Talent
Robert Genn

February 2, 2009

Dear Rodney,

"What a bitter struggle is waged between talent and fate," wrote 
Nguyen Du, author of "The Tale of Kieu," the most revered saga in 
Vietnamese literature. So important is the 3,254-verse epic poem 
that most children in Vietnam know much of it by heart. Written in 
1820, it's the story of a young girl whose beauty is her principal 
talent but who suffers one miserable setback after the other. Finally, 
she is forced to sell herself. The Vietnamese take the story to be 
a metaphor for their country--beautiful but doomed. "When one is 
endowed with talent," goes the moral, "one cannot depend on it."

On first examination, this idea holds both spirituality and beauty.  

Talent is often thought of as those sorts of gifts we are born 
with--blessings like beauty and brains--or as abilities to be 
developed, such as drawing, painting or musicianship. One thing's 
for sure: having talent doesn't mean you're fated to make it work 
for you. Like a flower blooming in a desert, talent can be unseen 
and unappreciated. 

The development of talent takes fertile ground and dedicated 
application. Individualism--even eccentricity--is the key to 
invention and creative evolution. In societies that revere fate, 
talent is stifled. Like the proverbial nail that sticks out, 
talent gets hammered down. 

Where ideology lingers and opportunities are limited, fate becomes 
a dominant power. Here in Vietnam the annual income is $500. 
Unemployment is high. In the countryside, there are few telephones 
or television sets. Public information and patriotic music are 
broadcast on the streets and across the fields. Transportation is 
by foot or bicycle. Sanitation is primitive. Barefoot young women--
programmed rice-transplanting machines--stoop knee-deep in flooded 
paddies. The passing water buffalo driver looks with benign apathy 
at the peculiar foreigner and wonders "why?"      

For those talented ones in any culture who are fated with some 
degree of freedom from everyday toil, there can be little excuse.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "Good fortune seldom came the way,
    Of those endowed, they say,
    With genius and a dainty face,
    What tragedies take place." (Nguyen Du, from "The Tale of Kieu")

Esoterica: I'm laptopping you from noisy Ly Thuong Kiet Street in 
downtown Hanoi. Thousands of motorbikes pass here every hour, their 
stoic drivers masked against the bluish pollution that lends to an 
ethereal perspective in all directions. They move steadily, toot 
frequently and pay scant attention to the occasional traffic lights. 
The system works remarkably well. "Don't do anything eccentric or 
quick," shouts our guide as we step out into traffic. "Move slowly 
and with others as if flowing in a river--the waters will part for 
you."