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By Suresh Menon
It is fashionable today to claim that there is no such thing as talent and that all achievement is the result of hard work, or, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, the “10,000-hour rule.” A slew of recent books – Matthew Syed’s Bounce, David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, Gladwell’s Outliers among them – has been hammering this idea home. They are not designated self-help manuals, but provide succour to the untalented and the under-achiever.
The 10,000-hour rule refers to the amount of time someone has to work at his craft to reach the highest level.
The modern reductive thinking was set off by the work of Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and researcher at the Florida State University. Most popular books on the subject quote his work.
The difference between the average joe and V S Naipaul is that the latter works harder and puts in a lot more hours. Ditto with Roger Federer or Tiger Woods or Eric Clapton. What a relief for the rest of us! We are not less talented at all – we merely can’t be bothered to spend all our time doing just the one thing. I mean, we have a life! There is a comfort in such smug thinking. It is at once an insult to a person’s ability and an inspiration for those who have neither the skill nor the inclination of the successful.
Forget 10,000 hours. I can practice continuously for 10,000 days and still not be a Garry Sobers. Or a Kevin Pietersen. For, the essential flaw in the argument is that you need to have something to build on. And that something is talent. Genius, said Edison, is ninety nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. But without that one percent, you do not become a 99 percent genius. Just a dud. Talent without hard work withers early; hard work without talent is meaningless.
In a recent column former India player Sanjay Manjrekar wrote, “That you don't need to have great talent to become a sportsman is reinforced by Dravid's achievements over the last 15 years.”
Fifteen years at the top level without talent? Over ten thousand runs in either form of the game without talent? Two international centuries at the age of 38 in different continents within weeks of each other without talent?
When Dravid went out to bat at Lord’s, the rest of us were not thinking, “Gosh, if only I had listened to my cricket coach, I would have been in his place!” At least some of us were marvelling at the mental toughness and the sheer grit of a man who has been written off so many times but has come back each time while giving us a glimpse of the qualities needed to be a top class sportsman.
To suggest that talent is not one of them is an insult. Even if, for the moment, one accepts the Manjrekar view, the argument can be shown to be incomplete. The ability to work hard, the skill to swallow disappointments and return to the fray, the cussedness needed to keep at it and excel at it may be part of this concept of ‘talent’. By limiting the definition and falling prey to the seductive arguments of pop psychology we do the talented great harm.
The rich are different from you and me, said the writer Scott F Fitzgerald. So are the talented. They are different from you and me. Dravid overcomes more problems in the course of a single innings than many of us do in a whole year. You cannot do that without talent.