Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?
Usually, we default to talking about skill and talent. That’s when we say things like he is the smartest, or she is the quickest.
Sometimes, we talk about luck. That’s when we say things like someone was in the right place at the right time, or they finally caught a break.
But we all know there is more to it than that.
Talent and luck are part of what it takes, sure. But when we look at top performers across all fields, there’s something that outweighs both – mental game.
We recognize that top performers have an insatiable desire to persevere that carries them through the troughs of adversity and resistance and into the heights of achievement and success. They have both reactive and proactive qualities; they can endure difficult situations until they persevere and overcome adversity, obstacles, or pressure. They then go on to maintain focus and motivation when things are going well to achieve their goals consistently.
Talent and skill have normal distributions; some people have more, and some people have less. But research has consistently shown that strength or smarts aren’t the most accurate predictions of achievement. Instead, it was grit – the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals – that made the difference.
We’ve probably seen evidence of this in our own lives. There’s that friend who squandered their talent, and then that other person who gave their all to accomplish their goal, no matter how hard it was or how long it took. In other words, talent is overrated.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that humans are created in God’s image, meaning humans possess a capacity for free choice that distinguishes us from all other creatures.
R’ Noach Weinberg teaches that desire, the free will to persevere, is evenly distributed, meaning that every one of us has an equal ability to choose, which ought to be hugely empowering. It means any of us can accomplish real greatness, and it starts with just choosing to want it badly enough.
The notion that humans have free will is the radical proposition that cuts to the very core of Judaism:
הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ – I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so you and your children will live! (30:19)
As the Rambam wrote, every one of us could choose to be as righteous as Moshe himself if we genuinely wanted to. Avos d’R’ Nosson teaches that the entire Torah is within everybody’s reach – עמלה של תורה, כל הרוצה ליטול יבוא ויטול / מורשה קהלת יעקב.
You have to believe in yourself and in your ability to do it – וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה. The Ramban suggests that it’s heresy to doubt yourself!
R’ Tzadok HaKohen explains that believing in God necessarily requires that you believe in yourself. God put you here to do something, so God obviously believes in your ability to perform. It follows that if you don’t think God believes in you, you don’t properly believe in God!
Your mental game plays a more important role than anything else in achieving your health, business, and life goals. That’s good news because while you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, you can do a lot to develop mental toughness. Mental toughness is a learned trait that anyone can develop.
There is undoubtedly some natural inclination that makes self-mastery easier for some people, but it is not a limiting factor in itself, however. Everyone’s ability to think, plan and execute is enough if they make use of it.
Regardless of the talent you were born with, you can become more consistent and disciplined, and you can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.
It’s something you build, but it’s also something you maintain and grow. Newly conquered territory becomes your new comfort zone soon enough.
When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on course. There will always be extreme moments that require incredible bouts of courage, determination, resiliency, and grit, and even the best of us will fail. There will never be a human who only succeeds and does not fail – כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא.
Every tough-as-nails person has faced sink-or-swim moments, and they didn’t choose to sink, float, or tread water. They chose life; they chose to swim. Every descendant of Jewish history is the heir to an intrinsic and inescapable legacy of people who chose to live proactively and not reactively. The bedrock of contemporary Jewish life today was substantially laid by Holocaust survivors, people who chose life, building anew in the wake of the devastation they endured.
But for most of life’s circumstances and challenges, toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people. Every day, cultivate your mental game a little and make life-affirming and life-enhancing choices.
Choose life – ובחרת בחיים.
Because hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.