Have you ever wondered why some talented people manage to achieve so much, while others with considerable talent seem mired in mediocrity? Sometimes less-talented individuals rise to levels of accomplishment that more-talented peers can only envy.
We see this in every area of life: “Most likely to succeed” high school graduates who never amount to anything out of the ordinary, while largely overlooked classmates rise to prominence. Sometimes even becoming nationally or internationally known in their chosen fields of endeavor. We see this with school teachers, physicians, authors and artists, business executives, military leaders, musicians, athletes, scientists and innovators.
So what’s the difference? What separates the truly accomplished person from talented ones who never fulfill their potential? There can be many contributing factors: finding the right environments for using their talents; inner motivation; effective training and mentoring. Maybe you can think of others. But there’s one factor we usually don’t hear about.
Brian Kight, a noted business consultant and motivational speaker, explained a key reason he has observed for the difference.“Talent is common. Discipline is rare,” he said. “The combination is elite. Discipline produces what talent promises.”
Among Kight’s clients are sports teams, an ideal place for seeing how wide is the gap between talent and achievement. Take, my favorite sport – college football. Every year during the pre-season, pundits study the various rosters – returning starters, four- and five-star recruits, caliber of coaching – and submit their projections for the coming season.
These so-called experts have done their research, devoted many hours to their respective analyses, and submitted their best-educated guesses. Invariably, some of their prognostications fall short, sometimes stunningly so. One reason is that you can’t judge on-field performance based on talent alone.
As Kight has suggested, a key factor for determining success is discipline. Athletes maximizing their talents by spending countless hours in training and conditioning programs; focusing on their respective responsibilities; preparing diligently for upcoming opponents, and working together effectively. Their names also don’t appear on the police blotters for doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.
Discipline is a recurring theme in the Scriptures, as well. When we read about “discipline” in the Bible, it’s not speaking about punishment for wrongdoing, but rather God’s method for correcting and training His children. For instance, Proverbs 3:11 admonishes, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves as a father the son he delights in.”
Another passage, Hebrews 12:5-7, says much the same:
“… ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.’”
Obviously these passages refer to our being disciplined by the Lord, rather than self-discipline. But again, to use the football analogy, a successful coach will discipline players in a variety of ways. At the same time, he expects them to implement discipline in their own lives as well.
Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul instructed him to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the worth of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He’s saying that to be a genuine, fruitful follower of Jesus Christ, we can’t be passive. We must be consciously striving, working diligently and with discipline to become the men and women God intends for us to be.
As another passage tells us, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to all who love him” (James 1:12). To persevere means much more than to simply endure or withstand difficult times; it means to courageously face adversity, working through it and seeking to remain true to the goals and purposes we believe the Lord has provided for us.
Paul also liked to use sporting metaphors. Referring to athletic competitions that were common in his day, he wrote, "Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable" (1 Corinthians 9:25). Or as the New Living Translation expresses it, “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.”
The Scriptures don’t use the word “talent” as much as they do “gifts,” but it’s clear that every believer has at least one spiritual gift that God intends for us to use for His glory. Through devotion and discipline, we can use those gifts in such a way that we will one day hear Him welcome us with, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:21). Just to hear this will have made our discipline more than worth any sacrifice it required.