SKILL versus WILL: Which is the Winner in Your Quest for Success?
A post from our Career Success blog
Written by Steve
If the title of this article prompted you to take a look, it's pretty likely that you are serious about your career. Your motivation may be financial – rising high, or earning commission, or pushing your own business to success. But it could be based on something else: think of a scientist or innovator who wants to push the boundaries, or the charity worker who wants to achieve great outcomes, or the group (or department) leader who wants to make a difference.
If you want to succeed – and here I mean really succeed – there are two things you need as a basic foundation. I'm not giving you anything revolutionary: these concepts are often quoted and expounded upon. Why, there's even a Skill-Will Matrix if you want to get technical about it. But in this article I'm giving you my quick assessment of how the two fit together and how you can use a simple understanding of them to assess what you need to do, or even (dare I say) whether you have it in you, to succeed.
Skill is the quantifiable foundation of what you do. You can take a test if you like, but it's about your capability to perform the tasks required of you. At a basic level you will know whether you can do a job, or how well you can do it. You can often watch other people and see whether they are better than you, and where you need to improve. Sometimes that skill can only truly come with experience: think of the time-served manager or supervisor who just seems to have the knack of resolving issues without missing a beat.
Yes, skill is the foundation. Without it, how can you hope to succeed?
But you can always improve. You can read, observe, attend training, receive coaching and even take on a mentor. Although getting better at what you do can take a lot of effort, there are always ways you can do it.
Will is the driver of your success. It's what you have within you, the thing that decides whether you can overcome the obstacles that appear in your way. Because they do.
But I don't mean a loose desire to have or achieve something – that's just a "Wish". We all have a wish list: you may want to buy a new car, or your next house or maybe speak to the person of your dreams who waits at the bus stop every morning. But do you have the will to actually achieve these things?
How many times have I interviewed someone (and I've done a fair bit of this) who tells me that they are really passionate about success, of doing their job well, and so on? Yes, lots of times. And I'll tell you what: most don't know what they are talking about. They have never actually thought it through, because if they had, they wouldn't be talking this way. They have set their bar too high, and they invariably fail. They should find a definition of success that matches their level of will.
One of my favourite quotations comes from Thomas Edison, who said:
"When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this - you haven't."
Brilliant: just think of how much will he had, and if he hadn't, would we have light bulbs nowadays? (Well, yes, but they'd have probably come a lot later.)
Skill or Will – Which Wins?
Maybe the next question you may ask is, which is the most important between skill and will – if you had to pick one, what would be the winner?
The fact is, there is no winner – success involves a combination of the two. You need the foundation of skill in order to perform. And there are ways to make yourself better. But what do you do when "stuff happens"? If a good salesperson has a bad month, do they knuckle down, analyse, and vow to do better, or do they blame the market, company and/or management? If a capable executive hits resistance to changes s/he wants to make, does s/he seek ways to overcome the opposition, or does s/he just give up? If a brilliant inventor hits a brick wall with a project, are they going to try new ways to approach it, or will they just move on to something else?
I expect most of us agree that James Dyson (sorry… Sir James…) is/ was/ will always be a very talented and capable man. After all, he invented the bagless vacuum cleaner, and now we have things like hand dryers and cooling fans without blades. But if you read his story, you will learn about the enormous technical and commercial difficulties he had to overcome over many years. Without extraordinary will (and, for the record, an immensely supportive wife) he would not be the household name that he is today.
In my view, people need a level of skill to even come into the reckoning. Improving skills is easy if you pick the right course of action: we have proved it thousands of times. But if you are really going to succeed, you need the will to do so. That is far more important because it lies within, and can only be tested in adversity.
It's a bit like dating, really (as far as I can remember…) where there are certain basics like appearance, manners a sense of humour, and probably cleanliness. (Make your own list.) These form the "essentials" and if someone doesn't match up in the areas that are important to you, they are going to have a hard job of getting any further. But once into a relationship there are other things like loyalty, trustworthiness and thoughtfulness which take it to a different level. That's why you sometimes see someone who may be scruffy, or unattractive, with someone who appears to be way out of their class. It's usually because they score highly on the important things. I hope I haven't veered too far off topic here, but in the same way, a lack of skill can be overcome with masses of will.
So although it's best, and less stressful, to have the skills you need, if for any reason you can't – or need time – to develop them, you must be able to draw on your will to succeed.
In a perfect world, we recruit people with both. But if I'm given the choice between someone who needs development but is driven, and someone who is highly skilled but seems to lack genuine desire, it will be the first one every time. In fact, I'll be excited by the prospect of watching them grow.
What Can You Do?
OK, let's be frank: your own self-assessment may be biased, because I've rarely met people who say they don't want to succeed. But if you want to be fair to yourself, you need to look back on times of hardship, on setbacks you have had, and assess whether you did all you could, or could you have done more? Have you failed but blamed others without considering your own shortcomings? If the answer is yes, that's fine, but learn from your mistakes. If the answer is no, in other words you have always done the right thing, you may want to dig deeper and ask yourself again. Don't beat yourself up, but resolve to do more and try harder next time. Sometimes what appears to be a failure of will can actually be a lack of awareness, or even confidence.
But at the end of any day, in any situation, it's better to be realistic – so even if you realise that success (in whatever way you've defined it) doesn't actually matter as much as you thought, then that's fine: accept it and take the pressure off yourself and those around you. If you are still adamant that success is important to you, you should be sure that your will is at least the equal of your skill.
And whatever your choice, I hope this article helps you to reach a conclusion that gives you a happy outcome.
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