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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Finding Your Gift

My dad once told me that the point of school is to find your gift. It should nurture different parts of your personality so that by the time you graduate, you’ve figured out what your ‘comparative advantage’ is. Your high school diploma should be able to broadly tell you what were you born to do. But that’s not really what happens. You end up studying things you think you’ll be good at, rather than what you’re naturally good at. I think that’s why we get so taken aback when we see someone with raw ‘talent’ do their thing on stage or on the field or on TV. They do something so naturally, so instinctively, that it feels unfair.
Let me tell you about a few instances when I’ve found myself insanely jealous of people with God-given talent.

During my first year of university in England, I signed up to few different extra-curricular clubs. One was table-tennis. I always enjoyed playing table tennis at school, though I was never trained like my Dad was when he was younger. This may come as a shock to Americans but that table you use to play beer-pong was actually invented for a truly wonderful sport. It’s all about agility and footwork and supple wrists but most of all, it’s about out-thinking your opponent. You can’t ‘see’ the spin on the ball, you have to trust your instincts and back yourself to counter the spin with your own English. The table tennis club used to meet every Tuesday in a dingy room in our dingy sports complex. There was no real leader or coach or trainer, just an apathetic grad student who used to roll the tables out, set up the nets and put a racquet in each person’s hand. For the princely sum of £10 you could play for 2 hours a week, every week for the entire year.
The tables were lined up side by side and everyone would play a random opponent in a best of 11 point shoot-out. 2 serves per change-over. It was pretty amateur. I mean, I saw proper Chinese players and they looked at the set-up in disbelief. The Chinese were born to play table tennis. They were short and stocky with bulging thighs and darting eyes. If you won your game, you would move to the table to your right. If you lost, you would go to the table on your left. So the crème-de-la-crème would reach the final tables and the flunkies would sling mud at each other down the other side. The Chinese lads had been trained. They were destroying hapless British kids who had come there for a laugh and comfortably beating Indian players like me. In about 20 minutes, they had made the final tables their own.
And that’s when Laughing Buddha walked in. He was late. Obviously. He was from the Far-East but didn’t look Mainland Chinese. He was a rotund fellow with tanned, almost orange skin and floppy hair. He always had a massive grin on his face. He would settle for a serve like sumo wrestlers settle down before they push into each other: he would stomp one leg down, put his weight on it and then stop down the other. Was this guy lost? It wasn’t sumo club. But then I saw the grin change to a placid smile. Balls were flying across the net with verve and zip and elegance. His elbows were far too malleable. The racquet was an extension of his chubby palm. He was hitting the ball with far more grace than any of the Chinese maestros. In a flash, his shoulders would swoop into position below the table to whip a top spin up and over the net and past a hapless opponent. He was the antithesis of the Chinese protons that bounced and darted around the table with machine-like ferocity. He was just enjoying his Tuesday. By the time he reached the final tables, some of us had stopped to watch the matches that would soon take place. His content face gave way to a hearty, friendly chuckle in between points. He didn’t say a word. Maybe that’s what made him to mesmerising. While the Chinese boys plotted and schemed over tricky service and return strategies, Laughing Buddha just stood and delivered. Sometimes when he played a backhand, he didn’t even look at the table. He just knew that the ball would be arriving at coordinate (X,Y) at such and such time and the rest was down to his muscle memory. He absolutely destroyed team China and he didn’t seem to care. He held the top table for a few games before he got bored and left. How could someone so fat be so fast? It was like watching Kung-Fu Panda. Watching him was a privilege.

Sometimes when you see professional athletes compete against each other, it’s not as much fun because either they are both almost at the same level or one is far, far too good for the other guy and you feel bad for the underdog. But sometimes you see true talent triumph over someone who is very, very good. It’s not a good vs evil thing. It’s just special to see human beings do what they were born to.

In final year of university, I was in the cricket club. Every Thursday would be nets practise. The first-team players would train together in one net while we also-rans took the other. You’d think that with sports, you can tell just by looking at someone, whether they can be any good or not. If you see someone with a huge belly and a laboured gait and or skinny calves and pale skin, it’s usually easy to tell that they are going to suck at football. I’ve seen it a bunch of times. It’s no different with cricket. It’s not just about shapes and sizes. It’s about how someone carries themselves. You can tell that someone is physically sharp in a few seconds of seeing them walk. That’s why it was so surprising to see a skinny, uncoordinated 1st year kid walk into the first-team net that day at cricket training. He had Ginger hair, glasses and freckles and he walked like his legs were tied together. I called him Little Mermaid. The first-team was made up mostly of final year students. But this chap ambled over and began padding up as another batsman faced the music.

