Should you hire natural geniuses or hard workers?

The answer can be complex and contradictory

You have two candidates whom you recently interviewed and they are eagerly awaiting your response. Both are qualified to do the job and both have personalities that fit well with your company’s culture. Both went to good schools and got good grades. However, it became clear in the interview that one candidate was naturally gifted and has never had to work hard for their rewards, while the other has consistently worked hard to get where they are today.

So as a manager, is it favourable to hire the most naturally gifted “genius”? Or does it make more sense to hire the less naturally talented candidate who is capable of doing the job and consistently works hard to get the job done?

Like most important questions, this answer is a shade of grey rather than black or white. Most experts can agree that having the competency, skills, and experience to perform the job are fundamental requirements to fill any role. Furthermore, attitude, passion, personality, and the ability to work well with others (also called “fit”) are other critical components in making hiring decisions.

However, author Angela Duckworth convincingly argues that one trait has proven time and time again to be a consistent predictor of success: grit. From her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she describes a number of scientific studies, as well as her own experiences, that consistently reinforce the idea that talent can only take a person so far. After leaving a demanding role in management consulting in her late twenties for an even more demanding role teaching grade-seven math, she discovered that IQ was not the only difference that separated her best and worst students. She argues that success in grade-seven math, much like success in life, requires more than just the ability to learn quickly and easily. It requires the ability to work on something you’re deeply interested in (passion) and work hard to reach a long-term goal (perseverance).

Showing up counts for a lot

I’ve written about grit before and I’ll inevitably write about it again because it’s such an important concept in our time of “insta-this” and “insta-that”. Grit requires showing up over and over and over again. It requires demonstrating resilience in the face of difficulty and resisting the urge to take the easy way out. It requires persevering when what you’re working on isn’t fun any more in order to achieve the goal you’ve set out to accomplish. It requires “deliberate practice”, picking yourself up after failure, and plain old hard work.

Even Darwin shared a similar opinion on work ethic versus natural talent: “…for I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.”

In her book, Duckworth explains that in national US surveys, Americans have been asked “Which is more important to success – talent or effort?”  Americans choose “effort” twice as often. They’ve also been asked, “If you were hiring a new employee, which of the following qualities would you think is most important?” “Hardworking” is chosen five times as often as “intelligence”. It seems as though most people understand the importance and impact of hard work.

Duckworth also explains an interesting contradiction. In a study conducted by psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay, she uncovered that as much as people believe that hard work is important, people love natural talent. Her studies found that participants outwardly stated one thing (that hard work is important) but thought another, by directly contradicting their own beliefs and stating that the study’s subjects who had natural talent were more likely to succeed and were “more hirable” than their counterparts. In other words, talent distracts us. This can be a problem because in her research, Duckworth has found that grit is usually unrelated (and sometimes inversely related) to measures of talent.

Let’s be clear that if a candidate has proven themselves to be both hardworking and highly intelligent, that would be like having your cake and eating it too. These people do exist and they do great things in many companies, but there are also many talented people in this world who choose not to work hard at their craft. Talent is one thing, but what one does (or doesn’t do) with that talent is quite another thing.

The bottom line is that hard work counts for a lot in the daily grind of business.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.