Talent vs. Skill: Which is More Important in Your Job?

Jul 11, 2014
5 Min Read

Professional jobs usually involve skills that can be learned by the majority of people. Talent, on the other hand, tends to be irrelevant.

I recently got an inquiry from the brilliant Bret Silverberg, a Monster.com writer who never stops probing the tough questions. What Bret asked me sounded simple at the outset. What exactly is talent and how should we define it?

A talent is a natural aptitude or skill. Talent in the plural is an HR term referring to a population of employees. Bret wanted to know if it could be learned.

Personally, I feel that a talent is at least somewhat natural, although you have to practice to refine it. Skills, however, can usually be learned from scratch and most workplace tasks involve skills rather than talents.

The unique role of talent

It’s a rare situation in which someone doesn't have enough talent for a job. An example of this would be a job as a professional singer. If you are tone deaf, you simply don't have the talent to do this job. Period. But in most professional jobs, you need to know things like how to use a software program, how to give a speech in public, and how to create a budget. Most people can learn these.

Of course, there’s always an exception. I would say that if you have tried through formal and informal means to learn the skills associated with a job and just can't get the hang of doing them proficiently, then there may be a talent issue. For instance, if you are an extreme introvert in a sales position, you can practice engaging in charismatic banter 24/7, but you may not have the interpersonal talent to close deals.

Could it be a matter of fit?

Bret asked how people can differentiate between “wrong fit” and “wrong talent.” Wrong talent means you can't do a job competently. Wrong fit means that culturally or strength-wise, this position may not be the best match for you. In the case of the introverted sales executive, wrong fit would mean he could sell effectively but just didn’t enjoy doing it. Wrong talent would mean he couldn’t sell no matter how hard he tried.

You also don’t have to be talented – or even skilled – in every aspect of your job. Most positions involve a range of competencies, and you will naturally be stronger in some than in others. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you are always trying to better yourself and enhance your repertoire.

Before you jump the gun…

If you do come to the realization that you lack the talent necessary to do your job, don’t panic. Take a step back and complete an online assessment like Latitude to get more data about where your natural aptitudes lie. Then, scout around internally to see if there's a position that better fits the bill. You should also have an honest conversation with your manager to see if you are possibly being too hard on yourself. If you are truly a disaster in the job, you’ll need to know if the issue can be remedied or if it’s best for everyone if you move on.

In short, skills are far more critical than talent in 90 percent of jobs. And if you need more than my point of view to convince you, take a browse through the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook sometime. There are literally hundreds of thousands of occupations out there, and you’ll see that there are lots of jobs you are qualified to do well. The challenge is to find a position in which you meet the basic criteria but also have room for growth and development.

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