Turning a lack of talent into a competitive advantage

by jeffhilimire on June 16, 2014


Jim Courier and Andre Agassi were both at Bollettieri’s tennis academy when they were junior tennis players. In a recent article I was reading, Courier talked about how he resented the fact that he was up at 7am for the mandatory practices and Agassi was allowed to stroll into practice at 11am. Yet even with the four extra hours of practice a day that Courier was getting, he and Andre were always neck-and-neck in matches back then.

Andre had all the talent in the world, and Courier had to work his a$$ off just to keep up. But in the process, Courier learned about work ethic and dedication and was thus much more successful early in his professional career than Andre. It wasn’t until later in his career that Agassi learned how to put in the work and not just rely on his talent.*

In many ways I feel like I am lucky to have not had a tremendous amount of talent at anything that I tried to do. With tennis, I was a good player but not as talented as many of my friends. This was particularly evident at UNC-Charlotte where I was the 5th or 6th best player on the team and the guys ahead of me were far, far more talented. To put it in perspective, I had been ranked in the top 20 in Georgia before I went to college and the year I played #6 at UNC-Charlotte, the #5 guy had been ranked #4 in Canada as a junior. Like, all of Canada.

Same thing with building my first company, Spunlogic. When I started the company, I was a programmer, a fact I relayed to the Dragon Army team recently which elicited an immediate and uncontrollable laugh from our lead developer who was unaware that I ever had any technical ability. I was an adequate programmer but nothing like Danny Davis who I convinced to join Spunlogic (then called NBN Designs) about nine months in to run development for us. I then focused on running a business, learning how to manage our projects and sell to new clients. I had to grind every day to build up competencies at these things.

Nothing ever came super easy to me and I was always surrounded with people who had natural ability. Even my father, who was such a natural athlete in high school that a few years back was put into their Hall of Fame for the success he had in football, lacrosse and basketball.

I had to work harder than most to compete. I had to put in the work, study and focus, and prove to myself that I could compete with those more talented than I. Sometimes when things come easy to you it can be easy to slip into lazy habits or lack the proper amount of ambition.

If you find yourself with less talent than others, embrace it and use it to your advantage. Then come back and kick their a$$ ;)

* I realize this example doesn’t quite work because Agassi became one of the greatest tennis players of all time. But there were 1,000 Agassi’s that never put in the work and never realized their full potential because they felt like they could rest on their talent.

  • Hoyt Summers Pittman III

    Sounds a lot like this common bit of job advice I’ve heard : Never stay anyplace where you know more than everybody else.

  • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

    I can relate to this a lot. In high school cross country/track, I had very little talent compared to a lot of my teammates. I barely made our B team that year. The following summer, I ran an obscene amount of mileage and racked up the most training mileage of anyone on the team. The mileage took me from not making our varsity roster freshman year to being named all-state my sophomore year. It was a good piece of motivation and learning that has stuck with me beyond running.

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    Yup. Or in my case, “Never hire people that you know more than.” I can unequivocally say that is the case at Dragon Army ;)

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    Great story, DH! And my guess is the long-term ramifications of that hard work have been much more impactful than your sophomore year domination. You likely built habits that have stayed with you a life time.

  • http://pear-a-digms.com/ Kristine Santos

    This really resonates with me! If you’re naturally the best at something, you’re probably not going to challenge yourself because no one else is challenging you. I’ve definitely been guilty of coasting when I know that I can do things “successfully enough,” but there is definitely more of a feeling of accomplishment and drive when you have to work at something, even if you fail.

  • Dave

    Have your read Agassizs book? He put in enough grueling hours as a kid to go pro at 14 with just an 8th grade education. The kid put the hours in early in life but really struggled with his dislike of the sport, but with just an 8th grade education and tremendous performance pressure, this was all he had and eventuality put in the time to be one of the greatest. Courier upended agassi at the French which was a huge momentum builder for him and momentum killer for agassi when he thought he had it in the bag. The kid had a rough upbringing worse than any tennis kid I could imagine.

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    I always say that if Agassi had had a different perspective early, which sounds like was largely due to his childhood, that he would have been the best player of all time.

Previous post:

Next post: