Skill is the ability to do something. Talent is the rate at which you can acquire the ability to do something.¹
If you have a talent for the guitar, that means you will learn to play the guitar faster than someone who doesn’t have a talent for the guitar. If you don’t have a talent for the guitar, that means it will take longer to learn to play the guitar than it would if you did have some talent.
For most things* in life, talent doesn’t really matter. The rate at which you can acquire the ability to do something doesn’t really matter. What really matters is the length of time you can do something.
This reality was crystallized in my head when I taught skiing. I saw both sides of the talent-doesn’t-really-mater coin. There’s the kid with tons of talent but lives in Florida and only skis the few days of the winter break trip to Colorado. Then there’s the kid with little talent but lives down the street in Vail. It doesn’t really matter who has the talent, the kid who gets forty to fifty days on the mountain each winter is a better skier.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about how this is the point most people overlooked in the “10,000-Hour Rule” chapter in Outliers. The point was not that you just have to put thousands of hours into something to get good at it. It was that you have to be able to put in thousands of hours. The point is made, subtly: “The interesting thing about ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time.”²
To get really good at something, you need to be able to do it a lot. To be able to do something a lot, what do you need?
Kim Ung-Yong had a lot of talent. By the age of 3, he could solve calculus problems. By 5, he could speak Korean, Japanese, French, German, and English. At the age of 7, he went on TV in Japan and shocked viewers with his ability to solve complicated math equations. He then got his elementary, middle, and high school degrees in two years. Around this time, Kim was measured as having an IQ of 210—at the time, the highest IQ ever. And at 15, he earned a Ph.D. in physics before accepting an invitation to do research at NASA. But after a few years, he quit his job at NASA, returned to South Korea, became a part-time teacher, and was branded a “failed genius.”
Kim Ung-Yong’s television appearance at the age of 7
“Some think,” Kim would say to the idea that he wasted his talents, “people with a high IQ can be omnipotent, but that’s not true. Look at me…Society should not judge anyone with unilateral standards—everyone has different learning levels, hopes, talents, and dreams and we should respect that.”³
To be able to do something a lot, you need interest. The kid needs to live near the mountain and to want to go skiing. Tony Hawk needed a skateboard and to want to skate. Kim Ung-Yong needed a talent for math and to want to do math.
Imagine you had the choice between having tons of talent for something but losing interest in it quickly, and, having less talent for something but never losing interest in it. When you see those options laid out like that, it’s obvious. Without interest, talent doesn’t really matter. And with interest, talent doesn’t really matter.
The comedian Steve Martin had no talent for the banjo. To begin to try to learn, he got a book called How To Play The 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger. One of the first lessons was how to make a C-chord. Martin put his fingers down on the strings and strummed a C-chord. “I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. To him, strumming a C-chord sounded just like strumming with no fingers down on any of the strings. “I was not naturally talented,” he writes.⁴
But he really wanted to be able to play the banjo. “So I just stayed with it,” Martin said, “and I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, if I just stay with it, one day, I will have played for forty years…Anybody who sticks with [the banjo] for forty years will be able to play it.”⁵
Martin stuck with the banjo and in 2001, he and his banjo won a Grammy for “Best Country Instrumental Music Performance.”
Jerry Seinfeld was once asked, what would you teach in a class on how to become a great writer or comedian or actor or [insert anything]?
“I would teach them to learn to accept your mediocrity,” Seinfeld said. “You know, no one’s really that great. You know who’s great? The people that just put a tremendous amount of hours into it. It’s a game of tonnage, you know? How many hours are you going to work? Per week, per month, per year—you might even want to chart that.”⁶
That’s what matters. That’s why a sixth-round draft pick can become the greatest NFL player of all time. That’s why a high school kid can be touted as a 5-tool ballplayer then become an MLB-bust. That’s why a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock, a writer like Mark Twain, and a painter like Cézanne can really start to hit their stride in their forties, fifties, and sixties.⁷ That’s why there’s Wikipedia pages full of child prodigies you’ve never heard of. Because for most things in life, the prize doesn’t go to the person who shows up with talent, it goes to the person who stays at it the longest. The person who just puts in a tremendous amount of hours. It’s a game of tonnage, you know?
*For some things, of course things like genetics matter. There’s no amount of time, for instance, that would lead to me acquiring the size and speed necessary to be an NFL running back.
 I got these definitions of skill and talent from HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah. Shah talks about the importance of distinguishing between skill and talent in just about every interview I’ve listened to. On My First Million, Shah credits his success to the talent/skill mindset shift. And here, he was asked what his biggest strength is—“my biggest strength is the ability to separate skills from talent…I don’t let the lack of talent hold me back from learning whatever I need to learn.”
 Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
 Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
 Steve Martin on Charlie Rose
 Jerry Seinfeld — A Comedy Legend’s Systems, Routines, and Methods for Success
 Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity? by Malcolm Gladwell