Saturday, April 17

At a crossroad

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Every so often I have students coming to me for some coaching in public speaking, particularly when they have some upcoming interviews. I am usually quite sceptical about this exercise. Public speaking is like cooking curry. There is a saying ‘never hurry a curry’, it takes time. Our fear in an interview is to appear tongue-tied and incoherent. However, I contend that in an interview situation it is sufficient to demonstrate a semblance of eloquence rather than actual eloquence itself. So, usually, I just share with them some techniques, some formula on how to deal with an impromptu speech. As the coach, I have the upper hand over the students psychologically. So, I usually appear calm and collected until one day: a student (let us call him Ben), as precocious as they come, asked a vexing question. His question was – “Should you do what you are good at or what you love?” I was stumped and at that moment I believe I did not give him a satisfactory answer. So, I said, “Let me ponder it.” I know it was a cop-out, but this question has been bugging me. Now that I have time to think it over let me give Ben a belated answer.

Firstly, he has put forth what I consider as a false dichotomy. He posed his question as if ‘what we are good at’ and ‘what we love to do’ are two opposing poles, much like the saying, ‘east is east, west is west, and never the twain shall meet’.

I contend that it is not possible to excel in anything unless one has a love for that thing. There is the much-quoted proverb, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step.” As we all know, the road to excellence is like a journey of a thousand miles – meaning very, very hard work. I do not believe one can keep one’s nose to the grindstone for something which one has no liking for. We need love to drive us to do all the hard work. The hard work is the actual steps to complete the thousand miles. This is a necessary pre-requisite for success.

There are many examples of people who started off doing (or being forced to do) something, which initially they did not like, but ended up loving it to the point of excelling famously in it.

Andre Agassi in his book ‘Open’ said that at first, he hated tennis. He was driven to it by his father, who it seemed, tried to live out his personal ambition through his son. His father must have spotted that his son did have the talent for the game even though the son declared that he at first hated it. Whatever were Agassi’s dislikes for tennis, along the way, he developed a love for the game, despite his initial aversion. He became a world champion at tennis!

The truth is people are motivated by success. Even a perception of success is enough to push us to carry on. Some years ago, I was at a karaoke session with a friend. There we were a bunch of extroverts who had no qualms shouting into a microphone. My friend, on the other hand, was a timid mouse who longed to sing. Eventually, we managed to cajole him to step up to the podium. He was … well, rather ‘pitchy’ to use the favourite term of one of the judges at the talent show ‘American Idol’. We, being good friends and slightly drunk then, praised him fulsomely. Lo and behold! Driven by his apparent success he took to singing with gusto. By the time I met him again a year later he was able to do a fair impression of Elvis Presley.

I have often heard of the expression ‘love conquers all’. I was rather sceptical of it until I read about Vincent Van Gogh, the famous artist. Some years ago, a painting was sold in London for a world record 24 million pounds sterling. The painting, ‘The Sunflowers’, was by that enigmatic painter.

Vincent Van Gogh painted over 800 paintings in his life and yet throughout his life, no one appreciated his talent, no one was willing to buy his works. He only sold one piece and that was to his brother who was, in fact, sponsoring him. Poor Vincent, he died a penniless pauper. During his lifetime all his works were met with rejection and ridicule. Yet, despite all the rejection and ridicule, he held on to his love, painting. It took a century for the world to recognise the genius that Vincent was. I wonder what drove this person to carry on doing what he did, undeterred by the prospect of failure or the lack of success. Was it not love?

Back to the question posed by Ben: “Should you do what you are good at or what you love?” It is not such a silly question. It is a question that many of us have to confront some time in our life. In reality, our number one concern is economic needs. Much that we eulogise idealism, the fact is that pragmatism rules our lives. Sometimes, we must swallow the bitter pill, doing things that we may not necessarily like but that we are competent enough to secure us a job.

I was put on the spot recently. Joan is a bright and intelligent girl. She is in her final year of high school. It started as a casual conversation.

“What do you want to do in the future?” I asked. “I want to be a journalist, a writer like you, but my father wants me to study law.”

I wondered if she knew that I was trained as a lawyer but chose not to practise. Instead, I took to the rather uncertain field of publishing and writing. I did take the risk and have managed to emerge unscathed. The choice I made many years ago turned out to be fine for me, but it does not mean that I can liberally advise others to take the same path. The thing about ‘the road less travelled’ is it sounds great on paper but in real life, there must be a reason why it was less travelled. So, I had to choose my words very carefully.

What I am getting at is that no one can answer Ben’s question for him. This is one question each one of us has to find the answer for ourselves. I know this is a cop-out, but it is the best I can offer: Love and excellence are a pair of Siamese twins. They stick together for life.