The Myth of “Naturally Gifted”

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2 min read

Yesterday Mat Fraser won the 2018 CrossFit Games for the third year in a row.

And he didn’t just win, he dominated.

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For those who aren’t familiar, Wikipedia describes the Crossfit Games as:

“Athletes at the Games compete in workouts that they learn about hours or days beforehand, consisting mostly of an assortment of standard aerobic, weightlifting, and gymnastics movements, as well as some additional surprise elements that are not part of the typical CrossFit regimen such as obstacle courses, ocean swimming, softball throwing, or ascending a pegboard. The CrossFit Games stylizes their individual winners as the Fittest on Earth.”

Born to Be Great?

Throughout the competition, the announcers kept saying things like:

“Is Mat Fraser even human?”

“Fraser is unbelievably gifted.”

“This guy was born to compete in this sport.”

They made it seem as if he was naturally gifted at the sport and that his incredible performance could only be explained by superhuman innate abilities.

This is common. When we see someone performing at a high level at anything – sports, business, writing, drawing – we often describe them as “naturally gifted.”

But we only have to peel back the curtains to see that “naturally gifted” couldn’t be further from the truth. 

According to Mat Fraser’s profile on crossfit.com, he first attempted to qualify for the Crossfit Games in 2013 and placed 192nd overall.

Naturally gifted? Or naturally human?

The following year he came back and took 2nd place in 2014.

He came back again and took 2nd place in 2015.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Fraser won his first Crossfit Games. 

It wasn’t until 2017 that he won by a large margin. 

And this year in 2018 he repeated his dominance. 

There’s no doubt he is a beast. He’s a notch above the rest of the field. But he wasn’t always that way. He started as a nobody just like everyone else.

His athletic abilities weren’t inherited, they were developed. 

This is important to understand for anyone who hopes to one day rise to the top of their field, whether it’s CrossFit, blogging, business, freelancing, or anything else. The people at the top now were once in your shoes. Their success wasn’t written in the stars. They had to work

To see this example in another field, here is a list of some of my favorite bloggers along with the date they created their blogs:

A Few of My Favorite Blogs
Blog Date Created Blog Age
Crossing Wall Street 2005  14 years old
Austin Kleon 2005 14 years old
Get Rich Slowly 2006 13 years old
FlowingData 2007 12 years old
Ryan Holiday 2007 12 years old
Zen Habits 2007 12 years old
Budgets are Sexy 2008 11 years old
Financial Samurai 2009 10 years old
Farnam Street 2009 10 years old
Raptitude 2009 10 years old
Retire by 40 2010 9 years old
The Minimalists 2010 9 years old
JL Collins 2011 8 years old
Cait Flanders 2011 8 years old
Semi-Rad 2011 8 years old
Mad Fientist 2012 7 years old

The youngest blog on this list is seven years old. Most of these blogs have been around for over a decade. 

Yet, if we had announcers describing these bloggers, we might hear things like:

“The Minimalists were born to be bloggers.”

“Cait Flanders has an unbelievable gift of writing.”

“Austin Kleon simply has superhuman abilities.”

Sure, all of those bloggers have wonderful writing skills. But to say that those skills are “gifts” they were born with is probably inaccurate. Those skills were developed through years of work.

Keep this in mind as you make progress in your own craft. The people you look up to started in a place similar to you. Be patient, recognize that success takes time, and learn to fall in love with the process because it may take longer than you think to get to where you’re going.


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13 Replies to “The Myth of “Naturally Gifted””

  1. Wonderful, thought-provoking post and I LOVE the crossfit analogy. It is really strange how people try to pin success on natural abilities. For me it brings to mind Michael Phelps – announcers would be talking about how his body shape/size/configuration was born to be an awesome swimmer and I would think – sure his arms are longer than normal for his body, but what about the 8 hours a day he trains in the pool?!? Let’s focus on the likely culprit people. Anyway, this is great reminder. And I’ll work on enjoying the process (AKA the march to retirement 🙂 ). Hope you’re having a great day.

    1. Granted his body is better suited than most for swimming, but that’s only one factor at play. There are plenty of people out there who have a similar body but couldn’t accomplish what he has. Thanks for the feedback! 🙂

  2. I don’t know. Mat Fraser must have worked really hard, but he’s naturally gifted too. You need both to reach the top of the field, especially in sports.
    I think that applies to blogging too. I think these guys are all gifted – Get Rich Slowly, Financial Samurai, and Budgets are Sexy. They also worked really hard and consistently improve their writing.
    I’m working on it, but I’m not in that league. Writing has always been tough for me.
    Thanks for the mention!

    1. I think a blend of natural talent and hard work accounts for the success, I just think people have a tendency to focus on the “natural talent” far more than they should. That’s maybe 20-25% of the success equation. Thanks for the comment Joe!

  3. Great message and a great reminder! I think there is a certain level of natural curiosity, intelligence, dexterity, strength, speed, size, etc. necessary for world class success in certain pursuits (I was never going to be a NBA basketball star regardless of how hard I worked at it!), but the hard work component is often ignored when people are portrayed as “overnight” success stories!

    1. Agree – it’s certainly a combination of natural talent and work ethic. Most people seem to think it’s mostly natural talent, though, which I think is a mistake

  4. Hey Zach, this is a wonderful, encouraging post!

    We always tend to envy others and their successes, wondering “why couldn’t I be born with this or that?” We fail to take into account all the years of blood, sweat and tears that went into the successes.

    I do think that natural talent plays a part, but that’s only a small part. And that’s encouraging for anyone who desperately wants something enough. After all, 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, right?

  5. You’re spot on Zach. Humans are more equal than we think. It’s easy to explain/justify good results with being talented or gifted.

    Goal setting, imagination, hard/smart work, dedication, visualization and persistence can make all of us world class contenders in the field we most desire. But only if we are willing to do what it takes and thereby give up a lot of things to accomplish our dream. This is where most people fail. They’re not willing to give up smaller things to get the big reward.

  6. I love that you are a CrossFit fan! You also say in several posts that you do weightlifting – do you mean snatch/Clean&Jerk or general strength training?

    1. I’m mostly into bodybuilding-type training, focused on building muscle as opposed to pure strength. I love watching CrossFit, though. After watching the two CrossFit Netflix documentaries I became hooked. And the fact that the Games were free to watch online this year made it easy to keep up with.

      1. Hell yeah! I love good bodybuilding workouts as well. I’m a CrossFit and Weightlifting Coach in NC so I get excited about any kind of weight training. Love your blog! Keep doing what you do! You inspire me to keep working hard to make money, save, and reach for financial independence.

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