"Talent is a Species of Vigour."


I did my final four years of high school at Melbourne Grammar. Whenever I hear the song ‘Know your Enemy’ by Rage Against the Machine, it takes me back to wearing  the blue school uniform, milling around the Old Bluestone:

“Yes I know my enemies,

They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me








the elite 

all of which are American dreams.”

I hated the place.

Granted, I had some great teachers, but the institution itself was hideous. I think one of the best words I can use to describe it is to say that it was oppressive. And as I remember, one of the key aspects of that was due to the culture there. How much attention you received depended heavily on how much you could give the school. Forget the fact that your parents were already paying through the nose; if you weren’t a star athlete or academic, nobody knew who you were. And didn’t care.

My father, loathsome beast that he was, didn’t take any shit from anybody. I remember he came home from my first set of parent-teacher interviews fuming. The science teacher told Dad he should accept my middling results because his son simply ‘wasn’t good at science’.  When I heard this, I was amazed; I didn’t think Mr Mottram even knew who I was. Whatever Dad said to him made sure he figured it out pretty quickly. Mr Mottram always greeted me by name after that.

I was a nerd and couldn’t even hope to do a push up, but had a reputation for being pretty smart. I astonished myself in year 10 by finishing second in the entire year level on the English exam; I missed out on the top mark by less than a percent. But I was petrified. I had no staying power with anything, and didn’t understand the notion of persistence. If I failed at something, my already fragile reputation – built on what may very well have been a fluke -would crumble, leaving me with nothing.

I had no expectations of myself as an athlete; it had been ground into me what a useless physical specimen I was, and become the subject of jokes amongst my friends, family and even myself. Maybe for this reason, when I started fighting, I didn’t really worry about my performance, because I was so useless I didn’t have the right to. What I found utterly compelling, the thing that obsessed me, was the way I could burn out the cluster of painful adolescent feelings. They burned with the glorious incandescence of magnesium during Mr Mottram’s science class.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell is about corporate culture, but he makes a few observations about the belief that intelligence and talent are fixed properties, rather than things that can be developed by application and discipline. I love training kids because it’s always, for them, primarily about the pleasure of participation. Little kids do truly sing the body electric in its purest key. 

I recently read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open. Agassi now runs his own school for underprivileged kids in Las Vegas and makes the comment that he believes kids are, almost by definition, works in progress.

Interesting idea.

 (Header quotation from Eric Hoffer.)

One Response to “"Talent is a Species of Vigour."”

  1. I think we are ALL a “work in progress”-or should be trying to be. Otherwise what are we doing with our lives but marking time? 🙂

    Btw, Your post brought back some v similar feelings about a couple of years spent at Wesley -big, expensive and anonymous. Lucky I met a few friends but can’t say they were the golden years…Perhaps, if nothing else, a lesson not to blow $25k a year on future kid’s education?!

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