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How Much Does Talent Matter?

“Your talent is hard work and talent.”

I heard that on a podcast with comedian Neal Brennan, and it echoed everything I have seen in coaching. In retrospect, I’m not even sure if it’s the exact quote—I can’t find the episode and it returns no Google results. But I think it expresses a universal truth of exploring into the genetic unknown.

Brennan lived that quote. When he was 29 in 2002, he and Dave Chappelle co-created The Chappelle Show. He reached the pinnacle of sketch comedy writing, only to have it all come to a stop a few years later when Chappelle left before the third season. Put yourself in his shoes. What do you do next?

Brennan decided to start from the bottom again and become a stand-up comic, a largely different skillset. It makes me exhausted just thinking about it. Knowing what it means to grind for many years, moving toward an unknown future, can you opt into that grind? Because that’s what it takes to explore your potential.

He performed at open mics, which are universally cringe-inducing, but must have been especially hard given his previous success. He tried and failed and adjusted and failed and adjusted and eventually succeeded all the hundreds of times needed to reach his potential. In 2017, he released “3 Mics,” a brilliant stand-up special on Netflix, and the culmination of years of hard work.

Here’s one of the main lessons I have learned from coaching. If you work your butt off, you’ll eventually find out that you’ve been a supertalent all along.

So many people would have fallen off years before. “Just not talented enough,” they may think. “Just not worth it.” Running works the same way. Whatever talents we have can often only be unearthed with years and years of the unglamorous grind.

Brennan was talented. But lots of people are talented. I’d argue that, genetically, we are all talented if we know where to look. It’s hard work that lets our natural talent shine.

The true superpower is the power to grind.

What is “talent” anyway?

Stand-up comedy is a lot like running or any other pursuit that requires years of passion to unlock whatever you had inside yourself all along. So many people hold themselves back worrying about the constraints of their genetics that they never get remotely close to what they’re capable of. Screw that! Here’s one of the main lessons I have learned from coaching. If you work your butt off, you’ll eventually find out that you’ve been a supertalent all along.

“That’s statistically impossible,” a heckler may say. “If everyone is talented, no one is talented.”

If I were a roast comedian, I would respond YOUR ONLY TALENT IS SUCKING. But my real-life response is that talent is so multifaceted that every single person reading this article has different types of athletic talent that will shine with hard work.

Talent is thousands of genetic variables interacting with environment and behavior in non-linear, impossible-to-predict ways over a lifetime.

It gets back to what talent actually means. Talent is not an algorithm that takes your genetics and spits out race results. Talent is thousands of genetic variables interacting with environment and behavior in non-linear, impossible-to-predict ways over a lifetime.

Components of talent

There are some obvious metrics that are easy to measure in a lab. VO2 max research indicates that athletes have a genetic baseline for aerobic capacity that can increase with exercise, but is capped. Even with that cold hard number, there is wiggle room over time and stories of athletes increasing measurements from when they were young to when they were adults. And on top of that, athletes with lower VO2 maxes beat the genetic anomalies all the time.

VO2 max is sexy, but it’s just one ingredient. You can still make pizza without mozzarella; just throw some other tasty crap on there and fire up the oven. Lactate threshold has a genetic predisposition, but is much more highly trainable. Aerobic threshold too. All of these variables interact with how metabolic function works, how the musculoskeletal system is structured, how the brain conducts signals to working muscles.

Some other factors in talent? (takes a deep breath)

Muscle-fiber distribution, pain tolerance, work ethic, big-toe length, tendon stiffness, healing rates, brain chemistry, endocrine function, lung capacity, nutrient absorption, femur-length ratios, lung capacity, perception of fatigue, longevity in sport, regular longevity and just about anything else you can think of.

All of those variables feed back into processes of aerobic development, muscle power, injury rates and countless other things.

Those feedback cycles keep going and going over years, with hard work being the moment that you give them a helpful push or wallow in self-doubt that stops progress altogether.

Here’s the crazy part. It’s not just the obvious stuff that likely has a genetic basis. Genome-wide associations have found that you can predict bone-mineral density and stress-fracture risk through the relationship of thousands of disparate genes. A start-up called AxGen, where my wife/co-coach Megan, works can take a vial of your spit and help predict your bone density, your plantar-fasciitis risk, your risk of knee injury, the genetic basis for some hormone levels, letting you take actions accordingly. And new metrics are added all the time. The more we learn about the genome, the more we’re realizing that everything likely works similarly, from aerobic capacity to injury risk. I’d bet mental toughness and similar “grit” factors work the same way too.

Layered on top of that is the controversial field of epigenetics—how environmental influences change how our genetic code expresses itself over time. Behavior can alter just about everything. Even in a few thousand years when we can associate every base pair with every other base pair to form a near-perfect analysis of genetic predispositions, we’ll probably never be able to predict what happens next. Yeah, dice may have certain probabilities. But your actions can weight the dice in your favor.

What now?

The message: you are talented. Take this swirl of factors that make up your potential and pick one at random, and you might not be world class. But across the range of things that matter, you are superhuman in some of them.

If it’s VO2 max, you may become Jim Walmsley, and that is awesome. But there are probably thousands of Jim Walmsleys that never worked hard enough to notice their talent. They are sitting on the couch thinking they are random athletic nobodies.

It may be bone density or biomechanical efficiency or related to the nervous system or metabolism or anything else. That talent is there, waiting to shine, waiting to interact with all the other variables to show the world what you can do. It never shines on your first run, though. It may not fully shine on your thousandth.

Talent is rarely the limiter. So go for it with love and see if you can run into that genetic ceiling. Don’t ever dismiss your talent, which is often a defense mechanism disguised as self-depreciation. And go a step further still. Embrace the talents you have. I dare you.

The process of exploring your talent may lead to the top of the podium. It may lead to a finish. It may lead to making it around the block without stopping. All of those results are amazing in their own ways. They are the byproduct of aerobic ability and musculoskeletal strength and brain chemistry and everything else all interacting to create an awesome athlete.

Talent is rarely the limiter. So go for it with love and see if you can run into that genetic ceiling. Don’t ever dismiss your talent, which is often a defense mechanism disguised as self-depreciation. And go a step further still. Embrace the talents you have. I dare you.

Put in the work and make yourself vulnerable. Bomb at the running equivalent of open mics. Keep pushing those feedback cycles forward until you truly start to test your limits. So many people stop a few steps up the mountain, thinking they are at the top of what they can do. If they just put one foot in front of the other and believe in the process, they’d see the big truth.

We are all talented. But we will only find that talent if we spend years grinding away, unsure of our ultimate potential.

Now let’s go explore into the genetic unknown.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.