Aamir Khan’s “Taare Zameen Par”

This article is published in the January’2008 edition of the education magazine “Educare”

Aamir Khan’s latest film raises very crucial questions

The film Taare Zameen par is a sensitive portrayal of the ordeal of a dyslexic child, Ishaan Awasthi, whose abnormal behaviour is misunderstood and mistaken to be something else both by his teachers and parents. Unaware of dyslexia, they think that he is lazy, stupid, naughty and even arrogant on occasions. Dyslexia is a neurological language processing disorder that affects a student’s ability to process written and spoken information. Students with dyslexia have difficulty pronouncing words, repeating phrases that are spoken to them, understanding the meaning from spoken phrases, and following detailed instructions. They particularly have difficulty in distinguishing similar sounding words and letters.

Ishaan’s agony and ordeal is reduced and gradually overcome when, in the form of Aamir Khan (Ram Shankar Nikumbh in the movie), he meets a teacher who has himself suffered from the problem as a child and is therefore, able to guide him correctly. He is able to draw the attention of both the parents and other teachers on the right focus – on what Ishaan can do or his strengths, rather than his weaknesses. After building his self- confidence by drawing out the painter in him, he gradually manages to reduce the child’s weaknesses through other unique teaching techniques.

Aamir Khan’s first directorial venture does a very good job of highlighting the real and ideal direction of education – drawing out innate potential rather than blindly stuffing facts. Since the film brings that out very well, Azim Premji’s words in my earlier article “Teacher, educate thyself” are worth repeating:-

“The primary purpose of a school is to guide the child’s discovery of herself and her world and to identify and mature the child’s talents. Just as each seed contains the future tree, each child is born with infinite potential.” In the article, he suggested that many teachers and parents try to be potters instead of gardeners in moulding their children’s future. Imagine a school which sees children as seeds to be nurtured – here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child.
In that article, I had mentioned some famous dyslexics in passing reference, which are mentioned as examples in the movie. Their details are engrossing:

Loenardo Da Vinci: a great painter, designer, scientist, futurist and thinker. Most of the time, he wrote his notes backwards, which is exhibited with a mirror in the movie by Aamir. Although unusual, this is a trait shared by many left-handed dyslexic people. Leonardo’s spelling was also considered erratic and quite strange. He also started many more projects then he ever finished – a characteristic now often considered to be ‘ADD’ or attention deficit disorder. However, when it came to drawing illustrations, Leonardo’s work is detailed and precise. Loenardo’s words are revealing: “You should prefer a good scientist without literary abilities than a literate one without scientific skills.”

Thomas Edison, the famous inventor: he was noted to be terrible at mathematics, unable to focus, and had difficulty with words and speech. He was unable to read until he was 12 and his writing skills were poor throughout his life. His teacher thought him to be mentally ill. His mother withdrew the child from school and taught him herself. In his own words “My teachers say I’m addled . . . my father thought I was stupid, and I almost decided I must be a dunce.”

Albert Einstein, history’s most prominent scientist: he could not talk until the age of four. He did not learn to read until he was nine. His teachers considered him slow, unsociable and a dreamer. He failed the entrance examinations to college but finally passed after an additional year of preparation. He lost three teaching positions and then became a paten clerk. In his own words “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.” He also said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”

Pablo Picasso the famous painter: his dyslexia made school difficult, and Pablo never really benefited from school or learning. Dyslexia troubled Picasso for the rest of his long life. Pablo’s father taught art, this got him interested in painting. Picasso also painted because he was born with an ability to see people the way they wanted to be seen, the way they were seen, and the special way Picasso saw them. In his own words, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” That is possible only if children realise their innate potential or essence as very few have multi-dimensional talent.

Picasso’s story is closest to what is shown in the movie. Ishaan is shown to be a very good painter despite being a severe dyslexic, a fact that is highlighted when Aamir joins the school as a temporary arts teacher. The manner in which Ishaan is shown staring out of the window on occasions reminds one of an extract of Osho’s discourse:

“The teacher goes on telling to the small children, ‘Give attention to me. Be attentive.’ They are attentive. But they are attentive somewhere else. A cuckoo is crying his heart outside the school building and the child is attentive. Nobody can say that he is not attentive. Nobody can say that he is not meditative. Nobody can say that he is in deep concentration. He is. In fact, he has completely forgotten the teacher and the arithmetic that he is doing on the board. He is completely oblivious. He is completely possessed by the cuckoo. The child is attentive. It is happening naturally. Listening to the cuckoo he is happy. The teacher is distracting and the teacher says that you are not attentive. He is simply stating a lie. The child was attentive. The cuckoo was more attractive to him. The teacher was not so attractive. The arithmetic has no such appeal. But we are not all born to be mathematicians. There are few children who will not be interested in the cuckoo.The cuckoo may go on madder and madder and they will be attentive to the blackboard. Then Arithmetic is for them. Then they have a meditation, a natural meditative state

