaked at the age of 14 when she dominated a (mostly male) tournament in Rome, going undefeated in nine games. She posted a chess rating of 2735 for the tournament - one of the highest scores in recorded history, and she achieved an overall career rating as high as 2540. Despite passing threshold rating of 2500 required for grandmaster status, the title was never given to her. Much of the male chess establishment was not fond of the Polgár sisters, so politics were likely (and sadly) involved. Still, László Polgár had successfully created a world-class talent for the second time. His science had been proven well enough as things stood, but his greatest accomplishment had yet to come.
The last Polgár child, Judit, was born in 1976. By the time Judit was born, László had become something of an expert himself. For seven years he had been discovering the best training methods with the older daughters, and by this point, the walls of the Polgár living room were lined with hundreds of chess books. Furthermore, Judit had her older sisters to look up to as role models.
Given such an ideal environment, Judit became the crown jewel of the Polgár experiment. At fifteen years and four months old, she became the youngest person, male or female, to ever achieve grandmaster status. Additionally, she became the #1 women’s chess player in the world for 25 consecutive years, and the title was only taken away from her because she decided to retire in 2014. She was also the only woman to ever compete in the overall World Chess Championship.
The Legend of Mozart
In the mid 1740s, a man named Leopald Mozart was starting his career as a professional musician in Salzburg, Austria (Salzburg was part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time). He was looking for a wife, and he wanted to have children who he could raise to become classical music prodigies.
In 1747, Leopald married Anna Maria Pertl. They had seven children, but only two of them survived past infancy. The first of the two, Maria Anna (named after her mother), was born in 1751. Maria Anna began learning music from Leopald at a young age and played incredibly well for a child. However, her accomplishments were not as great as Leopald’s youngest child, who would go on to change the world of classical music (déjà vu - this plotline should sound familiar to you!).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756. Under Leopald’s careful tutelage, Wolfgang could play chords on the harpischord at three years old and began composing at the age of five. At the age of six, Leopald was taking him (and sometimes his sister) on tour all over Europe to perform. Wolfgang went on to become one of the greatest classical musicians in history.
Leopald Mozart’s story is an exact parallel to László Polgár’s, and consequently, Wolfgang’s story is parallel to Judit’s. Wolfgang and Judit started an incredible amount of training at a very young age. They had older siblings who were blooming prodigies in their own right to look up to as role models, and they had fathers who had learned a lot in the process of teaching the older siblings, which allowed them to best teach the youngest child. This is how Wolfgang and Judit became so accomplished.
The Verdict on Talent
So what about talent? When many people think of Mozart, they think the only plausible explanation for his ability is talent - but the Polgar experiment and it’s parallel with the path of Mozart’s clearly illustrates that there are many other forces at work.
Here’s the verdict: talent could have played a role in Wolfgang and Judit’s success, but we can’t prove it. We can’t look at their DNA and say “this is what makes them talented.” Maybe they were talented, maybe they weren’t. There’s no clear evidence either way.
However, we can prove that both of these prodigies worked very hard, for a very long time, and they received very intensive training. They had a dream (albeit a dream that may have been more their fathers’ than their own) and with hard work and dedication, they were able to turn their dreams into reality. The evidence leans towards the conclusion that talent has minimal influence on success.
That being said, I don’t believe László Polgár’s hypothesis is correct either. The assertion “that any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday, and they begin to specialise at six” seems to have its limits. For example, I doubt László Polgár could have raised all of his children to be professional basketball players. The nature of basketball simply requires that you be very tall in order to succeed (the average player in the NBA is 6’7”), and being tall is not something you can earn with hard work.
So - do you need special talent to become incredibly successful? The answer is that sometimes you do, but the overwhelming majority of the time, you don’t. Basketball requires a certain amount of “talent” regarding your height, but in most fields, including music, chess, and even football, the evidence proves that almost anyone can achieve excellence if they train properly.
We’ve seen that Mozart and Judit Polgár were able to achieve legendary success through a rigorous training regimen - but chances are your parents didn’t start training you to become the next Mozart as an infant. So what can you do to achieve the success you desire in your own career?
Our subjects in this chapter proved that the human brain is high in plasticity. This means that with training, the brain can adapt to do things that previously seemed impossible. Remember the Super Bowl-champion QBs? None of them but the Manning brothers (who received childhood training much like Mozart and Polgár) were expected to become world-class talents. They weren’t child prodigies, and they faced great adversity and discouragement through college and sometimes even into the NFL. But the human brain is capable of making incredible adaptations, and after putting in hard work day in and day out for years on end, these QBs went from ordinary to extraordinary.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that you probably have a much longer timetable to become successful in your own career than professional athletes do. As an athlete, you need to reach benchmarks of expertise throughout your late teens and early twenties, or your career abruptly comes to a dead end. But in business, science, music, and most any other field, you can continue improving your skills for several decades.
That’s not to say travelling the road to your dreams is easy. You’ll fail, you’ll run into roadblocks, and there may be 100 people who tell you “no” for every one person who tells you “yes.” But that one yes might be the only yes you need. And when the “no”s get you down, as they inevitably will, remember J.K. Rowling, Oprah, and Walt Disney, and know that you’re in good company.
“All of our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”