“Play to your strength” is a golden rule to live by but difficult to embrace. There are many reasons for it. Your parents expect you to be an engineer, and even though your heart is into photography, you spend the most creative years of your life toiling away for an engineering degree. You sense that writing is your calling but everyone tells you that there’s no money there and so you grit your teeth and enroll in medical school. And, of course, how can you go wrong with computer science, the recognized gateway to wealth, and so you follow the herd, even though creating music is your passion.
Doing what others expect you to do instead of following your own heart leads to an unfulfilled life, whether or not you are making lots of money. And there are too many of us who fall into that category! It is what I think Thoreau meant when he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
These thoughts came to me as I watched the Hindi movie “Three Idiots.” (I will use “musketeers” in place of “idiots,” because that’s what the three protagonists really are.)
Farhan, Raju and Rancho (Aamir Khan) are three engineering students at one of
He is appalled by the rote learning the college promotes and shocked by the autocratic and inflexible attitude of the principal. His challenging questions unsettle the teachers whose only aim is to prepare students to pass exams and land jobs with engineering firms. That they will be no more than cogs in the wheels does not concern anyone. When mediocrity works, why not maintain the status quo?
Rancho rejects this factory approach to learning. He seeks real knowledge, not pseudo-knowledge. He tells the other two musketeers not to chase success but to “make success chase you.” “Don’t beg at the feet of luck,” he admonishes them. Again and again he reminds them not to be afraid of the future. Do what interests you. That way, your job will be like play and you will be happy and professionally fulfilled.
In the nick of time, Rancho manages to save a girl about to be married off to a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Of course, the girl turns out to be … who else but the principal’s daughter! The typical Hindi melodrama notwithstanding, the movie does not veer away from its focus, which is to show a) how schools can become prisons and stifle the creativity of anyone who submits to rote knowledge, and b) how to break free from the walls of ignorance and appearance we build around ourselves by playing to our strength, no matter how daunting the obstacles may be.
Rancho is thrown out of classes by teachers because he is disobedient, his questions threaten the hierarchy, and his answers do not mimic the formal and dense textbooks. So he wanders to other classes to soak up whatever knowledge he can.
Watching this reminded me of something Steve Jobs, the Apple chairman and CEO, said in a commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. Jobs attended an expensive community college but “after six months, I couldn't see the value in it … So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting … Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating … None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
What Jobs is saying is that if you trust your guts, sooner or later you will find what animates you, and then you will find your life’s calling. But you have to take that risk, “trust that it would all work out OK.”
Jobs went on to say that “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I also remembered a story about the late great physicist Richard Feynman who had the following advice for a younger physicist:
“Go look at an electron microscope photograph of an atom. Don’t just glance at it. It is very important that you examine it very closely. Think about what it means.”
“And then answer this question. Does it make your heart flutter?”
“Does it make my heart flutter?”
“Yes or no. It’s a yes or no question. No equations allowed.”
“All right, I’ll let you know.”
“Don’t be dense. I don’t need to know. You need to know. This exam is self-graded. And it’s not the answer that counts. It’s what you do with the information.”
This is what Rancho is saying too: Find something that makes your heart flutter and then do something about it. If you do, the sky is the limit.
“Three Idiots” transcends the inevitable song-and-dance routines of the typical Hindi movie (which it has in plenty) and teaches something powerful in an entertaining way. If you nurture the sweet dream of self-employment or if you need a nudge to do what your heart tells you to do, you may find this movie inspiring. And remember, it is never too late to do what you always wanted to do.