Who is the most talented person on your team? What makes you think so? Is it a natural gift of gab? An innate desire to close more sales? An uncanny knack for numbers?

Unfortunately, as we’ve all seen in athletics, talent does not always equal great success. Talent without hard work is a shame. It’s a waste. But when talent is sharpened by ability and consistent effort, you see real results and growth.

Ability and talent, although familial cousins, couldn’t be more different. I think this is where a lot of people get it wrong. Personally, I know that I have certainly confused these two more often than I’d like to admit. 

Talent is what you naturally possess. Ability is how possessed you are. 

In other words, I’m 5’10”. No matter how much ability I have to become an NBA center, it will simply never happen. That’s talent. You’re either born with it, or you’re not. 

Ability, on the other hand, is how bad you want it. How hard you work for something. Ability is within. And it is always within the domain and influence of the beholder. It is a choice to grow in your ability and skillset.

Sure, you may have the talent to play a specific role, but do you have the ability to be world-class at it? Ability is a game of trade-offs. 

  • Are you coachable? 
  • Do you receive criticism well? 
  • Do you know your blind spots? 
  • Can you stay calm in the face of pressure?
  • Do you want to grow past your current limitations? 
  • Are you willing to put in the work to grow? 

Everyone wants to be successful, but very few are willing to pay the price that success requires. To me, this is the great gap between ability and talent. 

If you want to live a meaningful life, do meaningful work and build meaningful relationships, you must be willing to demonstrate ability. Put in the time to sharpen and practice your skills. Take extra courses to learn new things. Go deep in your knowledge and delivery of what you know.

It’s not always easy, but I think in life you only grow by the number of awkward situations you’re willing to have. Get uncomfortable so you can grow. 

Building a Team With Great Ability

And if you have a team that is talented but not demonstrating that real effort to grow in their ability, it’s time to have those honest conversations to help them step up. To push forward and not settle or be lazy. It’s not about being rude or nice. To me, I see it about being honest with yourself and honest with those around you. That’s the only thing that enables you to let go of expectations and put people in positions where they have the ability to execute at an exceptional level. 

To me, that’s the key to building great organizations. 

The truth is, I’ve gotten to where I am today based primarily on talent. Although I’m certainly grateful for that, I realize more and more that ability is the skillset I must develop first within me and then within members of my team. 

Nobody has superb talent in everything. The key to building organizations that scale, last and delight its customers and team is to empower people to take complete ownership in areas where they have talent and then ensure they have the ability to do it better than anyone else. 

But owner beware, it’s easy to confuse talent with ability.