Talent vs skill — which is more important?

pink haired woman weighing talent vs skill

Many people use the terms talent vs skills interchangeably. For example, you could hear someone say “she’s a really talented marketer” or "he’s a highly skilled accountant”. But there’s a massive difference between talent and skill.

In the examples used, the marketer has a natural talent for networking that she’s incorporated with learned marketing skills, and that’s what makes her successful. But she could have used her networking talents in other areas, like politics or any other job that requires excellent relationship building skills.

The same goes for the accountant; he’s that successful because he has a natural ability to work with numbers. Because he loves figure work, he enjoys his job and willingly pushes himself to improve. When we use our innate talents at work, we’re easily trainable because we very quickly understand new information. Instead of a slog to absorb new material, we become invigorated by the challenge.

Unfortunately, very few of us are lucky enough to earn a living from our raw talent alone. Most people make a living from skills they’ve acquired through study and experience. In part, the consumer-age has contributed to talent going unrecognized or undeveloped.

Before mass production, many people used their talents for, say, designing and making clothing or carpentry to supply their local market. Now, people with those same talents have to spend their days on a production line working to prescribed patterns and worksheets. But, their natural talent will still make them happier and more inclined to excel in their job than someone who has learned the skills only.

Table of contents
What differentiates talent versus skill?
How to differentiate your own talent vs skill
To wrap it up

What differentiates talent versus skill?

Talent is generally considered inborn, inherited and hardwired into who we are from birth. Skill is something we’ve been taught, either through mandatory education or parental or personal choice.

Everyone is born with talents, but if they’re not recognized and nurtured, they won’t develop and can remain a hidden talent. Not all talents are significant enough to lead to fame and fortune, though (less than 1% of people achieve fame on a global scale). We all, however, have enough talent to improve our lives (and those of others).

Attentive parents will often spot a special ability in their children when they’re just toddlers. Let’s go back to our marketer: she likely smoothed out issues between siblings, had a big network of friends with whom she stayed in touch and was seldom involved in quarrels. Our accountant probably learned to count to a gazillion way before most could count to three and chose toys and games that involved calculation and sequences. He probably also calculated his parent's grocery list and gave them the total cost before they reached the checkout.

Conversely, many parents “decide” what their children are talented at and coerce them into classes that don’t match their natural inclination. Depending on the child’s attitude and willingness, they can either do well because they put in the effort, or struggle and get labeled a poor student.

Parents who force children into “safe” or “high earning” lines of career can cause long-term harm. The child may find business success but has a job they hate, or they plod along in mediocrity because from school they were told they’re not too bright. Either way, it’s a rather cruel blow! Unless, of course, the child grows up with enough intrapersonal intelligence to figure out their own career path despite resistance.

Employers also get it wrong

Similar to parents, employers also focus on skills and tend to ignore talent. When making hiring decisions, they’ll opt for the candidate who has the right education and experience without considering their motivational traits (essentially what areas of work naturally energize them). And far too many employers underestimate the importance of a solid talent development program for improving team performance.

I was involved in resolving a massive skills vs talent HR faux pas made by a leading casino brand. They had an extraordinarily high turnover rate of croupiers working their tables. Croupiers either resigned or got dismissed because of repeated cash-on-hand discrepancies. They just couldn’t understand the problem because they checked the background of each croupier before making an offer, and all were honest with no history of theft or fraud.

They were, however, training new croupiers rather than taking experienced staff from other casinos. Their job ads were asking for candidates with hard sales experience who were interested in a career pivot. But the high churn was becoming very expensive with recruitment and training costs, as well as cash discrepancies.

Analysis of their hiring criteria exposed the problem after a short period of time. Their benchmarks included extroverts and networkers. They wanted the croupiers to be friendly to enhance customer experience.

However, what they should have prioritized was hiring people who were good at compliance and attention to detail. So while their staff were chatting to customers, they were losing count of money changing hands. What they needed were croupiers who naturally complied with rules, took sole responsibility for their job and could “distance” themselves mentally from the crowd around them.

It would have been far easier to train someone who’s very detail orientated to offer a friendly smile occasionally than to get someone who hates details to start paying attention to detail.

How to differentiate your own talent vs skill

If you’ve been working for a good many years, you’ve accumulated plenty of experience. Because we spend so much time at work and, as human beings are creatures of habit —we adapt to the environment.

With all the modern-day pressures to excel, provide, gather material possessions, and compete with everyone in our family and social circle, our talents can get suffocated. Ambition, external pressure, and personal drive propel us to do what we do every day without giving it much thought.

That doesn’t mean that we’re happy, though. Symptoms of talents ignored include regular burnout, dreading going back to work after a break, and a “secret” longing for a different life. People using their hard skills can be very successful, but at their core, they're not living their most meaningful life—whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.

People who use an array of talents to get their job done are less likely to suffer from burnout because they love what they do and draw energy from their talent. Although they might work very hard, it doesn’t feel like it because their reward isn’t just money; they’re fulfilled on a mental and spiritual level as well. After a break, they’re keen to get back because they’ve probably got quite a few new ideas they want to try.

And that’s how to differentiate! When we work only from skill, we’re emotionally unfulfilled and often mentally unchallenged. If we’re using our natural talents combined with skill, we love our job and find exciting challenges and fulfilment at every level. You'll enjoy spending time at work and have higher chances of success.

But all’s not lost

Millions of people across the world and over centuries have concluded that their job offers them no fulfilment and decided to change direction totally. Although some give up their kingdom to live in a small village somewhere off the map, it doesn’t have to be that extreme.

Let’s first look at a few talent vs skill examples:

  • Studying medicine because you have a desire to help others; opting for medicine because you’ll earn big money.
  • Becoming an engineer because invention has always fascinated you; going into engineering because it’s a stable career.
  • Going into teaching because you want to make a positive impact on children; becoming a teacher because your mother said it was the right choice.

People who chose to contribute to the lives of others or improve the world in some way, for example, are using their natural talents in alignment with skill. Those who opt for choices based on money, job stability or because someone said it was a good idea are likely using their skills only.

No skills that we’ve acquired is ever a waste. They can always get used differently. It might require some additional study or training to improve your talents, but what you’ll gain will be invaluable.

Although talents can quickly become buried, they don’t die. They endure and remain constant, waiting to get rediscovered. Often they come out as hobbies or personal interests. Many successful entrepreneurs have left corporate life to turn their hobby into an income. Mark Zuckerberg designed a small social media site for students as a hobby, and we all know where that got him!

To wrap it up

People who choose careers that are driven by their natural talent draw energy from using their talent, so they’re happier and more productive. They can also easily learn new related skills faster because they enjoy what they’re doing.

Those who have ignored talent and are working from their skills only can be just as productive if they’re driven, but they’ll be inclined to burn out much quicker. They might avoid opportunities to develop further too or learn at a slower pace because it takes a concerted effort.

Ask yourself “am I doing what I really want to, or would I do something else if I got the opportunity? What should I do with my life?”

Whatever your answer, F4S is a people analytics platform that can tell you what your motivations are that drive your behaviors.

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