I had lunch with one of my mentors yesterday. He has a son, who just started the second grade. For a good part of the lunch, we discussed his concern that his son may not be as successful as he is. He told me that he feels clueless about what to do if his son does not end up being naturally talented.

My mentor explained that he never learned that lesson for himself, because for him by some fluke raw talent always ended up being good enough for him. As he told me, he was always naturally the best in everything that he did. He never did extracurricular work, because he was always at the top of his class. He doesn’t understand the notion of summer internships because throughout all of grade school, his summers were devoted solely to vacation. Even in college, he spent all of his time playing sports and hardly did any work. His most well-acclaimed paper (that landed him his professorship at Stanford) took him a single all-nighter to compose and was completed the morning of the conference deadline.

His story made me reflect a bit on my own experiences growing up. For me, I can definitely say that raw talent was never quite good enough. I’ve never been the most talented one in anything I’ve ever done. Any notable success I have ever had was always due to legwork.

One of my early memories from elementary school was the first time I took a standardized test. As I remember, each category of the test had a percentile rank next to it. In math, I was in the 99th percential. However, in reading comprehension I was in something like the 85th percentile. I don’t remember what my rank was exactly, but I do remember that my parents were seething (oh, heeellll noo) when they saw the report card. For the next several years of my life, they would send me to an after school program for three hours a day, where I would do various drills that included reading comprehension and other academic work. It was only after scoring in the 99th percentile for two consecutive years that I was finally allowed to leave the program.

At the end of the sixth grade, my math teacher pulled me aside after class one day to tell me that she was planning to recommend that I skip a grade in math. To do this, I would have a few weeks to prepare for and take a test that covered all of the seventh grade pre-algebra. If I passed, I would advance to the eighth grade algebra level. Oh and by the way, she could only recommend a few kids to do this each year so I had better pass (I really liked my sixth grade teacher, so impressing her was a big deal for me). I don’t remember studying for that exam, but I do know that I have a pile somewhere in my garage of several workbooks that I went through during that time period and that I passed by a margin of about two questions.

During junior year of high school, I was cutting a very close shave to getting the A- that I wanted in BC calculus. I had gotten a 51/100 on the last exam, which had dropped my grade in the class to around an 86%. The only exam remaining was the final, which would be after the Christmas holiday. To get the 90% that I wanted for the A-, I would have to score 108% on the final (this was actually possible, since the exams would gave extra credit).

Our family had already planned a two-week vacation for the Christmas holiday to go to New York to visit my uncle and his family. While the rest of the family went touring in New York, I ultimately spent my entire vacation in the New York library, diligently redoing all of my homework for the entire semester. At one point I had actually worked through all of the problems in the textbook, so I picked up a rather beaten Calc book from the library and worked through that one as well. So much for New York. Ultimately, I got every single problem correct on that final - which translated to 110%. My teacher was so impressed that she bumped up my grade to an A [1].

Listening to my mentor talk brought back all of the memories of my life before college and the world of academia that is so foreign to me now [2]. The entire conversation makes me believe that if I ever had to parent a naturally talented kid, I might be just as clueless as he is now. Because for me (through some fluke), unnatural talent always ended up being good enough. I wish my mentor’s kid the best of luck if he doesn’t score in the 99th percentile on his first standardized examination ;).

[1] I wanted to prove that the final wasn’t due to some fluke, so the next semester I got an A+ in her class and consequently won the math department award. She would later recommend me to continue studying math at Stanford, which would be one of the best opportunities I ever had in high school.

[2] Actually, in the startup world I am mildly ashamed about my strong academic record, since it seems that most successful entrepreneurs tend not to be exceptional students (they go against the grain by nature). The grand majority of the work that I do now does not require any sort of academic record. But that’s okay. I’m not planning on going back to academia anytime soon :P.


Now read this

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”