Sunday, February 26, 2006

Of Talent & Hard Work

Oh, another one of those dichotomies(I am getting smitten by this word lately). When people talk about success and the qualities needed to succeed, a number of words are used almost interchangeably - talent, aptitude, skill etc. Each one of those is usually contrasted with the other qualities needed to succeed - grit, labour, determination,etc. The point is, do we ever try to tackle this line of thought in terms that are anything beyond the cliched and self-defeatingly general observations like - 'talented people will do well no matter what' and 'hard work will win the day even if you are not so talented'. I perhaps have no new insights to offer myself, but in this post I will attempt to clear the muddle somewhat, atleast to my own satisfaction. It will probably be interesting for those who know me well because a significant part of my life as a young adult has been a classic case in the gap between what is and what could have been. This blog, and the thought process that led to it, has been inspired, inter alia, by

1. The classic nature vs nurture argument.
2. The overwhelming observation that a huge number of people study, and end up doing what they believe they are not inherently good at, and the equally overwhelming observation that a huge number of people have done brilliantly for themselves , and for the society, doing things that no one thought they were good at.
3. On-off public/private debates about the merits of examinations as true measures of talent.
4. A discussion with a friend, about a year ago, about the difference between skill & talent with refrence to Frank Lampard's meteoric rise to form for England & Chelsea last year.

To begin with, let's first state what seems like the most obvious thing - to succeed in any field, endeavour, education or sport, one needs a set of skills. Successful people are those who are more skilled at what they do than others. This general observation has a lot of underlying implications.

1. Examinations cannot, and should not, measure talent, for they are not supposed to. They are measures of skill, and in the sense that an examination is supposed to artificially measure the chances of a person's success in his/her chosen line of study/work, examinations cannot be faulted as a whole. It is possible to debate individual examination systems, to see if they are really testing the skills that they are supposed to test, but these are localised discussions and it is futile to think along the lines of 'exams are useless'. If some genuinely insightful researcher was to develop an indigenous way of testing aptitude in a specific field, I may still give it a rethink, but as every student worth his salt knows, there are ways to ace any of the existing popular aptitude tests(and thats not very wrong - if a person is resourceful enough to figure out how to maximize success in an aptitude test, he probably has it in him to figure out how to maximize success in a real life situation).

2. The word talent needs defining, and in light of the above observation, it can be defined as 'the ease with which you acquire the skills that you need to'. Which is to say, A is more talented than B if he(pardon my constant use of the male third-person pronoun. I am not sexist, I am just used to the old school of writing. I am trying to change, though.) can acquire an equivalent set of skills with lesser effort, and correspondingly become more skilled with the same amount of effort. Effort can, by and large, be measured with the simple metric of time. If you need 6 hours to perfect your cover drive while I need 12, you are a more talented batsman than I am.

3. This is probably the only genuinely new thing I have to offer - I assert that it is near impossible to compare the intrinsic talent level of two people, especially w.r.t sporting celebrities, unless you have personal experience with both of them or have access to some insightful observations made by someone who is analytical and has observed both of them closely. We can compare our classmates based on their academic talent with some reasonable degree of accuracy, because we work with them day in and day out. However, when we say something like 'Saurav Ganguly is more talented than Rahul Dravid' most of the times we just mean that the former is more flamboyant/stylish and scores at a quicker rate. We have no way of ourselves determining how much effort went behind developing each one of those seemingly 'effortless' cover drives that Dada played(atleast in his prime), and consequently must not, unless informed by suitably knowledgeable sources, indulge ourselves in such mind-numbingly simple generalizations as 'Ganguly is talented but not hard-working and Dravid is hardworking but not so talented' (ok, now that Chappell says that Saurav is actually a lazy bum, what do I know, maybe our generalizations were correct after all ;) )

4. Some kinds of talent are easy to spot and identify with certainity, even for the casual observer. Two stereotypes spring to my mind - the precocious and the outrageous. Examples are easy to find in the sporting world, and elsewhere.

Precocious - SachinTendulkar debuted for India with flying colours when he was 16, and Pele scored in a World Cup semifinal with a scissor's kick when he was 17.

Outrageous - On a good day, VVS Laxman picks up short of length deliveries outside the offstump and consistently flicks them through midwicket. Maradona once famously scored a goal against England in the '86 World Cup, starting from his own half, dodging and dribbling past five burly Englishmen and making Peter Shilton look like an absolute idiot(and as is often forgotten, did a near replay of that goal when he scored against Belgium in the next match).

It is, however, important to note that the youngest debutantes seldom make the best players of their generation. Also, sportsmen who do things on the field that their peers don't even think of doing are usually not those who win most matches for their country. There are a few notable exceptions, and they only serve to prove the rule.

5. Talent, or intelligence are not static quantities. Interest whets aptitude, aptitude whets interest, and hard work whets them both. If you believe that you are not mathematically gifted, but resolve to work hard at it anyway, there are very good chances that not only will you become skilled at what you are currently learning in maths, but you will also be more receptive and intuitive about any further topics that you will learn later. According to Darwinian analysis, you may not have actually increased your natural capability, just awakened some latent genes, but for all practical purposes, from a macro, society point of view, your talent level has increased. (And so Divs, Lampard might have plainly become more skilled, or gloriously, more talented - we will not know. The only thing that we can say for sure is that he must have worked his ass off.)

6. Only if you set your sights at stratospheric levels of achievement in your chosen field does your natural talent level assume make or break significance. Do get expert opinion before you latch on to a career plan of 'I want to be a nuclear physicist at Stanford's particle accelerator labaratory' or 'I want to play Test cricket for India'. For most people though, and in most professions, a medium level of natural ability is enough and doesn't set an automatic upper bound on what you may achieve through your efforts. Amazingly and amusingly, this works out just as well for someone who is in a career that may not have been her(see, I'm improving!) first choice as for someone else who is trying to pursue her dream, only to find that she may not have genuine natural ability in her field of choice.

7. Neither of the above two points are supposed to imply that we must all then just accept the first decent thing that comes our way and then keep pushing hard, without thinking in terms of 'do I really like what I do?'. There are two reasons for this. First, quite a few people have a genuine lack of natural ability, as well as disinterest in what they are doing. They will then fall into the lack of interest-lack of ability- lack of effort vicious cycle and it is a must to avoid this. Second, and more importantly, to lead a fruitful and fulfilling life, one must at all times try to create the corresponding virtuous cycle, one of interest-talent-hard work. For this it is important to introspect, analyse, confer and maybe get professional advice.

Phew, that was a long one.

Random assertion - Quentin Tarantino is the most over-rated director in the history of Hollywood. He may not be bad per se, but no one as under-achieving has ever headed a Cannes jury. I couldn't sit through one hour of the cult classic Pulp Fiction. I like John Travolta, am not too fond of Samuel Jackson. But, either of them walking on a Saturday Night Fever hangover and mouthing 'F***ing M*****f***er, I will chop your balls off, F***ing M*****f***er' is not my idea of good cinema. And as for Kill Bill, watch out for a review sometime in the future.


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Swagat said...

Hey Ritwik,
I read your second post a few weeks ago when Rohini recommended it to me. You're the last among the few people who inspired me to blog. (As opposed to the other mindless idiots who didn't). You're almost the 'straw that broke the camel's back' but in a good way. Anyway wish me luck! And keep blogging, you're an interesting read.