Hard Work Beats Talent
The hard work of screenwriting
Anson Dorrance, the most successful soccer coach in NCAA history, tells his teams at the beginning of every season:
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
He’s likely not the originator of this saying, but I first heard it from him more than 20 years ago.
And it’s 100% true.
Whether you’re talking about soccer, golf, playing the cello, or screenwriting, it is true.
Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, Leo Messi – the list goes on and on – were all born with a certain amount of talent. But not one of them became the dominant superstars they were because of their talent. They became great because of their work ethic.
There have been countless people in all forms of art and sport who were born with the same amount of talent as Woods and Bryant; some with even more. But they never succeeded because they didn’t put the work in.
They relied on their talent. And some were talented enough they actually reached a high level of achievement. But they never hit the highest level of their potential.
As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “We cannot control the level of talent we’ve been given. What we can control is our motivation, discipline, and how hard and smart we work.”
What does this have to do with screenwriting? There have been supremely talented screenwriters who flamed out early in their careers for this very reason. They found initial success and simply tried to ride whatever talent they had… and they were gone as fast as they arrived.
Steve Zaillian, Shonda Rhimes, Scott Frank, Vince Gilligan, Liz Hannah, and so on, are massively successful screenwriters not simply because of their talent – but because of how hard they work at it. They don’t simply hang around the pool, never writing, waiting for the next seven-figure deal before they do something. They are writing all the time.
I’ve never had too much talent. But I’ve worked my tuckus off for a very long time. And I’m a much, much better writer now than I was 20 years ago. I am better now than I was 20 weeks ago because I am always writing. The more you work, the better you get.
Kobe Bryant was better in his second year in the NBA than he was as a rookie. And better in his fifth year than his fourth and so on. The stories from other players about Kobe’s work ethic are legendary. That’s why he was as good as he was. To put a lamp on the opposite of this – Kobe was once asked how good Shaquille O’Neal was.
Kobe said without hesitation, “He could have been the best player in the history of the game; better than anyone who ever played. But he had no work ethic to get better. He just relied on his talent and size.”
All of this goes back to the age old maxim:
It’s about the journey, not the destination.
You must absolutely fall in love with the process of the journey rather than the dreams of the destination. That is, IF your desire is to be the best screenwriter you can possibly be. If your desire is to just sell something, well, you're at the wrong website.
So, what is the journey? It’s the hard work. The practice. Writing begets writing. The writing of bad sentences, of weakly formed characters. The writing of ideas that go nowhere. The writing of your thoughts and frustrations about not knowing what to write. Like Serena hitting a thousand forehands and a thousand backhands in practice – to achieve the highest level of your potential as a screenwriter, you must write and write. You must fall in love with the practice. The journey.
Pablo Casals, considered by many to be the greatest cellist in history, once had this exchange with an interviewer…
“Pablo, you are considered one of the greatest ever. And yet here you are at 93 years old still practicing two hours a day. Why do you do it?”
Pablo answered, “Because I believe I am making progress.”
Pablo loved the journey.
Steve Zaillian loves screenwriting.
I've known many a screenwriter with potential talent - an Instinctual knowledge of storytelling, or a fantastic ear for dialogue - who never found success. And I've known many screenwriters that didn't have much God-given talent, yet loved the process so much that they worked as hard as they could, got better and better, and have found tremendous success.
I’ve often said I would be a screenwriter regardless of whether I’m eating at NOBU or eating Top Ramen. What does that mean? It means I don’t do it for the money. I have made a lot of money in screenwriting. I have eaten my share of meals at Nobu. But I’ve also had a lot of lean times, especially in the early days, when I could only afford to eat Top Ramen.
During both those stages of my life I loved the work. The practice. I’ve written a lot of bad stuff no one will ever see, and I’ve written a fair amount of pretty good stuff no one will likely ever see. And while I obviously would love all my work to find an audience, and I truly love meals at Nobu, I am a writer. And that’s what we do.
— Paul Guyot