If you love sports like I do—whether it’s baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, or tuning into the Olympics—you probably marvel at the phenomenal ability of the athletes involved. You have to wonder what makes them so talented, so gifted, that they can perform at such a high level, day, after day.

These talented athletes make plays we mere mortals can only dream about. Where does that extraordinary ability come from? Is greatness a genetic gift that these athletes are born with?

Is the same true in business? Are successful entrepreneurs born with a business gene? We often refer to it as the Midas touch: whatever they touch turns to gold. Or, can anyone be great at what they do?

Here, our greatest athletes can give us some insights. In fact, the Great One, who possesses an unparalleled array of honours and scoring records, has famously pointed out that he “wasn’t naturally gifted in terms of size and speed.”

From Gretzky’s earliest days of honing his skills in his Brantford backyard rink, he worked for it – every day. “The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I work hard every day, that I never dog it,” he’s known for saying. That’s the secret to his success. But nothing is ever that simple.

It’s the age-old question of talent versus hard work. Can hard work lead you to greatness?

Studies suggest that all things being equal, those with natural talent do better in life than their less-talented colleagues. They definitely start with an edge. But where does that leave the hard worker?

Studies also suggest that with practice and effort, the difference between the talented and the not-so-talented shrinks. So talent helps, but ultimately, hard work puts you in the game.

Research by psychologist Anders Ericsson—cited frequently by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” – suggests that it takes around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class expert in something. Gladwell uses The Beatles as an example, but this “10,000 hour rule” isn’t just about athletes and entertainers, but applies to business people and even life skills. While Ericsson’s findings have been debated, there’s few who would question that practice does help to make perfect.

Another important factor is the notion that some people with raw talent tend to rest on their laurels. How many times have you seen it: a naturally gifted person thinks they can coast on their innate abilities and early successes? They don’t put in the hard work to grow. They lack the follow-up.

Not so with the hard worker. They often achieve results by sheer force of will, or by learning to be better, to be more knowledgeable and more efficient than their counterparts.

As I see it, hard work is even more important in teamwork. As the words of NBA legend Michael Jordan suggest, talent is good for a quick fix or single victory, but hard work is in there for the long haul. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

Hard work can never make talent less valuable, but talent becomes less relevant when it isn’t honed through hard work and follow-through. Ultimately the answer may lie in another sports maxim: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

hardwork_race

Personally, I believe hard work is a learned behaviour. I observed the benefits of a strong work ethic from my father and grandfather who unknowingly instilled what I believe is my greatest asset. Of the countless business and self-help books available today, none of them can effectively teach work ethic. However, developing an environment where commitment and work ethic are rewarded becomes self-fulfilling.

We have a great example with the recent championship won in the English Soccer Premier division by Leicester City. A team with 5,000 to one odds against succeeding and a team that nearly lost its position in the premier league just one year ago. Without a single “household name” on their roster, it became evident why Leicester City was succeeding. They were simply out-working their competition in all areas of the game. That work ethic became contagious and the team flourished. For me, work ethic is a learned behaviour and a character trait that defines success.

I’m an observer of people. My challenge to you is observe your colleagues and co-workers, see which camp you think they fall in: talented versus hard worker. Are the ones you rely on the most “talented” or “hardworking”? If your focus is on talent alone, consider the wisdom of Michael Jordan and ask yourself: are you looking to win a game, or do you want to bring home the championship?