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Mathematically speaking,real talent = ability x hard work + consistency

If your child was good at mathematics,you had imparted the right education and fulfilled one of your primary duties as a parent.

Written by Harsha Bhogle |
June 17, 2011 1:04:20 am

My father,as was the norm with respectable middle class families in the years gone by,believed it was important that his children were good at mathematics. If your child was good at mathematics,you had imparted the right education and fulfilled one of your primary duties as a parent.

And he often quoted to us what his friend,a respected professor of mathematics,used to say,“There should be no problem that you encounter in an examination for the first time.” It meant you had to work so hard that you had,conceivably,attempted and vanquished every situation that could find its way into an exam paper. It begs the question: if you did achieve 150 out of 150 in an exam (which my wife very very nearly did,much to my constant awe),was it because you were extraordinarily intuitive or was it because you had worked harder than the others so that you didn’t “encounter any problem in an exam” for the first time?

In other words,is getting a “centum” (a peculiarly TamBram expression and a badge of honour) a matter of genius or a matter of perseverance? It is an issue that many intelligent authors around the world have been debating over for a while and one that is at the heart of sport. Would anybody who solved a certain number of sums get full marks? Would two people,each of whom put in ten thousand hours (Malcolm Gladwell’s threshold for achievement) produce identical results? Or are some people innately gifted allowing them to cross that threshold in fewer hours?

We pose that question a great deal in cricket when we argue about talent? Players who play certain shots,the perfectly balanced on-drive for example,are labelled “talented” and put into a separate category. They acquire a halo,in a near-equal situation they tend to get picked first. “Talent” becomes this key that they flash to gain entry. And yet it is worth asking what talent really is? Is it the ability to play the on-drive or,more critically,the ability to play that on-drive consistently? It is a critical difference. Consistency brings in an element of perseverance that you do not normally bracket with talent.

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Let me explain. I have often,while watching Rohit Sharma bat,said “wow” loudly to myself. I probably said so because I saw him play a shot I did not expect him to. Or maybe it was a shot that very few players were able to play. Just as often I find myself saying “ugh” with Rohit out of frustration. It is probably because,having had the opportunity to go “wow” I now expected him to play the same shot again. And so,without explicitly stating it,I am invoking the assumption of consistency to assess talent. The old professor of mathematics would have said “play the shot so often that it is no longer a new shot when you play it”.

It is while I was debating this in my mind that I became aware of why Sachin Tendulkar paid such high compliments to Gary Kirsten for throwing him balls. Tendulkar wanted to perfect a shot and so he needed someone to throw him enough balls to attain that perfection so that when he attempted it in a match,he wasn’t doing it for the first time. And in a recent conversation he said he was at his best when he was in the “sub-conscious”,not distracted by the “conscious” and able to play by instinct something he had perfected through practice.

Now,we often call Tendulkar a genius and yet,as we see,the talent that we believe comes dazzling through is,in essence,the product of many hours of perseverance. Is Tendulkar then,the supreme example of my father’s friend’s theory of doing well at mathematics? And assuming for a moment that is true,shouldn’t we be honouring perseverance because that is what it seems “talent” really is!


And so it follows that when we complain that talented players don’t get to where they should we are in effect saying that they didn’t practice hard enough to be consistent. Maybe it means we should all use the word “talent” more sparingly; not until ability has been married to hard work long enough to achieve consistency.

This is also the starting premise of a new book I hope to continue reading (“Bounce” by the former table tennis champion Mathew Syed). I am delighted by its opening pages,one of which said “talent is over-rated”. It is something I have long believed!

P.S.: I would be delighted if this opens up a debate on talent versus perseverance. Contrary points of view are welcome!

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First published on: 17-06-2011 at 01:04:20 am
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