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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

Passion or talent? The Secret Recipe of GOATs - the Greatests Of All Time

Simon Biles is the athlete who has won the most trophies of anyone in the history of artistic gymnastics. According to Wikipedia in her basket are 34 medals, 25 of them gold, earned in international competitions. No one has won like her.

Steve Jobs built the Apple technology empire, which, on August 2, 2018, reached a market capitalization of $1 trillion, the first company in the world to cross this milestone. This is an even more remarkable feat considering that Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1990s when Steve Jobs returned as CEO and introduced a series of innovative products.

Maryl Streep is the actress with the most awards of all time. So far in her career, she has won three Oscars (second only to Katherine Hepburn), two BAFTAs, three Emmys, nine Golden Globes, and numerous other awards.

These are just a few examples of those defined by G.O.A.T. - Greatest Of All Time.

A photo divided into three: on the left, Simone Biles smiles and shows five gold medals won at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. In between, Maryl Streep holds her Academy Award in her hand. At right, Steve Jobs shows off the first iPhone.,
Simone Biles, Maryl Streep, and Steve Jobs are three G.O.A.T.s - Greatest Of All Time

Do you know what these people have in common?

That their talent coincides with their passion. In short, what they do is what comes most accessible to them and it is also what they love most. It is the perfect cosmic alignment!

But it's not like that for everyone, we know that.

Passion or talent?

In a recent episode of my podcast "When Leaders Talk" (an episode recorded in Italian-you can listen to it on Spotify by clicking here) I had a very interesting conversation with a person who knows a thing or two about success because he founded a company that helps small and medium-sized businesses grow and achieve important milestones. More than once he repeated, "If you want to be successful you have to do what you do best and not what you like." This phrase stuck with me and I continued to reflect on it afterwards.

To be successful, is it better to follow one's passion or one's talent? Anyone who wants to ask themselves this question must first define what success means and then actually decide what to devote themselves to.

Clearly, it is not all black and white, fortunately. And it is also multi-dimensional. Let's try to get some clarity.

First of all, the two can combine as in the case of the GOATs I mentioned earlier. This is a winning combination, the right mix of elements that paves our way to success. Having the ability to do (very) well at what we love makes the effort lighter and helps keep our focus high toward the goal we have set for ourselves.

Another aspect to consider is how passion and talent can still have a symbiotic relationship: one feeds the other.

When talent fuels passion

Let's take a person who discovers that he or she has a strong aptitude for something. Having talent and immediately achieving some success certainly has a galvanizing and motivating effect. Contextually, it increases that individual's self-esteem and confidence, especially if others also recognize his or her special abilities. Indeed, the ability to stand out and distinguish oneself can be an additional rewarding factor that drives one to improve oneself and reach even higher levels of competence and ability.

A prime example of talent fueling passion is Andre Agassi, a tennis player who won eight Grand Slam tournaments. In his book "Open" (which I recommend reading because it tells a great story and is brilliantly written), Agassi confesses that he started playing tennis only because his father forced him to. His passion for the sport only came to him when he realized he had something special, an innate ability that took him to the highest levels of world tennis.

Andre Agassi in the USA team uniform for the Davis Cup and a racket.
The rebel genius of Andre Agassi - photo courtesy of

The downside of this medal is that the talent may stop fueling the passion the moment you start encountering difficulties and things no longer seem so easy. In short, you reach what in the jargon is called the plateau, the plateau. It is as if the electrical circuit that powers the passion pump is interrupted, with effects that could even be catastrophic on a psychological level (fancy a coach?).

Passion as an engine for talent

If, on the other hand, passion is the starting point, other factors come into play. Having a goal at heart brings determination, resilience, and persistence. Talent can be built with commitment and focus, without letting difficulties get you down. Having passion also leads to being more creative in finding the resources or support needed to close the quality gap. It also changes one's sense of belonging, as one's core values are well aligned with the goal at hand. An excellent example of the passion that became talent is that of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter saga books. She said she always wanted to be a writer and nurtured her talent by continuing to write even when her works were not accepted. Then we know how that turned out, right?

The writer J.K. Rowling poses in a blue dress for the premiere of the play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child"
J.K. Rowling has developed talent from her passion for writing - photo courtesy of

Conversely, talent can be cultivated but it is not always possible to achieve levels of excellence. If I had decided to become a singer, even with numerous years of study and practice I could never have had that vocal range that Freddy Mercury had. Or just remember the results Micheal Jordan achieved when he left basketball to take up baseball.

The multidimensionality of the passion vs. talent dilemma

The multidimensionality of the talent-passion dilemma arises from how these two aspects can evolve or change dramatically over time. We may, for example, find that we have more than one talent, thanks in part to rapid technological change that requires ever-new skills. Or instead, having arrived at a certain point in our lives we might realize that if we used to love playing the guitar, we now desire nothing more than painting.

A perfect example is Simon Sinek, author of several successful books and world-renowned speaker. Sinek began his professional career working in advertising agencies, even achieving a fair amount of success. Arriving at a certain point, however, he realized that what he was doing and what he had enjoyed up to that point was no longer satisfying him as much as before. So, he gave up that career to launch himself into the world of communications, reaching prominent levels that brought him worldwide fame.

The multidimensionality that adds complexity to the alchemical relationship between passion and talent is also provided by additional factors such as the environment in which one grows up, access to facilities that can foster the development of talents and passions, and the presence of a culture that aids in the understanding and pursuit of what one loves or what we have a strong aptitude for. As we have already mentioned, Agassi started playing tennis because his father was obsessed with the sport.

If there is one factor that is common to everyone -- driven by talent or passion or both -- it is self-awareness. Knowing oneself, and understanding what one's life purpose is, one's passion, but also one's strengths and weaknesses is but the starting point toward success, as I also titled my first workshop indeed.

Simon Sinek with his arms folded while smiling. He is wearing a charcoal gray shirt and wearing eyeglasses
Simon Sinek: The Power of Change - photo courtesy of

And what do you choose?

There are two aspects I want to reiterate at the close of this post.

The first is good news: it is never too late to discover and cultivate passion or talent. Anna Mary Robertson Moses, an American painter also known as Grandma Moses, began painting at age 78 and soon became famous.

The second, however, is a less pleasant but equally important aspect: having talent or passion or even both is not enough. The path to illustrious achievements is still impassable, and it takes other elements-determination, resilience, perseverance, a good coach, etc. - to achieve the desired success.

I want to ask you... If you had to choose between pursuing your passion or dedicating yourself to your talent - with no other alternatives or middle ground - where would you invest your resources and why?

Share your thoughts in the comments! It will be interesting to read you!

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