12/2/21: Performances indicate ability, not potential
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This week's Think Better Newsletter is about not letting performance become a proxy for potential.
In the week before my first time competing at the NCAA XC Championships I did my last big workout. It was 2 by 2-mile at 9:20 pace followed by 1 mile in the 4:20s. I remember clicking off the splits metronomically and feeling very optimistic about my race.
Shortly after that workout, somebody told me about David Kimani of Alabama's pre-race workout. It was 3 by 2-mile at 8:40s pace with the last one cutting down to something ridiculous. I remember thinking, "How am I supposed to compete with someone so talented?"
Last week my friend's son competed in the Division 1 California State XC Championships, which puts him in the same division as Newbury Park. For those who don't follow high school cross country, Newbury Park is the best high school team in history. They scored 16 points at the meet with 3 runners finishing within a few seconds of the course record. Their average team time would be top 10 all-time, faster than Olympians like Ryan Hall.
So yeah, they are fast.
My friend's son is also fast. But not that fast. While he desperately wants to be in the mix with the Newbury Park guys, he's just not at that level. It can be hard for him not to see that gap as a talent gap.
Whether it's David Kimani or Newbury Park, what we see (or hear about in rumors) are people's performances. And it's very difficult not to attribute superior performances to superior talent. I call this the "talent trap."
The "talent trap" is an attribution error we're hard-wired to make. When we think of our personal situation, we consider all the factors. Talent, effort, our personal challenges and every other random factor are all part of the equation.
But when we look at others, we tend to focus on their innate abilities. Their results become a proxy for their talent and their personality. People who get good results are geniuses or talents, and people who don't...aren't.
It takes a lot of practice to train ourselves not to think this way. To not assume the person has more potential because they beat you today or can do something you can't. To not assume the driver is a jerk because they cut you off. To not assume that the person struggling with a situation is weak or stupid.
Or if you're the one struggling or behind or making a mistake, to not assume it's a reflection of you as a person.
One of my Optimal Training Principles is "Racing times and personal records indicate progress at one point in time."
Performances are not an indication of potential. They are an indication of ability. And ability changes over time. The harder you work at something, the more able you become. (Actually, that's another principle.)
When you find yourself in a situation where you're outclassed, don't automatically assume that talent is the reason. It may be part of it, but until you've matched the effort, preparation, and consistency of a top performer, you'll never know.
You may never be able to put in the work to find out, but you can always catch yourself when you default to assuming talent is the difference.
Ability today is not potential tomorrow.
Are you giving other people's talent too much credit?
Go Be More,
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast
"Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy."
- Norman Vincent Peale
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