Time to be untalented

We are no more talented than any other nation. Instead, we are just the same; no better and no worse.

Feisal H Naqvi August 13, 2012

It is traditional for columnists to first praise the many talents of Pakistanis before bemoaning our collective failure to take advantage of those talents. I beg to differ.

To begin with, Pakistanis are no more talented than any other people. Second, telling people that they are talented is counter-productive: if you really want people to succeed, you need to get them to work hard.

Let’s begin with the myth of ‘natural’ talent: we are not a nation of geniuses any more than the fabled children of Lake Wobegon, each of whom was ‘above average’. Instead, we are a nation of more than 180 million people, some of whom are above average and some of whom are decidedly below average.

But you say, what about our great athletes? And writers? And businessmen?

Let me repeat: we are a nation of 180 million plus. Some of them are bound to be good athletes just as some of them are bound to be good writers, poets or businessmen. If there is any proof that we are — on a per capita basis — any smarter than the average Malaysian or Bhutanese or whatever, I have never seen it.

Ok, you say, but what about our natural resources? Isn’t Pakistan blessed to be the land of five rivers? Do we not have millions of tonnes of coal and copper and other minerals? Isn’t it true that if only we could harness our resources the way other countries have done, we too would be free from the scourge of poverty.

The short answer, again, is no. Yes, Pakistan has lots of resources. But with certain very rare exceptions, countries that have hit the jackpot when it comes to natural resources are not countries we should want to emulate.

In fact, economists even have a term for this problem. It’s called the natural resources curse. Prime examples of countries plagued by the unearned wealth of natural resources are Nigeria and the Congo. Each of them is spectacularly blessed with natural wealth. Each of them is a byword for corruption and governmental incompetence.

Need more examples? Let’s look at the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, check; Algeria, check; Libya, check.

But if not talent, what makes people succeed? The answer, in a nutshell, is hard work.

The most comprehensive rebuttal to the whole ‘talent is everything’ argument that I’ve read is a book called Bounce by Matthew Syed. Syed is a former world champion in table tennis and, one would assume, a natural counterargument to his theory. Yet, surprisingly, he demolishes the “talent” argument by showing how he was lucky to attend a school featuring one of the top coaches in the UK, lucky to have access to a year-round practice facility, and lucky to have a ready-made practice partner in the form of a very competitive younger brother, all of which combined with incredible hard work turned him into a world champion. And he shows how his rise to athletic stardom was not just a fluke by showing how — at one time — his street (and its immediate environs) had produced more of the world’s top table tennis players than the rest of England combined.

Syed also has the science and the studies to back him up. He refers in particular to the work of US scientist Carol Dweck. In 1998, Dweck carried out a study involving 400 children in which they were given a series of puzzles to solve. Half the children were then told — at random — “You must be smart at this.” The other children were told, “You must have worked really hard!”.

The results of the study were unambiguous: two-thirds of the “smart” set subsequently refused to take tougher tests, fearing to lose their “smart” status. But over 90 per cent of the “hard-working” set chose to take the tougher test. Similar results emerged even when the study was repeated three different times in different parts of the US. In Dweck’s words, “These were some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen. Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivations, and it harms their performance”.

What works for children, works for adults. And what works for people, works for nations.

That doesn’t mean that all Pakistan needs to prosper is regular homilies on the value of hard work. Obviously, more is required.

To begin with, our social order needs to value business successes, not look upon them as interlopers or social ‘upstarts’. On the other hand, in the words of a visitor to the Mughal Empire 400 years ago, businessmen keep a low profile “lest they should be used as fill’d sponges”. The net result is that while Pakistan has no shortage of hard-working entrepreneurs who have pulled themselves by their bootstraps, very few people know their stories. Most readers of this column can probably name more successful businessmen from the US than from Pakistan.

The result of this omission is a society that lacks role models. And role models are necessary to inspire effort.

Pakistan produces fast bowlers regularly in large numbers because young boys look at the glorious history of Pakistani cricket and see that bowling fast is a recognised path to success. Imran inspired Wasim and Waqar. They inspired Shoaib Akhtar who in turn inspired Asif and Amir.

There is no equivalent role model to be seen in Pakistani business (note, “seen” is not the same as “found”). What we see in the media is a parade of short-cut artists, people who have made money through corruption and contacts. No wonder then that the average Pakistani thinks his only chance of making a decent but honest living is by migrating to the West.

My point then, is this: we are no more talented than any other nation. Instead, we are just the same; no better and no worse. If we are to succeed, it will be the same way that others have succeeded. And the only way people have ever succeeded is through hard work.

This country is 65 years old. That’s a good age to grow up.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2012.