While he was getting ready, the tall, strapping, handsome, rock-star fast bowler of the team was already in action. Rumours had travelled to us in the adjacent net that he could bowl at 85mph – which was seriously fast for our level of competition. The bowler sprinted in and bowled ferocious bouncers, aimed at the head of the batsman. The batsman was the first-team opener so you could tell he was good. He had a solid defence and was able to get the ball away on the off-side. But the bowler was also brilliant and would target the batsman’s pads, sensing his weak spot. The contest between bat and ball was even and fascinating. After about 15 minutes, the bowler fired in a vicious ball that rattled the batsman’s stumps. He was out. It was now Little Mermaid’s turn and he bobbled out to the other end of the pitch. The fast bowler popped his collar up, like some bizarre male gesture of dominance. I almost felt bad for the poor little ginger 1st year as the fast bowler began his run up. I’ll never forget what happened next.

Little Mermaid’s shoulders suddenly opened out. His feet were gliding into position. His head was perfectly still. You know how penguins move so ridiculously on land but so effortlessly under water? He crashed the fast bowler’s ball back past his head. He creamed the ball high into the wall behind the bowler. He was only a small guy probably a foot shorter than the bowler and probably 10kg lighter. But what a sound that ball made off the bat. The bat in his hand gave him the confidence to be as tall and strong as he dreamed. Even the coach smirked. There are certain unwritten rules in cricket. You don’t hit the strapping fast bowler for a huge shot unless you have some kind of death wish. The bowler was livid at the audacity of this kid. He charged in harder than ever, only to see Little Mermaid calmly move to one side and defend the ball harmlessly into the ground, killing all the pace and tenacity the delivery once had. Watching a classy batsman pacify a bullish bowler is one of life’s great joys. And once the batsman’s stint in the nets was over, I saw him amble back to the changing room with the timid uncertainty of a kid on the first day of school. I bet he wishes he could fight all his life’s battles with a pair of gloves and wooden cricket bat.

I love seeing people, especially people close to me, doing what they’re good at. I have so many friends here who were always creative types in school but didn’t do that well academically. And now they’re creative types in real life. All that’s changed is the male ones have beards and the female ones are dating guys with beards. What is it with graphic designers and beards? I wonder if people in my own family will ever turn their hobbies into careers.

I don’t know if your family/culture does this, but after our extended family sits down together for a big meal, we inevitably break out into a talent show. Everyone has to sing or play a musical instrument or tell stories. You have to perform something. Maybe that’s how you repay the cook? In my family, my cousins always sing. And my God, they are amazing. Listening to a good singer always gives me Goosebumps. Watching a musician perform is great. But there’s something about a captivating voice that just reaches down your throat and clasps tight your heart. If I could have any talent, I would love to sing like my cousins can. To just be able to clear your throat, close your eyes and sway an entire room is not something to be taken lightly. The world simply needs more of it.

When it comes to my turn to perform, I usually do my mimicry and tell my jokes. And people laugh. But I can’t do my stand-up set every time I see my family, because, well how many times can you hear the same accents? But I know that I my talent is mimicking accents and mannerisms and I can do it better than most. If I’m being honest, I can do it better than anyone I’ve met. I know some great mimics, especially in England. But they don’t really know ‘what’ to say - only ‘how’ to say it. My family and friends always want me to get on stage and do more stand-up and for some reason I’m reluctant. I know that I can wow an audience of strangers – I’ve done open-mike nights and I tend to perform at every dinner party and family function. But I don’t know if I want to hone my talent into a career. I’ve seen what it takes to be a comic and it’s not easy. I also don’t know if it’s as meaningful as other careers. I’m currently applying to Masters programs in International Relations because I want to be a diplomat some day. Maybe I can tie the two together: maybe I can be the diplomat that makes foreign leaders laugh? Maybe that’s what International Relations is crying out for.

But now I sound like one of my college essays. People say I’m a good writer, but I don’t know if I’m a talented writer. I don’t know if I’m a Laughing Buddha or a Little Mermaid. And I haven’t done comedy long or seriously enough to know if I’m as natural as I ‘feel’.


What I really wanted to say is that I hope I get to see you ‘performing your talent’ somewhere, someday. It could be at work, it could be at a party or it could something you did that went unnoticed, that I’ll only realise in the middle of the night 20 years later. I hope you’re aware that you have a gift, even if you haven’t found it yet. There’s something (probably many things!) you can do better than me. Better than your friends. Better than everyone. Find it and do it.