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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The end of imagination

No, I'm not Arundhati Roy's greatest fan. Rather, I'm quite cynical about her and others of her kind. But I do think she manages to come up with some incredibly compact phrases, which are very appropriate in the sense she uses them , as well as open ended to allow considerable intellectual and linguistic latitude for the plagiarisers. Brutality smeared in peanut butter - good. The algebra of infinite justice - brilliant.

Here, I use the title of her famous essay on India's nuclear tests to convey my own situation with regards to my blog. You see, I'm not really suited to the free-flowing spontaneous style of writing directly to the computer screen, which is what bloggers do (I assume), and I have done till now. I like my pen, and my paper, and since I'm more interested in preaching my viewpoint than in divulging personal information, writing a composite topical essay before publishing it as a blog makes more sense( which might just be a fancy way of saying that I don't have anything to write, but I still want to write right now). So for today, I will limit myself to making a couple of lists, forming some sort of a direction statement for this blog.

A list of topics I want to eventually cover in my posts ...(in no particular order)

1. The bastardization of popular culture
2. My musical credo
3. The girls I have known
4. Sex & sexuality
5. In defence of democracy
6. Crime & Justice : Capital Punishment
7. A semi-chronological history of rock music
8. Mathematics - the language of the Universe
9. Philosophy and organised religion
10. Hinduism
11. Evolution & Darwinism
12. Ancient Indian history
13. Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Movement
14. Education and career
14. The greatest sport on earth
15. Cricket
16. The great dilemmas of society and culture
17. The concept of a nation
18. Money and the notion of success
19. The armed forces
21. The Asian century
22. The partition of India and the Kashmir issue
23. Fate, destiny and astrology
24. God & the Final Question

A list of lists I want to make for this blog...

1. A list of topics I want to eventually cover in my posts
2. A list of lists I want to make for this blog(is this a meta-list or what)
3. A list of immortal quotations
4. Lists of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, etc.
5. A list of things I'm thankful for
6. A list of the greatest technological revolutions
7. Lists of best bands, musicians, vocalists, etc.
8. A list of things I'm cynical about
9. A list of things I can't comprehend about this world
10. A list of must - reads

Random assertion - Sushmit Sen(Indian Ocean) is the best acoustic guitarist of the world. I have seen the band in concert and most often he plays what looks like a very modified guitar, but a guitar all the same.

Random gyaan - Contrary to popular belief, the Ganga is very clean in Banaras. The cleanest, in fact of any major river I have seen in any major city/town.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Rang De Basanti

So well i blabbered something about Bhagat Singh in last week's blog. And is this day and age of pop patriotism, the mind invariably veers to the recently released Rang De Basanti in that case. I thought the movie would have evoked some strong reactions(which it did). I thought people would have been ambiguous about it (which they weren't). The movie has been almost universally liked, with India Today being the lone dissenting voice in its review. Since everyone is an armchair critic, and I fancy my reviewing skills too, here goes. Ladies and gentlemen...(crash, bang, drumroll) first formal(if it can be called so) movie review.

My one sentence evaluation, when the movie was nearing completion, as I have often repeated to all my friends, was 'first three quarters is the best Hindi movie of the last 5 years, last quarter grates terribly, especially when put alongside the previous 2- 2.5 hours.' Rakeysh Mehra gets it spot on for the larger part of the movie. The charming everyday wit of the dialogues, the brilliant balance between the real (the canteen with the 'slap it to work' TV) and the realistically apsirational (the off-road antics, cool no?), the character sketches et al were terrific. And this is before we talk about the really wonderful aspects - the great acting by each one of the lead cast members, the consistent distribution of role and screen-time to each one of the characters, the camerawork(a recreation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is absolutely thrilling), the seamless transitions between the past and the present(and thus the reel and the real), and the gradual, absorbing transformation of the youngsters' attitudes. But then it comes apart. Right from when the defence minister describes the dead pilot in derogatory terms and Soha Ali Khan says the apocalyptic "Maar Do'. For some time, I thought it was probably a sequence from someone's dream or something (did they really show this bunch of guys from DU assasinating the Def. Min., did they really?!). Alas, it wasn't and the movie trapped itself in a downward spiral then onwards. Some ludicrous reels later, the movie jarrs to a halt.

