Is Being “Naturally Good” a Bad Thing?

Here in Ireland it is 'Laying Up Supper' time of year - an end-of-season get together involving food and drink. And some more drink. And maybe some dancing. And drink.

I like a good Laying Up Supper - they are always good for having a laugh and often for chatting properly to people that you don't speak to as much as you'd like during the year. They tend to be a lot of fun.

One such evening a few years ago I had won a trophy or two at the prize giving, and my wife ended up chatting to a fellow Laser sailor. He told her that I was incredibly annoying (as if she didn't know that already). But he had a specific reason that I was incredibly annoying (as if she didn't have enough specific reasons already).

He told her that it was particularly frustrating that I would roll up very late, quickly get changed, throw my boat together, rush out to just make the start, and then frequently win the race. I didn't fuss over my boat or fiddle with the set-up, just went out and won races.

Of course, he was being overly kind (in his way), and he was exaggerating both my performance and my chilled-out nature. But I couldn't help feeling flattered - it was nice to be considered a natural sailor - someone that didn't have to try very hard to be successful.

It was only a long time later, when a chance comment happened to bring the exchange to mind, that I began to wonder about my reaction to his comments. It's not unusual to feel proud of being naturally good at something, and flattered that someone else has noticed. But then I realised that I'm not naturally good at sailing. And that I'm not particularly chilled out about my gear, or arriving late, or any of it, really.

I may have seemed to him to be a natural, but actually I had been sailing for years, racing against very good sailors and travelling around the country in my youth competing in national and regional competitions. I was bound to be at least quite good - you'd have to be a fool to have received the coaching I've had and done the amount of sailing I've done to not be at least a little bit good.

And I didn't turn up at the last minute because I didn't feel the need to worry about my equipment or race set-up. I left work and headed straight for the club, and it was the earliest I could get there - my last-minute nature was a matter of necessity rather than choice.

But the really strange thing about my reaction was that I felt proud and flattered. Why would I be proud of being good at something without having to try at it? Surely it should be the other way round. I should have hoped that people would be thinking that I had worked hard at getting good, and that the trophies I had won were the reward for putting in a concerted effort to improve.

And I realised that that very often isn't how the human mind works. In some situations we actively dislike other people knowing that we've really invested some time and effort into something. It is far easier on the ego to act like you haven't put a lot of effort in, and that you don't really care that much - if you do well then people think you're a natural, and if you do badly then you can say that you weren't that bothered about it anyway.

It is so much harder to really try at something and come up short.

As luck would have it, a few weeks later the opportunity to get some coaching came up. It was awkward timing, meaning I'd have to sacrifice some valuable at-home time and put others out in order to partake, but I realised that if I actually wanted to improve then I'd have to make sacrifices and compromises. And I'd also have to put myself out there - be willing to actively try to improve with the implied risk that I might not actually get any better - in short, I'd have to accept that I'd work at something and fail. And that others would know that I'd failed.

It's not a big deal kind of failure - I doubt anyone would actually care one way or the other (except me). But, like almost any self-improvement, even the slightest hardship or doubt can be enough to take the wind out of your sails (if you'll pardon the metaphor).

There are some who would not recognise this kind of thinking - some people embrace being seen as hard-working, and view failure as a learning tool. This is as it should be, and I'm jealous of them.

But for some of us it is easier to carry on doing the same things, to want to do better but to avoid being seen to be trying to get better. It is a strategy that rarely works - at best improvement takes a long time. At worst, improvement doesn't happen at all.

There have been studies recently which show that viewing yourself (or being viewed by others) as a "natural" at something can make you less inclined to risk making mistakes or pushing yourself to improve in that area. On the other hand, being viewed as a hard-worker can increase the amount of work you put in. In short, you do what you can to maintain the reputation that you have - you don't make mistakes because you're a "natural", or you practice a lot because you're a hard worker.

I think I'm going to try and be more of a hard worker and less of a natural.

Speaking of which, my hangovers after a Laying Up Supper seem to be getting worse. I used to be a natural drinker, but in 2017 I'm going to have to practice drinking a lot to make sure I'm fully up-to-speed for next Christmas.

The hard work starts now.

pint-of-lager

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