Mr. Chesterfield was a friend of my parents. They thought he was a marvel. He seemed like he was naturally good at everything and everything he did looked effortless.
I’d seen him at receptions and parties conversing on a variety of topics, sometimes in more than one language. Mr. Chesterfield always seemed to have a relevant story to make a point or an interesting fact to bring to a discussion.
My mother said he “had a gift for languages.” My father called him a “natural storyteller.”
One night my mother asked me to take a note over to the Chesterfield’s apartment. She instructed me to wait for the reply. I walked over to their building, passed inspection by the doorman, and took the elevator.
Mr. Chesterfield was not available just then. He was in his study. Mrs. Chesterfield suggested that I leave the note with her. I told her I would wait. That’s what my mother had told me to do.
After we waited a while, I asked how long it would be. Mrs. Chesterfield wasn’t sure. I asked why. She told me that Mr. Chesterfield was “practicing.” Being a teenager, and blind to my own rudeness, I asked how long it would be a few more times. Finally, Mrs. Chesterfield heaved an exasperated sigh and said, “I’ll see if I can interrupt.”
She walked to the double doors that I knew led to Mr. Chesterfield’s study, rapped lightly, then opened the door a crack, “Reg,” she said, making it rhyme with Peg. “I’m sorry. Could you come out here for a second, please.”
In another couple of seconds, Mr. Chesterfield, emerged, greeted me, scanned the note, and wrote a reply. Then he put the note back in the envelope and handed it to me.
As he turned back to the study I asked, “What are you practicing?” He gave me a bemused look and paused before he spoke. “I’m practicing Chinese.” I must have looked puzzled so he went on.
“Next week, I will be meeting with some Chinese men about a business matter. I want to be able to greet them in their own language. So I’ve hired a tutor and I’m practicing Chinese.”
That night I learned that Mr. Chesterfield “practiced” every evening when he didn’t have meetings. Sometimes it was languages, sometimes it was history, and sometimes he practiced the stories he wanted to tell at some event.
I thought about that during the entire walk home. I knew now why Mr. Chesterfield seemed to “have a gift for languages” and why he looked like “a natural storyteller.” He practiced. It was an important lesson, but it’s taken me more than fifty years to plumb the depths of it.
I’ve been reading a lot about what makes top performers top performers. Mr. Chesterfield was a good example. He was born into a wealthy family and got all the benefits of that, including excellent schools and lots of travel. But many other people had the same advantages and never achieved excellence of any kind.
What set Mr. Chesterfield apart was “practicing.” He worked consciously and intensely about mastering things that would help him do better. I remembered him when I read the following quote from Ray Allen, one of the great shooters in the history of professional basketball.
“When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me.”
Sure genetics matter, they matter in almost everything. And how and where you’re raised makes a difference. So do the experiences you accumulate as you go through life. Coaches and mentors and bosses and teachers and parents all put their stamp on you. But one thing you can control is how hard you work. And that’s often what makes the difference.
Every great performer I’ve known or studied in any field you can name has worked hard. In the end, hard work always matters. Nobody’s a natural. We all have to learn. We can always get better.
So, let’s stop saying that people who do great things have a “gift” for something or that they’re “a natural.” Let’s praise their effort and progress and achievement instead.
Nobody’s a natural. We all have to learn. We can always get better.