Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Nature of Talent and Necessity of Motivation

While slowly building my mileage this past (and very, very white) winter, I chanced to pick up a copy of Jack Daniel’s Running Formula, apparently one of THE books on training. Though most of his recommendations for workout schedules and the duration of various types of runs has been forgotten, his opening chapter which discusses “types” of athletes has, oddly, remained with me. Perhaps it’s because his message (or my digestion of it) can be applied not only to athletic training, but to life.

In fact I’ve imagined plenty of scenarios in which a young collegiate athlete approaches me, wanting to know if he or she “has what it takes” to become a great distance runner. No expert myself in these wistful daydreams, I quote Daniels readily, offering them, first, his rubric of athletic personality types (which follows):

According to Daniels, there are four essential “types” of athletes: those who are talented and motivated, those who are talented but not motivated, those who are not talented but motivated and those who are neither. The latter he discards immediately, explaining those are the sort of people who’d never step foot on a track (or college campus, or open a book, etc) to begin with anyway. And so do I, in my dream, say: And so, we know that you are not unmotivated and untalented. What remains to be seen is what you are of the three remaining options.” (Apparently when I daydream, I speak sort of like a stodgy logics professor. Or maybe someone who’s had too many gin and tonics.)

And here is where the athlete might interject: “But what if I’m not talented?”

It’s the question every person asks themselves in those moments of doubt that interject themselves into whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I know I often ask myself the same thing: “What if I’m not talented? How on earth will I ever qualify for the Olympic Trials? How will I complete an MFA program, if I have no talent for writing? Why would anyone ever want to marry me-- I have no talent for life.”

Pre-Daniels, I would have been in a quandary and my daydream-conjured athlete would be, too. I mean, what do you do sans talent? For whatever reason, it seems we’ve (or I’ve) been trained to think that without it, the possibility of accomplishing anything worthwhile is nil. I might have quit, in other words, if I thought I had no talent for running, no talent for writing and no talent for life. However, post Daniels with a smidge of what might be called stoicism has recently brought an entirely new response to the question of talent to light.

Recall that Daniel cited three additional types of athletes: and even for the one he deemed most likely to succeed (those with talent and motivation), it’s interesting to notice that talent is only half of the equation. To be great, he seems to say, you need talent, yes, but you also have to be willing to work hard to obtain the desired outcome.

Athletes that are talented with no motivation, or that are motivated with no talent are more or less on the same playing field-- or are they? At first I thought so-- those are the people who might succeed if they work harder than the folks blessed with both attributes. And yet, let’s take a closer look at this.

Imagine this scenario: three women toe the line to do a 100-meter sprint. In lane one stands an Gold-medal Olympic medalist who has trained for this event her entire life. She’s one of those athletes that’s naturally gifted, and yet, she follows a strict training regimen, evidenced by her high level of fitness and overall health. In lane 2, an athlete stands, a collegiate great who never had to work very hard to win anything. She hardly ever trains and drinks heavily until the wee hours most nights. Her motivation-- if she has any-- has more to do with social status than with the sport itself. In lane 3, another athlete stands: fit and composed, she is not “gifted.” To achieve her level of fitness, she has had to work very hard-- but she does this, without regret-- in fact, she does it with a certain measure of joy. Now, who do you, reader, think will win this race?

The Olympic medalist, you say. Perhaps. But let me interject and reveal that all three are equally fit; that the only difference which rests between these three bodies has to do with the mental determination to complete the 100-meter sprint. Then who, do you think, will be victorious?

Suddenly it becomes less apparent who is the better athlete-- is it the medalist, or the athlete who has worked very hard? What is apparent is that the lady in lane 2 is by no means “in the running.” Though she might win, she has no reason to. Her lack of motivation is her obvious shortcoming. But the athlete who has trained hard-- without “talent”-- has developed not only her fitness, but also a mental strength the talented athlete lacks (because she’s never had to work--or wanted to work-- for her successes.)

Of course, this is a contrived example: one can hardly find three individuals who fit nicely into Daniel’s model. But (and here comes the stoicism) his model is telling. It seems Daniels suggests that talent is a wild card-- one is either talented or one is not. What is under one’s control, however, is the other element: motivation. It hardly matters, in other words, if you are talented. If you work hard for what you want to accomplish, it’s the hard work that will get you there and that will teach you the lessons needed to sustain that success.

And so I say to my imagined athlete: it’s pointless to worry about what you cannot control. What you have complete dominion over is your ability to wake each morning and go for a run; you have control over your diet, the amount of sleep you get, your hydration. You have control over your emotions when it’s the final stretch of a race and you would rather curl into a ball than finish because your legs and lungs burn.

And so, I say to myself: keep training. Keep believing. You'll only fail (without question) if you stop.

This rubric applies to writing as in life: talent, is in many ways a detriment. To be a great writer takes a daily practice of reading and writing. To be “good” at life you need not necessarily win the lottery, but you need to wake up every morning and give the world your best in whatever it is you do.

And THAT, my friends, is motivation. One needs little else.


Chrissy (The New Me) said...

What a great post! I am definitely in the no talent/lots of motivation group when it comes to running. After reading this, I'm okay with that! Thanks so much. :)

scott said...

Very good stuff. Just stumbled across your blog via Chrissy's ^ blog. We have a lot in common. I also started running (again) in '07, currently trying to qualify for the marathon trials, love writing, enjoy some of the same books, etc. as you. Anyways, looking forward to reading more.


R said...

Welcome aboard, Scott. :) It's so funny (and comforting, actually) to find there's a community out there who shares a passion for writing and running.

Best of luck to you in your training-- it's a long, difficult endeavor, I know. :) I'm jealous you're able to run Chicago. I've heard nothing but good things about the race.


Anonymous said...

Rebecca, Chicago is amazing and I can't wait to run it again.....IF the weather cooperates on race day. We'll go elsewhere if our chances of qualifying for the Trials is jeapordized by the heat. You might have been more fortunate where you live not to have to train through our humidity. Last year was ideal, but this year is hell and I'm so done with it. Still pushing through though. I'll be reading and rooting you on. What race are you using to try and qualify for the Trials?

R said...

I'll be cheering you on as well (and sending you some good ol' fashioned Nevada "dryness" to counteract all that humidity). :) I'm hoping to qualify in this year's California International Marathon, which is a flat course from Folsom to Sacramento CA in December. I've already competed in this marathon before (two years ago) and had a great experience (plus, it has the added perk of being "local"-- a necessity for impoverished graduate students like me! :)