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CAT Preparation: The Natural Talent Myth

In the previous post, we discussed the various kinds of baggage that people carry around in their heads about their abilities. The heaviest of this is the one that people have about natural talent or rather the importance that people attribute to it. All of us would have a cousin or a friend or a classmate who could always achieve the same or better result with lesser effort. In fact, my best friend, whom I met during CAT Prep (CAT GD-PI actually) — was one of this sort.

During my stint at the IIM and during the course of my professional life I have met a few of those individuals whose abilities fall in the outlier category; people who are in a different category as far as pure aptitude goes.

But the key thing is this — there are only a few of them! The rest of the people at elite institutions and major corporations are people who have had to work hard to get there, people who are highly competitive, people who make the most of what they have.

All things cannot come naturally

One of the things that we need to realize is that all people have a natural ability only for some things, not all thingsgreat problems solvers need not naturally be great communicators, great team players need not naturally be great strategic thinkers, great analysts might not be natural leaders and so on.

Everyone comes with some default settings which makes them good at a few things, at the rest we have to work hard to get better. How does one work hard to get better?

Well, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that we might not like the things we are not naturally good at. For example, despite having pretty good logical reasoning skills, I have never ever touched programming or anything remotely related to software coding with a barge pole. Why? I simply did not like it!

The same applied to my dislike for certain topics during my CAT preparation — numbers, remainders, functions, graphs, modulus and some parts of algebra like the number of solutions to equations.

The question is what came first — my dislike for them or the fact that I did not think I was naturally good at them? I think it was my dislike for them that lead to me not even making the slightest effort to understand them. I always thought I will work my way around them. But that, as I realized in my first and unsuccessful CAT attempt, does not happen.

The thing about training to get better at anything is to conquer your weaknesses, to get better at things that do not come naturally to you.

Creating new pathways in the brain

When we approach something that we have always hated with all of our heart,  like say Geometry 🙂, we are meeting a huge barrier that we have erected for ourselves. So the first thing is to remove that imaginary barrier. Approach it not as a pain that you have to deal with but as something that you want to get better at. It is as good as learning a new language.

Most of you are only in your twenties so your brain still has enough plasticity to absorb new things. When you are learning something absolutely new you will be creating new pathways in your brain. You are going to use it in ways you have not used it before, in ways that do not come naturally to you.

So you would need to understand that you need to approach this with as blank as a slate as possible and genuinely try to learn something.

This is possibly the most important thing, to genuinely want to learn to get better — looking at vocabulary building not as words to be painfully mugged up but as things that make up world as much as numbers do, looking at building your vocabulary as a way to become more articulate (the ability to express oneself with precision and effectiveness; knowing the meaning of the word articulate itself is the first step towards becoming articulate).

We often find some old people absolutely unwilling to learn new things, especially with respect to technology, as long as someone else is there to do it for them. Once they have no option, they somehow manage to learn and end up liking it as well. At the same time, there are other oldies who are always keen to learn and pick up new things and have no trouble.

The biggest barrier between you and something new the baggage you place between the two.

Those to whom things come easily

I have always found sport, especially cricket, a great metaphor to put many things in perspective given our national obsession for the game (but somehow I sense that since Sachin left we no longer really love cricket, we follow it but our heart is elsewhere).

One interesting story that I often recount is of going to watch India play England at the Wankhede in 2006. We went to watch just the last day’s play, India needed 300 runs to win and had 10 wickets in hand. On the way to the stadium my friend I and scripted how we wanted the day’s play to unfold — 300 to win was tight but then all we needed a good start from Sehwag and then for the rest to take the team to victory, preferably Sachin.

We reached well before the start and got a chance to watch the players warm up and do some light practice.

First Sehwag came out to warm up — dressed in shorts and t-shirt he was practicing his shots against a young kid throwing down a tennis ball from 11 yards; all in all, it seemed as if he was having a good time and fooling around.

Then came Rahul Dravid — dressed in shorts, t-shirt, thigh guard, arm guard, and helmet, everything he would have on when he is on the field. He was also practicing shots against the same young kid throwing down a tennis ball from 11 yards!

This small episode possibly throws more light on the reason behind the longevity of Rahul Dravid’s career, his ability to adapt to different formats & different roles in the team and his standout successes on foreign soil.

Dravid was never called gifted or talented or all those adjectives that used to describe those to whom things come easily, players like Sehwag or Rohit Sharma. These guys very rarely reach the top and stay there for a long time. Dravid was I think rightly called The Wall — built brick by brick with patience and effort.

If you look at the biggest achievers, the players who top the record books, it will usually be players who really maximized their ability — Dravid,  Kallis, Sangakkara, Border, Gavaskar — and players who were not just supremely talented but intensely competitive — Sachin, Lara, Ponting, Warne.

As the quote by Uchimura in the image at the top of this post says, natural talent is overrated, it is how you approach your preparation that matters.

So set aside all preconceived notions you have about your ability. Prepare not to feel good but to get better. Prepare to get better at topics that do not come naturally to you. Prepare with a view to really learn new things than to get better at doing the same old things.

For those of you who are wondering what happened in that match, you can find it here; about what happened after the match started, the lesser said the better.

All the best.




  1. Gnana Gowtham says

    Great work Tony, it was interesting and it kindles the preparation blend.


    • Glad you liked it. I feel a lot more goes into success than meets the eye. Some people do all these things naturally, sportsmen have coaches to guide them. I think competing with 2 lakh people is no easy task and no different from the competition faced by top rung sportsmen, so training for such tests cannot be limited to concepts, formulas and mock tests.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. Nishant Sharma says

    Thank you so very much sir. It was certainly one of the greatest pieces of article I have ever read on the attitude to embrace for preparing for an entrance exam. Loved this ( Prepare not to feel good but to get better ). Stay blessed & Stay great.


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