For all its faults, especially around the issue of authenticity, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is a riveting read. The book, which I read recently, transports the reader to the Hollywood of the 1970s where brilliant, sparkling talents such as Francis Ford Coppola (director of The Godfather, among other classics) shone like a star, only for the world, and probably themselves, to realize that they were shooting stars who were meant to light up the silver screen all too ephemerally. These creators had no idea how to handle the money but more importantly, did not know how to deal with their success, their newfound creative freedom or the constant array of sycophants that surrounded them. But given that many of us might not have the spotlight on us with the amount of lumen that showbiz afforded (or, cursed?) these people, let us leave these easy riders and raging bulls in their place. Let’s instead shift our attention to average people – talents no doubt, but someone that you might see on a bus, not on a billboard – and everyday issues relating to talent, success and failure.
As I have lived, studied and worked in a variety of settings, I have had the fortune of seeing people in various walks of life that are talented in myriad ways. I have come to realize that the people that I admire the most are the ones that don’t take their talent for granted. They are the ones that realize that circumstances might not always work in their favor, people might not always be fair, and others’ prejudices might stand in their way. But they know that instead of letting their wounds fester, they sometimes have to bide their time and continue to hone their talents. They recognize the perils of superficiality and empty posturing. They seem to be acutely aware of a talent that they possess, coupled with the realization that the value of a gift is maximized not only by fleeting zings of inspiration but also by old fashioned grunt work. I have seen this quality in a star cricketer like Rahul Dravid. But I have also seen this trait in even my Toastmasters speaking club, where certain fellow speakers practice diligently, realizing that not every speech might become a Gettysburg address. But they wisely realize that the constancy of practice can balance the variability associated with luck, circumstances and other extraneous factors. These people – stars in their own right - engage in an activity for the sheer pleasure of engagement and self-satisfaction, with awards and rewards being happy by-products, a sort of a fringe benefit, not the real reason to engage in an area where they exhibit talent.
Another element of managing one’s talent that I reckon is sometimes given short shrift is taking in praise, criticism and ridicule all with equanimity. Randy Pausch famously remarked, “Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.” It is a much more layered statement than an initial impression might suggest. That’s because critics come in all shapes and forms – some are well-meaning and have a way with words; others are genuine people that might lack tact; some resentful folks know where it hurts you most and jab you there; others are people whose approval you seek, that give you apathy instead; and, of course, there are those social climbers that proffer empty praise, expecting to piggyback on your success. That was not even an exhaustive list, by the way! As one’s talent flourishes, it is vitally important to find out those ‘true’ people whose feedback you benefit the most from. If one can be open, egoless (or at least, with minimal ego) and can listen to well-meaning advice from a peer or a mentor, then they keep maximizing their chances to evolve, to adapt and to learn from mistakes.
The reason why Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Ammani left such a lasting impression on me was its emphasis on looking inward for peace and joy. The exquisite “Mazhai Ingillaye” song underscores this. The first line goes, “Mazhai Ingillaye…Veyyilum Illaye…Vanavil Vandhadhey…” (“There is no rain, no sunshine, yet I see a rainbow”) Weeks after I watched this movie, this theme got stuck in my mind. That has partially to do with how I regard the thoughts and emotions that come with success that was spawned by the exhibition of a particular talent. The movie made me reflect on how external validation of what we do might feel nice, but in order to steadily, stably and fully realize our talents, it is vitally important that we travel inward. That we look for that drive where we are able to cruise along, assured but not overconfident in our abilities, applying the brakes when necessary, to scan, to reflect and cut out all the external noise. This way, we blunt the ability of an external factor to cause a dent on our confidence. And, this would, in turn, mean that we can travel with our talents for as long as the fuel of our desires allows us.