Neeraj Chopra did India proud when he brought home the gold in the 2021 Olympics. Despite receiving multiple awards, he left for the U.S. because public attention refused to fade and he felt the need to focus on his game. The late Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma raised the status of the santoor, which was once considered unfit for classical music. He studied it and redesigned, and adapted it to play the complex ragas of Hindustani music.
What these two lives illustrate is what it takes to become the best in any field. The adjective ‘best’ is the superlative of good and precedes the comparative degree ‘better’. Thus, one does not become the best in one shot, but has to transition from A to B to C. There are two ways to becoming the best. In the first, you outperform competition. This is hard and unpredictable. The second is to outperform your own performance, which is in your hands. Four qualities help you complete different milestones to reach excellence.
Knowledge: No matter which area you wish to excel in, it is your knowledge in that field that makes you a master. Chopra left for the U.S. to gain advanced knowledge and prepare for the next competition. Sharma experimented with playing the santoor for years before giving a public performance. His biographer, Ina Puri, writes in Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man And His Music, “He did not have the benefit of learning the traditional gats (fixed compositions) of the santoor since the santoor had no history of classical music. With his background of vocal music, he composed gats of extraordinary excellence, with a melodic and rhythmic blend.”
Diligence: It makes you work hard on your goal without interruption. The secret is not to give up as you experience setbacks, but to rise after every rejection with renewed courage and conquer obstacles. There is a story that Isaac Newton’s papers containing notes of his experiments were partially burnt when his dog upset a candle on them. But he continued his work on the law of gravity.
Self-discipline: This helps to take you nearer your goal. Keep practicing regularly and stick to your timetable. Both Sachin Tendulkar and M.S. Dhoni are said to have practiced for hours every day to play as they did. Budding musicians do riyaaz daily, and singers sacrifice certain kinds of food to protect their voices. Self-discipline keeps them fixed on their aim.
Patience: It keeps a person on the path to excellence. While growing one’s knowledge, abilities, skills, it is easy to lose heart. Sharma did not allow his disciples to perform in public until they had perfected their art, even if it took years.
Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, has spoken of the hierarchy of needs — physiological, safety, love, status, and self-actualisation. While the first four are basic to life, self-actualisation is the state of being where you compete with yourself and outperform your own performance every time. Like Michael Phelps, the swimmer who won six gold medals in a row at the Olympics. This attitude has to be cultivated in one’s student days because that is when one has the time.
The writer is former Professor of English, IIT Bombay. Email: email@example.com