Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Use Your Talents

I wrote yesterday about the genius next door: someone you know socially but have no idea about the contribution they have made to their field. It was inspired by a lovely comment from a reader who pointed out that geniuses have to live next door to someone, and sometimes we need to look up and see who is around us.

The unknown genius next door is one thing, but what if you get introduced to an acknowledged major talent? The word genius is perhaps a bit strong as we tend to think of geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein, and so no on else measures up. But there are many more who have been blessed with a talent and have diligently used it to make a real contribution in their work and to humanity.

The other evening I found myself sitting opposite such an individual. Well practiced in the art of small talk I invited him to tell me about his work – expecting a short explanation of his field. Not normally a high-risk question - except if you are sitting opposite a theoretical mathematician. Obviously.

I was introduced to the complexities of ring theory and matrices, although the explanation was dumbed down for my benefit. As the explanation progressed (at reasonable speed) he occasionally looked up and asked “do you recognise this equation?” or “you have heard of this?” or some other such question. As I failed to live up to the most basic expectation comments such as “I’m surprised you’ve not seen this before” were thrown in. If this is making it sound like a maths lesson, I’m doing him a grave injustice. It was a fascinating and friendly insight into a different world, a rarefied place where those who make genuine breakthroughs in algebra live.

He has a mathematical matrix named after him. Awesome.

On the way home I thought about Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” when The Rev. Rosemary Lain-Priestley spoke of the Parable of Talents. Use Your Talents wisely, Jesus preached. Those who do not were judged harshly by Jesus, but those who do use their talents to generate wealth were praised. It was a fitting thought for the drive in to work.

It seems to me that we are all blessed with talents, but not everyone uses them wisely. I know I go about my day without a thought of any talents I might have, or how they manifest themselves in my work.

As individuals, managers and parents, however, we need to be aware of our own, and others’ talents. We need to encourage the best out of ourselves and those around us. Most of us won’t have some major breakthrough carrying our name, but that doesn’t matter. What the Parable of the Talents teaches is that we should not squander the talents we have. All contributions matter.

I now have a napkin covered in algebra. I’m hoping its similarities with the napkin Picasso signed are recognised. In the meantime, though, I will be using my talents just in case theoretical mathematics never gets to hang in The Tate.

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