When you don’t know thine own self

Last week, I heard Jeffrey Archer promoting his latest book on the radio.

In the light of Chris Huhne’s jail sentence for perverting the course of justice, the presenter insisted on asking Archer about his own experiences in prison. Monosyllabic were the answers. Not quite the PR His Lordship was after.

Isn’t it odd how some people take for granted an outstanding talent they possess in sacrifice of a dream they are never going to achieve?

They just don’t know, or won’t accept, what they are good at.

It seems Jeffrey Archer is one of these. A convicted perjurer, and thus a proven liar, he may have thought a talent for the untrue ideal for political office – but, to his considerable cost and with plenty of time for reflection in jail, he may now accept that telling lies is more suitable for an author of fiction than a respectable public figure.

I went on a cricket tour to Australia with a person like this. Let’s call him Ned.

Ned was completely deluded as to his cricketing talent and, however quickly he thought he could bowl, he wasn’t slow in telling the rest of us, time after time and day after day, what a famous and successful international player he would become (not).

As so often, the more Ned talked the less we believed him – to the extent that, back home in England, he decided to become a professional golfer instead (not).

However, Ned did have one talent which we all admired. He was a wonderful magician. After every game, he would work his magic on the opposition (far more than he had on the pitch) and they would be spellbound by his talent – as were we, his teammates.

My favourite of Ned’s tricks was when he would pretend he couldn’t find the playing card his victim had picked from the pack, only to find it in someone’s pocket. And then, to the surprise of all, in another pocket he would find the victim’s watch, which none of us had seen him remove.

If you have never seen a magician close-up and in person, it is much more impressive than on stage or TV. This guy was good – and certainly not what you expect in a clubhouse bar in the middle of Australia after a long hot game of cricket, I can tell you.

Why couldn’t Ned recognise, and realise, his own talents? Strange, isn’t it?

When advising students on their career options, I ask them if, whatever academic qualifications they may have or whatever subjects they may have studied, they have a mind which can compete with other people with more relevant skills in their chosen career.

What does this mean?

Well, early in life, I discovered something about the way my own mind works.

Compared to some people, I am very weak at remembering lists of facts. This, I like to fool myself, leaves space in my brain for the unequalled brilliance of my human insights and creative thinking.

Over a beer in a pub, I would meet friends with jobs in the City who could remember accurately the closing price of every share on the London Stock Exchange. Would you put money on being able to do this?

Or I would dine with people who could not only recognise a wine varietal, which I can just about do, but also the vintner and vintage. ‘Oh, that’s a Chateau Plonk 1983’ say they, leaving me feeling embarrassed and socially inadequate.

Even more annoyingly, I know people who can remember every racehorse in the country, where it has run before and its place in the race. This knowledge helps them win money off innocent punters like me who haven’t a clue.

I know I would never have succeeded as a stockbroker, a wine merchant or a gambler.

But can such people communicate?

That’s another story.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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