Rare Talents

So what's the verdict? The one skill that will change our lives in the next few years? Artificial Intelligence? Big Data? Behavioural Science (Shameless plug for my subject)? Blockchain? Cryptocurrency?

I will go out on a limb here and proclaim this - the biggest winner will be the one who learns to listen. That's it. That's the skill that will be the biggest leverage.

Here's my hypothesis. 

Our lives are dominated by screens. From when we wake up, till when the day ends. Screens on phones. Screens on TV. Screens on Laptops. We are hooked to the colors and the movement. But here's the thing. Screens are one-sided communication. Screens don't need input. Screens don't care what you are doing. So, you can be watching a video on YouTube, while posting a comment on a Friend's photo on Facebook. The screen will not feel bad. Or be hurt. It's just the background.

The problem is, our kids are growing up with screens. They probably don't know of a time or an age, when there wasn't a screen for every moment. Which means, they imbibe one-sided communication. Which means, they grow up thinking that they need not be devoted to the speaker. It all just runs in the background. The speaker does not expect anything. The speaker will not feel bad. Or be hurt.

But, and that's a big but. In real life, without screens, it is all just people. Normal people, who speak because they want to be heard. People who speak because they want respect. People who speak because they want attention. How can they expect to get all this from someone who understands only one-sided communication?

It is really not hard to imagine the consequences of this and how this is already happening to us.

For instance, remember how we sat in some classes in MBA, and browsed through our phones while a Professor spoke. It is unimaginable that I thought the speaker did not deserve my basic attention, in a class for which I paid and studied very hard to get in. I was not alone. Most of the class was busy on the phone. We were not like this in school. Did interacting with screens give us the confidence that we can ignore the speaker?

Today, I attended an Ugadi New Year event, where, as is the Telugu custom, a Pandit read out the Horoscope (Panchangam) for the year, while a Housing Society full of people, actively ignored him. He was on a mike, for God's sakes. But, he was as ignored as a Leftist on a Republic TV debate or a Rightist on an NDTV debate. Children were playing hand-clapping games in the front row. People were on the phone. Boys ran around playing catch. Because, he was just entertainment, a speaker in the background who speaks, regardless of what he gets. Just like Screens.

In this queer world of ignoring speakers, I am coming to the understanding, that the winner will be the one, who goes against the stream and dares to listen. Because when he listens, he will gather clues. When he is not absorbed in his phone, he will observe. When he is not checking messages, he will get the real message. And then, he will be the only one who would have really understood the context in which the world operates. Not the make-believe context that the screens give us. But the real context, where people have emotions and expect responses.

It's not late, honestly. I think, along with the many other skills we are imparting to kids, we must focus on making them listen and respond, with empathy. Otherwise, the biggest risk to our future will not be robots taking over our lives or driverless cars running havoc.

It will simply be that everyone is speaking, but no one is listening. 


When I was younger, we had a poem in school called The One Talent Man. We learnt it by rote and recited it in the morning assembly. I feel like it was all gearing up for this moment, so I can look for it again and publish it in this context. So, here goes:

I have no voice for singing, I cannot make a speech,
I have no gift for music, I know I cannot teach.
I am no good at leading, I cannot ‘organize,’ 
And anything I write would never win a prize. 
But at roll call at meetings, I always answer ‘here.’ 
When others are performing, I lend a listening ear. 
After the program is over, I praise its every part, 
My words are not to flatter; I mean it from the heart. 
It seems my only talent is neither big nor rare, 
Just to listen and encourage and to fill a vacant chair. 
But all the gifted people could not so brightly shine, 
Were it not for those who use a talent such as mine.

by Alice Bennett


Listening. That's the skill to learn.

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