Everyone Else Is Smarter Than Me

If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, or professional football or basketball, you know what sheer talent looks like.  Right?  You know what god-given ability looks like: Usain Bolt demolishing runners in every race he enters; Michael Phelps beating the world’s best, not by seconds, but by laps; Kobe Bryant just outclassing everyone, doing things no one else can.

Except that’s bullshit.  Yes, those guys have immense natural talent, more than I do, but it’s not talent that makes those strides, strokes, and fade-aways look effortless.  It’s lots and lots of hard work.  Hours and hours in the gym.  Watching tape.  Practicing fundamentals.  Years of discipline, eating right, sleeping well, taking care of their bodies.  It’s more work than most people could imagine.

And that’s the rub.  The better you are, the more practice you put in, the more effortless it looks.  Most people say “If I had Lebron James’ talent, I would have won 5 championships by now!” But most people wouldn’t even be in the NBA, even with that talent.  The proof is in the fact that thousands of extremely talented players never come close.  Guys with incredible skillsets waste them.  Some are so gifted they make it to the NBA, but barely: they fade away after just a year or two.

Most of what we mistake for raw skill, or raw intelligence, is simply lots and lots of practice.

People think kids who are good at math are super smart.  If you really understand algebra six months before the rest of the class, you look like a genius to everyone around you.  It’s not that you worked hard to understand it and then practiced the techniques for solving each type of problem; no, you’re just smart.  You’re just naturally good at math.

Same bullshit.

The more tools, techniques, strategies, and experience you can amass and keep tucked in the back of your mind, the more problems you can tackle, and the faster you can tackle them.  Learn to find, create, and hone your own tools, and you’ll be unstoppable.  To the outside world, you just appear to be some kind of wizard.  But it has very little to due with raw brainpower.

And again, there’s the rub.  It’s very easy to explain away our failings by claiming that we’re just not smart enough.  We could never do what she did, because she’s a genius.  “C’mon, did you see her answer that calculus question?  It took her like 2 seconds!”  It’s scary to admit that you too could have answered that question that fast, had you spent the four hours to complete the practice problems she did last week.  But it’s also empowering.

So next time you want to give up because everyone else is faster or better or smarter than you, recognize that these adjectives are all choices we make.  There are certainly limitations that might prevent you from ever challenging Kobe Bryant or Steven Hawking, but it’s still your choice to be incredible, or genius.

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