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Willingness vs. ability

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Willingness vs. ability. For most people, most of the time, one is more powerful than the other.

Willingness vs. ability. It’s nice when the two come together, but it doesn’t always happen.

When it comes down to privileging one or the other, context counts for a lot. If one were forced to choose between an airline pilot who is able to fly the plane they’re about to board and a dentist who doesn’t know how to fly a plane but is willing to give it a go, or a dentist who is able to fill a cavity and the pilot in the next chair who is willing to try doing it, it’s not even a reasonable choice to consider. Where expertise is required, ability matters and elite status (certification, experience, proven result) counts for a lot. Ability and excellence are valuable in part because they are rare.

Willingness, on the other hand, is universally available. Willingness is a choice. It has to do with mindset, not technique. Regardless of ability or even desire, willingness is always a decision. I may not want to get on the treadmill or say “no” to a second piece of cake, but I can always be willing to be physically fit. That willingness is an important step in the ultimate choice I make about the treadmill or the cake.

When it comes to living in line with our deepest values and highest aspirations, willingness is often the difference between those who stay with something and succeed and those who don’t. Very few people engage in most areas of their life at the elite level. A virtuoso musician can be a mediocre cook. A professional athlete can be a terrible handyperson. For all of us, most of the time, excellence is not essential. Hard work and persistence are often more consequential than raw talent.

Virtuosity and excellence are the fruit of the meeting of ability (talent) and willingness (effort). I have heard interviews with a number of very fine musicians where the issue of practice came up. I can’t recall any of them saying they loved nothing more than practicing 2, 4, 6, or more hours per day. Or that it was always easy. Or that they never got frustrated. I was a decent drummer when I was a kid. I never became a good drummer because I didn’t practice enough.

Great musicians are great musicians because, before they were great musicians, when practice was hard, or frustrating, or boring, and they didn’t want to do it, they were still willing. They said “yes” to the discipline. Replace “musicians” with the discipline of your choice.

When I was in grade 10, my English teacher told us about how, early in his career, he had taught at Power Memorial Academy in New York City. When he would go into the gym at lunchtime or after school, he would watch a young Lew Alcindor practicing a move on the basketball court he called the “skyhook.” Over and over. Hundreds – thousands – of times.

When Alcindor joined the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 as the league’s first overall draft pick and took the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the skyhook became his signature move. One of the greatest basketball players of all time, Abdul0-Jabbar retired in 1989 after a 20-year professional career, and continued to hold the record for career points until 2023, when it was finally broken by Lebron James.

When it comes down to willingness vs. ability, there is no doubt that talent, skill, ability – these are beautiful things to witness. But overall, when lives are not on the line, willing is far more interesting and powerful than able. Choosing willingness is particularly powerful when we are not able. Or when we’re afraid of something, or just don’t want to do it. Because everyone has the ability to be willing. Because, in the long run,  effort frequently beats talent. And because in order to excel, we first need to say “yes.” Willing begets able.



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