“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
I just read a revealing parable about four horses that I want to share with you. It’s taken from a wonderful book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master. According to Zen tradition, there are said to be four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse can run slowly or fast, as the driver wills, before it sees the shadow of its master’s whip. The second-best horse will run just as well as the first, right before the whip touches it. The third horse will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth horse will run only when the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.
After hearing this story, most of us would choose to be the best horse or the second best. But this is shortsighted says Master Suzuki. If we learn something too easily, he contends, we are tempted not to work our hardest — and so we fail to penetrate to the “marrow” of our practice, whatever it is.
As he notes, “If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.”
The best horse, says Master Suzuki, may end up being the worst and the “worst horse” can be the best, because if it perseveres despite all its difficulties — and precisely because of those difficulties — it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones. The lessons learned will have penetrated at the deepest level.
I love this story because it acknowledges the tremendous value of perseverance. We can consume huge amounts of energy worrying over whether or not we’re talented enough to succeed at what we’re doing — whether it’s writing a book or a play or a short story. But in the end, this preoccupation with talent can deflect us from something far more important and valuable: putting in the hard work required to gain the experience we need to master whatever it is we choose to excel at. For me, the words of a female jockey spring to mind: “I don’t ride to beat the boys, just to win.” Write on!