Motivation, Aptitude, and Skill – The Three Facets of Success and Excellence

The title sounds really cheesy, I know, but this is a subject near and dear to my heart. This post has been on my to-do list since at least October of 2011, possibly earlier. I also want to preface this by saying that I don’t know that this is an original idea — I don’t claim it to be, but last time I looked I couldn’t find anything tying these three concepts together in this way. I welcome comments pointing me to other, better work.

Disclaimers made, here we go. I think that to succeed in any endeavor, you need three things: motivation, aptitude, and skill. Briefly, I will define these as I think of them.

  • Motivation: The inherent drive to do something. This could be for any reason.
  • Aptitude: The inherent or natural ability to do something.
  • Skill: The learned ability to do something.

I have the urge to make a triangle diagram, but I’m going to fight it for now. Basically, you won’t want to do something unless you are so motivated, which is something of a tautology. You may not be able to unless you have the aptitude. A good example of aptitude is the proverbial one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest. No matter how much he practices, he’s still going to have a very hard time. Finally, skill is the development that occurs on top of aptitude. There’s a common misconception that Mozart was simply able to play the piano and compose because he was a whiz. He may have had a ton of aptitude, but he also had a skilled composer and musician for a father, who drilled him from an early age on the skills required to realize that aptitude.

That last point is what really got me thinking about this in the first place. I was a smart kid. I had a lot of aptitude at certain things. I didn’t learn until I got to college that I’d never really learned to properly develop a skill to realize that aptitude. I think there’s a common cultural perception in America, or maybe even the West in general, that some people are just naturally really good at something, and therefore they end up excelling at it. This is a really poisonous notion, because then when people try to realize an idea they become frustrated, decide that they’re just “not any good at it” and quit. Culturally I wish we could shift to really recognize that a skill must be developed in order to realize aptitude.

Let me give you an example that I hope applies to you and will illustrate what you want. It could really apply to any artistic endeavor — this problem seems to be most manifest with regard to art. If, as a kid or even as an adult, you had a vision of something you wanted to draw, and then you sat down to try to draw it, you probably found that you could not make what was in your head appear on the paper. To me that artistic vision was part of the aptitude, but the skill was missing. Obviously if you were trying, you had the motivation. If you were like me (at least at one point), you may have become frustrated and given up. This is because your motivation was being channeled into merely trying, not developing the necessary skill, perhaps because you believed that you just weren’t naturally good enough at it. If drawing doesn’t apply to you, maybe it was playing guitar, or playing basketball, or learning to program.

Before I close this initial essay on this topic, let’s examine what happens when you only have two of the three components of this triangle-I-will-not-draw:

  • Motivation and Aptitude: Skill is lacking, and so as in the example above, this often results in frustration. If you recognize that skill must be developed, then that frustration can be channeled productively.
  • Aptitude and Skill: No motivation, so you never get it done. Could be considered “wasted talent”, but there are many good reasons to not be motivated to do something.
  • Motivation and Skill: This is tough. This is the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest. Like the first situation, it’s going to lead to frustration. In this case probably the only reasonable response is acceptance.

So there you have it, motivation, aptitude and skill. The next post on this topic will probably relate these three concepts to the concept of a “challenge”. I welcome additional thoughts as well as criticism.

One thought on “Motivation, Aptitude, and Skill – The Three Facets of Success and Excellence

  1. David

    In the book Outliers: The story of success there is a 10,000 hour rule. In order to be an expert you must practice 10,000 hours. What do you think are a reasonable number of hours you would need to develop the skill level to be competent in an endeavor given that you have motivation and aptitude? Also do you think that you develop enough skill to compensate for lack of attitude rather than acceptance?


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