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Sometime in the middle of my pre-university (what is the final 2 years of high school in the US), I may have sensed that I was not going to be an Einstein. Not even close. I was bright, stood out from the crowd, but that was mostly because I was in a small pond. Tackling the problems of the entrance examination to the elite Indian engineering colleges, IIT, I must’ve sensed my limits. Around the same time, I fell in love with Ludwig van Beethoven and Ivan Lendl.
Beethoven’s dramatic symphonies caught my ear. I couldn’t stop listening to his fifth and ninth symphonies. They seemed so full of life, rebellion and vigor that they seemed far more attractive than Mozart, whose music has been described as “grace under pressure”. The movie Amadeus, about the life of Mozart, was making rounds around then. I recall reading how talented Mozart was and how Beethoven had to struggle to compose his works while Mozart did them effortlessly, thanks to his innate talent. The movie made that abundantly clear, especially in the scene where Antonio Salieri‘s painstakingly composed piece is improvised and improved while Mozart plays it. I also recall reading that Mozart’s music was less popular than it deserved, thanks largely to the music of Beethoven. How accurate these statements were, I didn’t question. They were after all printed in the newspapers and popular weeklies.
Ivan Lendl came to my attention because he seemed to lose every Grand Slam final, an eventuality that seemed as certain as his reaching the final. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors mocked him and sportswriters questioned whether he had the mental fitness to win a Grand Slam. I loved underdogs and that was what I thought attracted me to Lendl. But, the sportswriters also hinted at the abundant talent of McEnroe and Lendl’s lack of it. Lendl reportedly tried to overcome his talent handicap by working harder than just about everyone in the tennis circuit. I still remember the feel of the paper and where I stood when I read of Lendl’s back-from-the-dead 5-set victory over McEnroe at the French Open. That year, he defeated McEnroe at the US Open too, a far more impressive victory than the French Open one. That was the start of his ruthless domination of the tennis world.
I cheered Lendl on, staying up late to watch the finals he played in, scouring the papers for news of his latest victory or defeat. The victories brightened my day while my heart sank at his defeats. To this day, I can again recall where I was (practising with a college music band) and what I was doing (waiting in the hallways between a break) and the time (around midnight) and the face of the guy (a fellow fan) who brought the news that Boris Becker had defeated Lendl in a five setter at the Wimbledon semi-finals. That was Lendl’s best performance on grass. The papers were again full of how Lendl’s game was unsuited to grass and his lack of talent. I find my anger and despair at these reports easy to recall.
I never again felt the connection, the drama as if it was I playing the match, as I felt in those days with Lendl. No sport, no player ever elicited that kind of response.
What I was battling with each ball that Lendl struck and each note Beethoven composed, was despair. Despair that because of my middling talent, I’d never amount to anything. Each screaming winner, each triumphant note was hope that if I tried hard enough, I’d prevail, that effort triumphed talent. I hated school because I was told topping the class was what mattered. Nobody said that learning was not important, just that all the emphasis was on topping the class, acing the tests.
Tonight, at the ungodly hour of 3 am, I came across an article in an NYT blog titled “Sweating Your Way To Success“. The author, Peter Orszag, talks about a book by a two time Olympian table tennis player, Matthew Syed. The author says that the book shatters several popular myths about success. He writes:
“Too many of us believe in the “talent” myth — that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice.”
By stylizing the argument as hard work over talent, I fear that we’re condemning scores of people to unrealistic (and therefore disappointing) expectations of life. Kids are pressured into unsustainable study and practice schedules, especially in this what seems like an enormously competitive and pressure cooker world of education and now justification for the pressure will be buttressed with one more reason! Kids scarcely have a free moment these days, their lives overflowing with activities, the weekends consumed in shuttling between piano lessons and Bharatanatyam classes, swimming and karate practice and on and on.
Another blog on NYT tells a different story. Linda Greenhouse in “An Invisible Chief Justice” makes the case that the current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts, ascension to the most powerful position in the US (and maybe the world) legal system came about largely by chance, by a series of random events that put him in the right place at the right time, not because he was the most talented or the most capable of the job.
It seems to me that we continue to suffer from a surfeit of (what I consider) simplistic either-or thinking. Success is either because of talent or because of hard work. Parenting is either about nurture or about nature. This style of thinking seems rife in today’s world. In our personal relationships, at work, I see the either-or style of thinking, as “I’m right, you’re wrong”, whether it be a marital disagreement or technical, work-related difference of opinion. Even our legal system is all predicated on someone being right and someone being wrong (and ensuring that each side does what is required to make their argument win, even if it means that the truth is lost).
Another false construction that we Americans are especially prone to is ignoring the role of the ecosystem in shaping the outcome, focussed as we are on personal responsibility, on being the masters of our fate. In most accomplishments, there is nary a mention of random chance, of circumstances, of societal forces. In India, on the other hand, we’re overly focused on chance compared to personal responsibility. If something good happens, it is that person’s good karma, the toil mentioned only as an afterthought. Wouldn’t it be more accurate and nuanced to construct arguments using “and” (I can hear an immediate “Sure, I’m right and you’re wrong”) ? Talent and hard work both matter, nature and nurture both matter, personal responsibility and the environment both matter, good luck and preparation both matter.
I’ve written about our conceptions of success before. That was before Maya was born. But tonight, my thoughts are colored by the backdrop of recent articles that highlight the intensely competitive world that children come into, a world where parents hire nannies because they speak a foreign language, or hire private tutors to ace tests. On the Indian shore, I have friends whose kids have a comparatively pressure free life (compared to their peers say in the Cupertino school district). One of the common themes around dinner and wine with friends was that growing up in the US, our children don’t have to feel the pressure that their peers in India go through. That we could keep learning fun. But these articles seem to indicate that that world has made a strong landfall on these shores. I worry sometimes in such a competitive world, if Maya is maybe at a disadvantage with our attitude. What course of action is sensible as a parent, if I want to keep alive the joy and wonder in her eyes ?