Since every weak child is hardly likely to become an Edison or an Einstein, there should be special education on how they fit in. Since many of these great people struggled in humble skills, humble talents should not be taken for granted. The Gallup corporation in its book “First, break all the rules” highlights examples of waiters, bartenders, housekeepers, nurses, data entry operators etc as to how the best were different from the rest even in minor jobs and were compensated highly without necessarily being promoted, if they did not have the talent for man management. The best bartender was someone who remembered names of 3,000 guests and their drinks and the champion data entry operator was four times faster than the rest. Even something like housekeeping is studied in great detail so that the rest (poor housekeepers) learn from the best.

Though the movie shows the child making some headway in overcoming his weaknesses, real life does not always turn out to be like that. Apart from Picasso, there are several famous dyslexics, who have had similar problems throughout their lives – General George Patton, President Woodrow Wilson, President George Washington, writer Agatha Christie etc. Another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise, despite being a success in his chosen field, can learn lines only by listening to a tape. If one googles for dyslexia, one comes across sites with a message like “famous people with the gift of dyslexia” Lesser-known celebrities also have severe reading difficulties but are yet successful in their respective fields. An extreme case is that of Ronald Davis, author. “At the age of 38 I could score 169 on the IQ test but I couldn’t read a menu in a restaurant. What the average person could read in 5 minutes would take me an hour,” the author once said about himself.

The lives of two famous dyslexics not mentioned in the movie – Henri Ford and Winston Churchill. Henri Ford: His father, a farmer, had only that career in mind for his son and tried to equip him with all the relevant skills – tending plants, eliminating pests and weeds, ploughing etc. Henry occasionally went with his father to the farm, but, his mind hovered around the hoe and the mechanical plough, the tools of his trade. His father, often exasperated, pleaded, cajoled, shouted and screamed. These had only a temporary impact. Henri’s heart was not in farming. In the movie Aamir Khan says, “Bachche ka hunar kya hai?”. His “hunar” or functional talent may not be necessarily reflected in his qualifications, which is why it is said, “Choose your career not on the basis of what you know but who you are”. It is very hard to believe that a mentally disabled child can do well in a field not of his liking. If that were so, they would not have so many problems with conventional education. Can one imagine Henri Ford achieving the same success in farming or any other field?

Churchill failed grade VIII, did terrible in math and generally hated school. In his own words, “I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.” Being in the right occupation is probably how the problems of some of the dyslexics got neutralised and how they were able to sustain their success despite suffering for a lifetime. On the other hand, being in the wrong occupation can entail a lifetime of suffering despite having no mental disability.

Since some psychologists try to identify childhood interests to solve this problem, the views of the other great mystic/intellectual J Krishnamurthy are worth noting: “In building enormous educational institutions and employing teachers who depend on a system instead of being alert and observant in their relationship with the individual student, we merely encourage the accumulation of facts, the development of capacity and the habit of thinking mechanically, according to a pattern; but certainly none of this helps the student to grow into an integrated human being. A large and flourishing educational institution can turn out bank clerks and super salesmen, industrialists or commissars, superficial people who are technically efficient but there is hope only in the integrated individual which the small school can bring about. If the classes are small and the teacher is able to give his full attention to each child, observing him and helping him, then compulsion or domination in any form is obviously unnecessary. It is intelligence that brings order, not discipline.” This can be witnessed in the movie when Aamir starts giving individual attention to the Ishaan and is able to help overcome his difficulty. Both Osho and Krishnamurthy have stressed the importance of helping the child find his right vocation in their discourses.

Since Aamir’s role fits into Krishnamurthy’s description of an ideal educator, his comments on the teacher’s role are worth mentioning “ If the teachers are not sure of their own vocation and interest, there are bound to be superficial bickerings, jealousies, misunderstandings etc, which can be passed over only if there is a burning interest in bringing about the right kind of education. To observe each child’s tendencies, his aptitudes, his temperament, his attitudes, to understand his difficulties taking his heredity and parental influence into account requires patience, alertness, intelligence, skill, interest and above all a sense of affection. To produce educators endowed with these qualities is one of our major problems today.”

Aamir has shown basically what talent management is all about. There are people like Dhirubhai Ambani, Bill Gates and Jack Welch, who have been able to see the latent talent and been able to draw that out, despite different degrees and qualifications. The focus always has to be more on uniqueness of the individual – what the individual does with the knowledge rather than knowledge per se, or what he can do uniquely. All life is talent management. If that were not so, books like Working identity would never be written. Since it explains how tough career transition can be, special efforts should be made to help people who may have made the wrong choice. In a recent article in Readers Digest, the great mathematician Hardy says that he may have mentored maths genius Ramanujan but he learnt much more from Ramanujan then the other way around. This is what happen when teachers see their role as educators- just as Aamir has directed the film so well, they have to provide the direction in real life.