There is a line of thought which says that the message of the movie makes up for the melodrama. But melodarama isn't really the problem. Life, I believe can be a lot more melodramatic than fiction, and when rightly presented melodrama makes for intensely satisfying cinema. The problem is trivialisation of a great idea, unintentionally mocking the very message that the movie sought to propagate. The first half of the movie is positively visceral in its visual and substantive content, it made me challenge my long held beliefs of evolution(as opposed to revolution) as the only method of sustainable change. That is the power of great cinema. Two hours that can rattle two decades of multi-layered thought. The final few reels though, unfotunately, make a mess of the execution of that message of revolutionary change. And by the time the excruciatingly stretched parallels between the acts (and death) of the great revolutionaries and these young rebels with a cause draws to a close, the movie fails to do requisite justice to itself, its message, and my expectations, expectations which had been raised solely due to the previous reels.

Incidentals - the music is great(duh). Personal favourites being the bass and acoustic guitar driven 'khalbali', and 'luka chhippi' , the song which comes after Madhavan's death (what lyrics). The firangs in this one can (for a change) actually act. Aamir Khan looks a lot younger than he's looked in recent times. It is surprising that the movie has yet not run into any trouble, even in the BJP-run states. Kunal Kapoor should go a long, long way.

Rating - 7/10. Yes, I use a 10 point scale. And I'm unafraid to use diffrences of half points. Those who know me will tell you that it's uncharacteristic of me to stop at a single decimal point.

Random assertion - Linkin Park is the best band to come out of the Nu-Metal era. Chester Bennington, and lyrics which seem like they took atleast some reasonable time to write are the qualities that set them apart from the poop crowd.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Art of Negotiation

You do not need to take personnel management or HR classes in an MBA course to learn the nuances of negotiation. A 3 year old child, when she cries for something she needs but feels won't be given to her in normal circumstances has perfected one aspect of it. Everyone uses negotiation skills, almost on an hourly basis, and some do it better than others. There are people who are experts at negotiating with shopkeepers, others who stand up (or bend down, if it is so necessary) to figures of authority at just the right time, some others who may be abject failures in other aspects but are masterly at instilling fear in people who may be at a disadvantage compared to them. Some who are brilliant in the boardroom, others who are the glue that holds their family together. Very few people, if any, manage all these aspects equally well.

Modern Indian urban society, especially the youth, is very often analysed in paradoxical terms with regards to their negotiating skills. Most of the news magazines will have you believe that this is a generation of go-getters who are much better informed than their parents and clear about what they want and how to get it. Yet, I know any number of young guys, with self-made parents, who are believed to be losing the 'streetsmarts' required for 'grassroot' negotiation as they have hade it 'too easy' and the focus of the urban well-to-do society is on 'soft skills'. A lot of my daily experience bears this out too. I have had the Bihari equivalent of this phenomenon, the 'lalbabua' tag implied about me too, and I would have to agree with it in retrospect. Which is slightly surprising, for I'm also known to be an aggressive and short tempered guy among my peers(again, I would have to agree with that too).

I have always had this sneaky suspicion that a lot of what qualifies as 'streetsmart' behaviour is just a euphemism for genuinely unsocial attitudes. I also know it for a fact that many people who are experts at getting seats in a crowded train, or of undercutting the rickshaw fare will the first ones to ask for mercy or worse, escape, in case you were ever to get into a street brawl with a serious chance of getting hurt. Yet, I would like to get some of their special skills too, for the times rickshawallahs try to fleece me even though I know the correct fare for the trip even before they can say 'rate card'.

