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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Talent and Work Ethic Will Only Take You So Far

As a mental performance coach and long-time educator, I have seen it time and time again. A few weeks ago, I was working with a team, and the most skilled player on the squad struggled with emotional regulation. Whenever his performance fell short on a play, or a teammate did not execute perfectly, he lost his temper, and it took his focus off of the game. We know this type of athlete. Typically, it is the one with the most natural talent on the team. Quite often, this individual has a tremendous work ethic. However, he or she can't seem to reach peak potential because they constantly latch on to every emotion that comes their way, and they don't know how to let go.

I have seen this in just about every domain, not just in athletics. As a former long-time school principal, I saw it all the time with some really gifted students. You know the type- the kid who can speak three different languages, do higher level math, has a near-perfect ACT score, is a violin virtuoso, and can dunk a basketball. Sadly, this same child has an explosive temper and can't get along with his classmates. Group projects in his classes are a nightmare for him. More times than not, this child will not reach full potential because he lacks self-awareness and impulse control. Furthermore, it's difficult to succeed down the road in college or the workforce if we lack self-management and social awareness skills.

We all have had the co-worker from hell, the one whose default mode is constantly set on fight or flight mode. This is apparent when this individual constantly freaks out when anyone holds an opposing view on a work matter. She sees everything as a threat. The entire office has to walk on eggshells around her, because she is so emotionally fragile. It seems as if the air gets sucked out of the room when she walks in for a meeting. Not only will this individual not reach her full potential, but the emotional angst she stirs up in the office will hinder her office colleagues from reaching theirs.

All three examples above most likely resonate with all of us. We often mistakenly think that it only takes two factors to reach our full potential: talent and work ethic. While it is certainly true that no one will succeed in their respective domain or career without talent and work ethic, those two variables are only two thirds of the equation. If we fail to cultivate our mental game, more specifically, the ability to regulate our thoughts and emotions, we are at a significant disadvantage to those that do.

For years, our society has referred to these mental skills as "soft skills," largely because of our inability to measure them fully. I have always disdained this term. I think it makes them seem unimportant to many people. There is nothing "soft" about the hard work it takes to cultivate skills like: focus, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, resilience, impulse control, and social awareness. I often tell people I work with that this kind of work is heavy lifting. In fact, it can often seem like wrestling a sumo in your mind. As tough as this work can be, the benefits are certainly worth the effort.

I was once giving this very spill during a keynote talk for a large corporation, and one of the comments from an audience member was, "I think that a person who does not get along well with others can still be successful. If talented enough, he or she can work alone in a cubicle making really good money coding or developing video games." I had to laugh. The audience member was correct, anyone with talent (skills) and a work ethic can be successful and earn a great salary, but I still contend that they will not be anywhere near full potential or self-fulfillment without the aforementioned "soft skills" (for lack of a better term). Self-actualization is not God-given skill. It takes much work and practice.

If there was any silver lining that came about from the pandemic, I believe that it was the awareness on our collective need for mental and emotional wellness programs and resources in our society. It is refreshing to see corporations adding more of these type of professional development programs for employees. More and more schools across the country are realizing this as well, as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs are being integrated into lesson plans at a frequent pace. Another testament of our society's newfound appreciation for these soft skills is that meditation classes and mindfulness apps., once considered "hippy dippy" or fringe, are now considered mainstream and are quite popular. The sports world has caught on as well. Sensing the importance in terms of enhancing their athletes' performance and overall wellbeing, major college and professional programs are adding mental performance coaches and sports psychologists to their staffs.

By all means, continue to cultivate your talent by working on your skills, and continue to grind hard with your insatiable work ethic, but don't leave out the often neglected one third of the equation (and arguably most important), your mind.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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