The sentences in bold above should also have been included. Though the editor omitted this paragraph, I personally feel that after the para in which Osho describes the child obsessed with the cuckoo, this should have been added:-

Though Osho probably said this in the context of detecting the different kind of child, it has to be taken in the right perspective. Just as television is considered to be the “chewing gum” or “idiot box” , too much idle day dreaming without applying brains at all can be a case of “Use it or lose it”. The brain also needs other exercises apart from imagination for an evenly balanced growth.

These views of eminent dyslexics also deserve a mention-

It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction- Picasso

“Working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation”- Winston churchill

“I never worked in my life. It was all fun”- Thomas Edison

This is a humorous story that on Sir Issac Newton that could also have been added:-

Apart from Einstein’s comment on Income tax , there is a humorous story of the great inventor, Sir Issac Newton and his cats. Whilst studying color and the order it came in a prism, Newton used to go up to his attic where there was only one window and in order to control light, he needed to black out the room. His cat loved to be with him, and she constantly nosed the door open, which would then let the light in – thus spoiling his experiments. Not wanting to upset her, he decided to cut a small opening in the doorway which he then covered with felt attached to the top of the opening Now cat and master were happy – the cat could come and go at will, and Isaac wasn’t disturbed by her comings and goings, and could continue his experiments in peace. It is said that all geniuses sometimes have a blind spot and when his cat had kittens, so anxious was he to please them, that he cut several smaller holes alongside the original one so that they could come and go whenever they wanted to. It didn’t occur to him they could use the existing one! As they say, “common sense is most uncommon” and even geniuses are not immune to that.

Former International HR consultants Morgan and Banks had expressed the view that niche individuals who were good at only a few things had the worst time in the wrong profession. Dyslexics/ADHD children have high IQ but often have such one dimensional intelligence.

The significance of Contextual Thinking

This article is published in the January’2008 Edition of the magazine “Management Compass”

Unbridled optimism

Don’t confuse blind confidence with glass-is-half-full approach

One of the world’s top 50 management thinkers and an international authority on lateral thinking, Edward De Bono, while commenting on the difference between Intelligence and thinking, commented, “The power of the car is the potential of the car just as intelligence is the potential of the mind. The skill of the driver determines how the power of the car is used. The skill of the thinker determines how intelligence is used.”

He further specifies, “Many highly intelligent people take up a point of view on a subject and defend their point of view. Since they can defend the view very well, they never see the need to explore the subject or listen to alternative views. This is poor thinking and is a part of intelligence trap. One thinker may see a situation and instantly judge it. Another person sees a situation, explores the situation on other alternatives and only then proceeds to judge it. The highly intelligent person may carry out the seeing and judging very well indeed but if the exploring is absent, that is bad thinking.”

Much before and after I read this, I had some strange experiences with some “highly intelligent people” who conduct workshops to coach people in the corporate world. They may be deemed highly intelligent since only then can they be genuinely deemed competent to coach other people. The first experience I had in the mid-Nineties was during a stress management workshop with a gentleman. The speaker had some novel concepts in stress management, which I was quick to appreciate.

While discussing communication and presentation skills, somebody in the audience with a marketing background commented, “A salesman is one who is able to sell a comb to a bald man.” I was surprised when the conductor of the workshop stated that this was a wrong and unethical statement. I said that the gentleman concerned was only saying that in the context of presentation and not ethics. He defended his earlier stance that this was morally wrong. I had to clarify that one of the greatest Bollywood directors had said once, “You have to be a show off to be a show on.” That does not imply that the director is advocating that one should show off but only trying to convey strongly, the importance of presenting oneself well. However, that man gave a bland response, “We should not say things which are undesirable” which I found strange considering that all kinds of metaphors and analogies are used to convey a point of view.

While discussing goals and purpose in life, he started to tell how the purpose was the bigger picture and goals, like monetary rewards were just a means towards the ends and were bi-products. Then he said, “If you focus on the purpose, the goal is automatically achieved,” which was something on the lines of a book entitled Follow your heart and money shall follow. I found that a fundamentally incorrect statement. It was as if he was trying to tell us what we wanted to hear. I raised the example of actor Shashi Kapoor, who, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, tried to produce films which, according to him were meaningful cinema but which did not do well at the box office. According to press reports, he finally had do make a commercial film called Ajooba to recover his losses. I also pointed out the examples of Munshi Premchand, Shakespeare and painter Vincent van Gogh, who were all posthumous successes and lived a life of penury despite focusing on their respective purposes or occupations. He responded that I should not give negative examples. I replied that the focus indeed should be on the positive examples but that does not imply that one should not be aware of the negative factors. In MBA, one learns of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), which is obviously a balanced analysis since it also takes cognizance of weaknesses and threats.

