Personal Growth

Skill x Effort = Achievement

March 20, 2020
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How people view talent and effort, the natural bias that emerges when asked which is more predictive of achievement, and what the fascinating relationship between the two concepts truly is. Ideas from Grit, by Angela Duckworth.


If you ask people today, especially the leadership of organizations, most will say that they value hard work more than they value talent. In fact, according to several recent nation-wide studies, 66% of subjects proclaim that they revere effort and determination over natural aptitude.

But are they telling the truth?

It turns out that most people have what’s called a “natural talent bias.” If we are being honest with ourselves, what the majority of us actually believe is that talent trumps hard work.

You don’t believe me? Keep reading.

The Study

In 2011, Chia-Jung Tsay published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which he told his unknowing subjects that he had analyzed two pianists of equal achievement and labeled one as “talented,” and the other as merely “skilled.” 

According to him, the talented musician showed “early evidence of high innate ability” while the skilled one displayed “early evidence of high motivation and perseverance.” After stating this to a group of expert musicians, a group of non-experts, and a group of those with mixed musical proficiency, he had them listen to what they thought were two different recorded samples from those pianists. The following question was posed after each listening session: 

Which piece was performed better, the one by the more skillful pianist (“the striver”) or the one by the more talented pianist (“the natural”)?

Here’s the catch (would you have seen this coming?): There were never two different pianists. Recordings of identical piano pieces by the same exact musician were what was actually played for the groups.

What the experts said:

The results of the study were quite astounding. Experts from the expert group and the mixed group thought that they believed that “strivers” would achieve more than “naturals” but, as a matter of fact, their preferences showed the reverse to be true. 

Overwhelmingly, they favored the musical piece from the pianist they were told had more natural talent; they called him more employable and more apt for success. 

How about the non-experts?

The non-musical experts did not share the same preference for talent over hard work. Their responses were split fairly evenly.

The verdict:

With the experts heavily tilting the scales, the average mean of the subjects’ opinions about which pianist they preferred showed at least a subtle bias for the “naturally talented” musician.

Self-Deception in the Business World

Tsay’s study also sheds light on the idea that this sort of self-trickery impacts even the business world. As it turns out, a hard worker generally needs several more years of experience and almost $50k more in start-up cash to level the playing field with someone who is simply (and luckily) “naturally gifted.”

Thus, it appears that people who are adept at making personal connections with others are considerably more valuable than those that have to work their butts off to build a robust network of colleagues.


Enter Angela’s Insights on Achievement

Angela Duckworth’s research shows that effort is twice as valuable as talent. Yes, you read that right.

This is because effort leads to skill AND results. The concept might be easier to illustrate with an equation:

Talent x Effort = Skill Level (for any domain)

To attain results, we must put skill back into the equation. Talent is a constant, right? Well then, those coveted results fluctuate depending on you guessed it: the amount of effort we put in. This equation logically follows our first one:

Skill x Effort = Achievement

Here’s the idea in a nutshell: You can be naturally talented at something, but to develop your skill, you have to put effort into deliberate practice. For example, all Olympic gold medalists put in a tremendous amount of effort into their craft to reach her or his achievements. 

In her book, Grit, Duckworth explains the formulas further by saying the following:

Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them. Of course, your opportunities – for example, having a great coach or teacher – matter tremendously too, and maybe more than anything about the individual.” (p. 42)

“What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” (p. 42)

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Michael Phelps trained for six six-hour days per week, not missing even a single day of practice during his preparation for the Olympics. Phelps’ training involved swimming 50 miles a week, dryland training, High-Intensity Interval Training, weight training, isometrics, and a consistent 12,000 calorie daily diet. All this effort put into deliberate practice (and mixed with his talent of course) led to his amazing achievements – 19 gold medals. 

Concepts You Can Enact with Examples: Get Gritty!

  • Break your big goals down into smaller lower-level goals. Get specific with your plans. Stick to these smaller goals. Keep your head down and grind.
    • Big Goal/Vision: Become a doctor
      • Smaller goal: Score well on the MCAT (maybe it will get you into an IVY League Medical School).
        • Get to class early every day, sit in the front, and be prepared.
        • Preview notes prior to the lectures the night before.
        • Stay disciplined, budget your time.
  • Be passionate about what you are doing, otherwise it will be hard to stay motivated and gritty during the more mundane periods of pursuing your vision. You are happiest when your work intersects with your personal interests, right? Remember these two things as you pick jobs along the way:
    • Creative-minded people don’t fully engage with desk jobs.
    • If you are a people person, you won’t like jobs that put you in isolation.
  • Intelligent and deliberate practice will prevent you from getting stuck on autopilot. Break your craft down into its subcomponents and really analyze your next step. Work smarter, not just harder.
    • If you have trouble discerning answer choices on a multiple-choice exam, then you need more practice with recall. Don’t just sit and passively read your notes over and over again. Put them away and force yourself to recall. Practice is the only way to improve. Use stories and examples to help chunk information together. Hopefully, these and other techniques will help solidify any blurry lines so you can distinguish between answer choices.
    • Successful runners break their craft down into details and monitor metrics that are good indicators of their success in each of these smaller components. Like keeping track of pacing, timing, and respirations.
  • Ingrain your purpose into your mind so that when you work, you are motivated. If things get boring or tough, remember your higher calling and purpose. Who will you be able to help once you reach this goal? How big of an impact will you make?
    • Maybe achieving your vision will help people, animals, or even the environment. Dwell on your purpose and higher calling.
    • Find role models
    • Identify problems that require solutions. You have to believe that you can make a difference.
  • Focus on rewarding hard work and not just talent. Develop a growth mindset in yourself. Spread that growth mindset to your kids or the people closest to you. Reward gritty effort.
    • Studies in Duckworth’s book share how important this growth mindset is for developing grit in children. She suggests that instead of praising your kids for being naturally talented at something, praise them for being great learners or hard workers. 
    • It’s easy for parents to think that bad grades reflect a lack of intelligence as opposed to a lack of effort. This may hurt a child’s self-esteem and push them towards giving up. Remind them that effort (and thus skill) is something they can control, and it leads to results!
  • Devotion and determination are learned. Like anything learned, it requires consistent emphasis and practice. Never stop working to instill these values of grit into all aspects of your life.


Challenge yourself. Remember that you are so much stronger than you think and that since you can control your level of effort, you can control your level of achievement. Dig deep. Instill these values into your life to bring out your inner grit.

If you’d like to see more posts like this or get in touch with me personally, you can add me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or post comments below. You can also check out my posts on Medium.


Concepts of Grit in Mind Map, by Sohail Merchant

TED Talk by Angela Duckworth on Grit:
The Power of Passion and Perseverance


A New York Times Best Seller. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2020, from

“Grit by Angela Duckworth.” Blinkist,

Chambliss, D. F. (1989). The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7(1), 70. doi: 10.2307/202063

Gassenheimer, C. (2017, August 16). Angela Duckworth on Grit: Moving from Talent and Skill to Achievement. Retrieved March 19, 2020, from

Loftus, T. J., Filiberto, A. C., Rosenthal, M. D., Arnaoutakis, G. J., Sarosi, G. A., Dimick, J. B., & Upchurch, G. R. (2020). Performance advantages for grit and optimism. The American Journal of Surgery. doi: 10.1016/j.amjsurg.2020.01.057

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., … Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–369. doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

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