WHY TALENT IS OVERRATED
The year is 15000 BC. A hunter stares out across the endless plain. His party has been running for days. It is hot. The terrain ahead is a dry, cracked parchment. He looks down at the tracks in the powdery red dust that coats his feet. To him, the marks are like neon signposts pointing in the direction his group must go. The animal is faster than he, larger and more dangerous, but he is not worried. The tribe will eat tonight. He knows this with the certainty of the most successful predator the world has ever known.
He is certain because he and his kind are proponents of the most effective hunting strategy of all time. He does not know it, but the strategy has a name. To him, it’s just the way it’s always been done. He will simply run the animal down. They will run until the animal can no longer. Until it gives up the will to live.
He is well-optimised for the task. He walks upright, doesn’t have much hair and he sweats, which means he can radiate heat and regulate body temperature. He can eat just about anything he finds, which makes it easy to find food when chasing his prey. If he can’t find food, that’s ok. His body will begin to consume itself so he can continue the hunt. His deadliest weapon is not a spear or a dagger or intelligence or tracking skill. It is endurance.
This is the concept of persistence hunting and we owe our entire existence and most of our outstanding achievements to it. Evidence of our basic nature litters the pages of history. In the ancient world invading armies would often march into enemy lands for years at a time. During these odysseys, their horses would often die along the way, while the men would arrive. Ready to fight.
218 BC: A Carthaginian general named Hannibal decides to cross the Alps bringing with him, elephants. This turns out to be a mistake and most of them are unable to survive the high altitude and severe conditions. The men – those who don’t plummet to their deaths from the many jagged cliffs along the way – still manage to complete the crossing and then INVADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
332BC: Alexander the Great on his conquests encounters the impregnable island city of Tyre. Most would have given up and turned back, but not Alexander. No, he decides to hang around and spends a few years building a mile-long bridge and succeeds in razing the city.
These stories and many like them, are all common themes in an age-old narrative. People often attribute success to intelligence and talent, but according to history we owe more to persistence, endurance, and tenacity. We see something we want and we go after it. That’s all there is to it.
Why did we go to the moon? Why are ulta-marathons a thing? We grind it out. It’s what we do. We like to struggle. In fact, we seem to need it. In times of abundance, instances of discontent, anxiety and depression increase. When times are good the suicide rate goes up. Think about that. We’re prone to killing ourselves when life is too easy!
It’s in our genes.
How did we get to the moon? We love to celebrate the giant leap, but we tend to forget about the million small steps. We like to pretend that we bound forward, but if you look at the tracks, you’ll see we lurch and stagger and scrape forward under the weight of our ideas. And somehow we drag our feet forward ever higher.
This inexorable forward momentum that cannot be handwaved and explained with a catch-all like talent. The trouble is we’ve become desensitized to staggering achievement and when it happens we’re quick to label it talent as if it were more than the final brick in a pyramid of small feats. We think it is the pyramid itself.
More and more these days we stop and we wait. We pause for inspiration and for the arrival of the earth shaking idea or for the natural gift to be granted by the universe or a deity of some kind. All it does it cost us time.
So, the next time you think you need more talent or a better idea, consider your prehistoric counterpart and remember that you carry the persistence gene.
Talent is overrated.