How to Excel at Something

How to Excel at Something

17. Every one excels in something in which another fails.

It’s true that we can’t be great at everything. There are some with more of a proclivity than others for developing certain skills. Those less naturally inclined for developing one skill will have an inclination to develop another.

For instance, I can remember since my very first drum lesson when I was 8 that it felt natural to play. Whether on hand drums, like bongos, congas, or a djembe, or on a drum kit, I felt at ease and enjoyed banging away and creating rhythms. Fast forward a couple decades and I’ve developed a skill from those initial signs of talent through deliberate practice.

Contrast that early inclination with my experience on guitar — I just never felt comfortable. My wrist is at a weird angle, I don’t enjoy fingering on the fret board, and it’s hard for me to get a good rhythm going with the vertical, up-and-down strumming motion.

So while I could probably become passable as a guitarist, I don’t know if it’s something at which I’d ever truly excel. Or, maybe, I never got over that initial hump that others do when starting out on guitar, because I already felt very comfortable playing drums and piano.

This brings to mind a nature-vs-nurture type argument — are we born with innate talent for one activity vs. another, or do we develop it due to environmental factors and luck? From my reading and experience, I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, we are born with a higher likelihood we’ll be successful at different endeavors, but we need to develop this into an actual skill.

I recently read Grit, by Angela Duckworth, a great book on passion and perseverance. In it, she describes her research as a neurobiologist and psychologist into what separates successful people from the rest. When looking at high achievers, she came up with two formulas:

Talent x Effort = Skill


Skill x Effort = Achievement

So while some of us may more easily excel at certain activities (i.e., have a natural talent for something), we still need to apply consistent effort in order to: 1) develop that talent into a skill, and 2) actually achieve something with that skill. She summarizes this as, “effort counts twice.” This is only a small piece of her overall findings, and I highly recommend her book.

Malcolm Gladwell has also written a very compelling book on the subject. I’d like to revisit that one, as it has been about 5 years since I read it. Off the top of my head (and my Amazon wish list), here are a few other books that tackle the topic:

  • The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle
  • Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin
  • The Sports Gene, by David Epstein
  • The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker

I do intend to read these, so I’ll hold off on recommendations (and links) until I can whole-heartedly endorse.


Maybe my example of playing a music instrument was too narrowly focused, and a more apt example would be my aversion to, say, working on cars, something which I’ve found frustrating and painstakingly boring when I’ve tried to do it. But some people love it and excel at it.

In the end, truly excelling at an endeavor is probably: a mix of natural talent, applied effort made easy due to interest and passion, and the perseverance and “grittiness” to stick with something long enough.

Until next time,


If this post got you just a little bit fired-up, maybe you want to bite down on your mouthguard and kick 2017’s ass too.

Site Footer