Does positive thinking imply blind optimism? I met one person in Ahmedabad during the Harshad Mehta scam, who said that he was an “incurable optimist” and told how he was going to invest all his money in the stock market as it was likely to go further up. I told him that the market was going up artificially and was bound to come down sooner or later. He again repeated his statement of being an incurable optimist. I replied that in reality, his optimism needed to be cured but did not carry the discussion further. I heard later that he had suffered heavy losses when the market fell. Years later, while dabbling in professional trading when I told an acquaintance that professional trading had a 95 per cent failure rate even in the United states, pop came the reply, “So what? If one tries hard, he maybe among the 5 per cent to succeed.” He completely overlooked the fact that one had to be extremely talented as well. The failure rate would never be so high if it was not talent intensive.

Isn’t genuine pessimism when the situation calls for it better than false optimism? Some 20 years back, I had read in one of India’s most reputed magazines about how genuine business talent and leadership was more an exception than the rule. I read in a book on venture capitalists as to how they fund only two out of ten ideas because though many people came up with bright ideas, very few have execution and implementation skills which incidentally happens to be a major reason for Reliance’s phenomenal progress. They had a clear policy of funding teams and not just ideas. As they say, “There is a fine line between appropriate confidence and over-the-top arrogance, and the best breakout leaders understand that they can’t cross that line.” This is not to say that one should not have a positive bent of mind and not look at situations with the spirit of looking at the half-full-glass as half-full and not half-empty. It is to maintain what is called a “sense of proportion” in optimism. One has to choose one’s battles in life.

In the Indian context, the example that comes to mind is Ramesh Chauhan, who sold some of his brands when Pepsi and Coke reentered India. Optimism also brings to mind some of the self-help books that are available in the market which advocate the virtues of having the right attitude without specifying the other variables or the context in which attitude alone is predominant. I have even seen posts in HR discussion forums with titles like ‘attitude alone wins’ and ‘attitude alone matters’, which is a fundamentally incorrect statement, as other variables are also involved. It depends upon the type of businessman — whether he is a Kamaal (unique) businessman or the maal (happy go lucky) businessman. The kamaal businessman is more on the lines of Henri Ford or Thomas Edison, who want to achieve excellence in a particular or specific branch of knowledge or technology and see it as some kind of mission or their purpose in life. A recent example is google, which says it all in its mission statement “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It clearly indicates that google’s focus is on search technology. The maal businessmen is like a “paisa kamana hai” kind of trader, whose focus is more on the monetary gains. One does come across examples of people getting fed up in the rat race and trying to focus on a higher purpose; their focus switches from maal to kamaal in mid life or midway through life.

Talking of switches reminds me of another incident that happened at an institute which has the word education suffixed to its main name. This institute conducts weekend workshops where participants are supposed to attend all day and are cross-questioned on different spheres of life, career, relationships, family etc. On attending a trial workshop, I was asked what my problem area was. When I said career mismatch, he told me to be creative wherever I was. I replied that what he was saying was possible in some cases but in the stock market, trying to be creative in the short run could be like playing with fire. I also gave several examples of people who were much more creative when they shifted elsewhere and said that one cannot make a blind assumption of forced creativity. He did not know what to reply. Later, when I took this up with one of his topmost bosses, I was shocked by what he said “Oh ! Career just happens if you have the right attitude. You are making a mountain out of molehill.” Later I was to come examples of a child psychologist becoming a taxi-driver, a well established accountant wanting to be a carpenter, a very well qualified doctor becoming a nursery teacher, a dentist switching to wild life photography etc.

This is not to undermine attitude but to give everything its due significance. Just as in a diet, one has to have due proportion of fats though proteins and carbohydrates maybe more important, in a person, what is more important would depend upon his profile, his occupation, values and current life situation. Attitude books should be balanced by realistic HR books. This is what Sanjiv Bhamre, author of Five Great myths of Career Building, has to say about self-help books “Often, authors of self-help books avoid specifying the context in which the trait of rule is not applicable. Contextual intelligence — understanding the power of using one trait in a situation — is necessary to appreciate the exact impact of a trait in one’s life. Successful people find and work in systems where their good and bad traits become strengths, whereas unsuccessful people work in systems where their good and bad traits become weaknesses. Successful people spend time and effort in finding the context and use it. By appropriate contextualising, they avoid disappointment and consequent loss of motivation when things do not work.” The root lies in finding the right aptitude, which is far tougher than talking of attitude which is more relevant to stick in the mud jobs. Forced attitude can never match natural, spontaneous interest and consequent attitude which is also likely to last longer.