Yes, with time I have learnt how to negotiate with most categories of people. Rickshawallahs remain a confounding proposition though. Some quote the night-time fare, even going as far as to show the rate card, thinking I will not be able to read Gujarati. Others finish with a boisterous "Hum to itna hi lete hain, bas'. Others still tug at your heart strings with a 'yeh aaj ki pehle savari hai' or 'arre seth chai piyoonga'. The most confusing, and irritating situation arises when they adopt the genuinely hostile stance. Now I am not the kind to back down from a fight, but a fight is different. You go into one in the full knowledge that verbal abrasion is a minimum, and physical harm on either side may be expected. No quarters given, none asked for. Not a desirable situation, yet a simple one for it affords clarity of thought. But how do you a react to someone who is trying to bluster his way into cheating you, yet you do not want to get into anything serious because the stakes are too low, or because time is usually at a premium. Should one simply pay the correct fare and walk off, matching the guy bluster for bluster(with the possibility of a prolonged altercation ensuing after that)? Or does one agree on an in-between fare, in the knowledge that the extra 5-10 bucks mean a lot more to him?

In general, how does one react in and manage a situation, when the other party is being genuinely hostile and the focus from our own side is to not match the hostility and yet to not lose out in the ensuing transaction? The answer to this question will probably determine the amount of success one has in dealings with strangers, and finding out the golden middle is of paramount importance. It is also readily noticeable that the rickshawallah is much less likely to try his antics if there is another guy, a friend, with you. Even if this other guy is obviously less aggressive than you are. Which underlines the supreme power of sheer numbers, the tyranny of the majority. And which is why most of the well remembered social leaders in history have been mass mobilisers, instead of simply being individuals with maximum personal capability/sacrifice(part of the reason why Mahatma Gandhi is better remembered than Bhagat Singh, not that I'm questioning the individual capability of the former). But i digress, more on this some other time.

I have rambled on for too long now, and not very cohesively. Hopefully, things will be better as time progresses.

Random assertion - Slash is the best lead rock guitarist of all time. Guns N Roses sound wonderful even though the vocals can be laughably bad.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Introduction - I, Me, Myself

Just the basic facts......

I am ...... Ritwik Priya

I am doing.... B.E(Computer Engineering), 3rd year, from DDU, Nadiad...for the uninitiated its a place halfway between Ahmedabad and Baroda.

I was born.....on 16th Nov 1984, at Raxaul...a small town in north Bihar at about 27 degrees North , 85 degrees E...3 km from the Nepal border and 4 km from Birganj..a place in Nepal famous for smuggling Chinese made electronic goods into India.

My native place....would according to the patriarchal system of denoting one's hometown , be Bhandari, a village in Sitamarhi district , Bihar. I have only been there twice, though.

I have stayed in....Dumra, Muzaffarpur, Vyara, Bhuj, Bariya, Rajpipla, Baroda, Surat, Singpaore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Nadiad...not exactly nomadic, but part and parcel of your life if your father happens to be in a transferrable job. Barring the first two and the obvious, the rest are in Gujarat

I am creating this make the internet my sounding board, and reach out with my views on everything under the sun...I have wasted far too much time brilliantly arguing my case in front of imaginary audiences...virtual space should provide some solace .

This blog will contain..... my world view , based on my experience and my readings. Rudimentary music and movie reviews may intersperse my raving and ranting.

It will not contain.... details of my everyday personal life....I am not too keen on actually befriending cyberspace...I believe in the concept of the internet transcendent rather than the internet immanent...and seriously, would you rather know what someone said to me today ...or my analysis of why people say certain things to other people in general.

Its called ...........'Of thought & action' ...because I believe that the dichotomy between those two aspects of human endeavour is fundamental yet subtle, practical yet philosophical, and very central to defining one's life, physically and metaphysically. In other words your position on the thought-action spectrum is ur raison d etre, in the atomic as well as the bigger picture.

I sign off as .....'zen babu'. The Zen signifies that I believe I'm philosophically advanced. The Babu signifies that I'm a Bihari(not as if it means a lot to me, but still). I know its a corny name, but I coudn't come up with anything better in the short time one wants to spend on registration. Feel free to suggest something better.

I will update ... on an average, about once a week.

This has been...a long blog. Pardon me, but be prepared for more. I love talking, especially about myself. Verbosity is one of my many flaws.