Is talent overrated?

Are we born talented or do our circumstances and effort define who we become?

Most of us would agree that Ustad Zakir Hussain, the tabla maestro, is one of a kind musician. Not only is his mastery on the instrument is amazing but also his treatment and imagination around what tabla can do has no parallels.

The key question is – is Zakir Hussain born talented or his circumstances created him. In Zakir Hussain’s case, his father was a stalwart of his generation himself and therefore, it is natural to ask whether Zakir Hussain was born with the right genes to be able to play excellent tabla or whether he is who he is because his father tutored him with great care in his early years.

I recently read two books which try to answer some generic questions behind making of talented musicians.

The first is called “Talent Is Overrated – What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” by Geoff Colvin. The author argues that while we marvel talent of some of the exceptional people (he cites Mozart, Tiger Woods, Warren Buffett as examples), there is evidence that all these people are made by a perfect combination of their circumstances and their mental makeup.

Key points in Colvin’s argument are –

  • It takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. There is something about the 10,000 hours number. Human brain seems to get rewired to do things better after that much of practice.
  • The effort you would have to put in for these 10,000 hours is not any generic effort. Colvin calls it “deliberate practice”. We are not talk of just any kind of hard work that our parents told us about. After all, there is no dearth of hard workers amongst us who put in 20, 30 or 40 years of effort into things. We are talking about highly specific kind of effort that continuously pushes the boundaries around the rough edges pertaining to that field.
  • One of the common traits of high performers have is that they tend to think, analyze and identify rough edges in their performance and then design practice specific to those edges. As an example, Tiger Woods would hit the ball from the bunker several hundred times in a given practice session even though in a real tournament, there would be only rare occasions when he would land in one.
  • The role of a good coach (Guru!) cannot be underestimated in identifying these rough edges and designing deliberate practice around them.
  • Deliberate practice is painful and outright boring in conventional sense. Hitting ball out of bunker hundreds of times must be really boring. So what makes Tiger Woods go through the routine day after day after day. Ask this question in time when Tiger Woods was nobody and yet he must have gone through this practice. Money and fame are clearly not the motivating factors behind deliberate practice.
  • Then the key question is NOT – why some people are born talented. The key question IS – what makes some people have the mental make up to go through the pain of this deliberate practice and others don’t.

So what do these two book tell us about talent in Indian Classical music?

Coming back to Ustad Zakir Hussain. He is the first born son to his father (he has elder sisters). Because of what this means in Indian culture, he would have received a lot of attention from his father. Ustad Alla Rakha is known to be a wonderful teacher – which meant that he would design a lot of deliberate practice in formative years of young Zakir.

10,000 hours approximate 10 years in normal world. If Zakir Hussain started playing tabla at the age of 1-2 years, then he would reach the level of mastery by age of 11-12. Remember, the deliberate practice may not just be about playing tabla. It is also about absorbing good music which I am sure Zakir had plenty of exposure to, thanks to his father’s being a pre-eminent musician.

As it happens, Ustad Zakir Hussain played his first public concert with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan at the age of 11.

[amazon_link id=”0307591549″ target=”_blank” ]The second book I read recently is called the Happiness Advantag[/amazon_link]e. While talent is not the central argument in this book, the author, Shawn Achor, talks about something called Tetris effect. Apparently, there was an experiment at Harvard where students were asked to play the popular video game called Tetris for 5-6 hours non-stop. For those of you who don’t know what Tetris is – it has bricks of various shapes fall from top of the screen to the bottom and the goal of the player is to align those bricks so that gaps between them are minimized. You would rotate the bricks before they settle down at the floor so that they are in alignment.

Apparently, after playing the game for 5-6 hours, if you walk into any daily situation, you tend to extrapolate the brick adjustment. For example, you walk into supermarket, see loafs of bread on the shelf and feel like you can visually align them so that they form a perfect line – just like in the game.

Back to Indian music. There is a well known tradition in Indian music, especially amongst tabla players of Punjab tradition (gharana) called Chilla. According to this tradition, the musician goes away in seclusion for 40 days and practices music 12-14 hours a day (and does nothing else). In tabla, this practice mainly focuses around rhythmic patterns (kaidas and relas), which are musical equivalent of Tetris pieces.

Now, if 5-6 hours of Tetris can temporarily alter the cognition of your brain, imagine what 12-14 hours a day for 40 days can do. It probably has potential to rewire your brain for life and make it very sensitive to these patterns. Is it surprising that you would return back a significantly better percussinist?

Listen to what Ustad Zakir Hussain himself has to say about it.

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