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A passionate agenda

"We all have a talent - it is just a matter of finding yours" was a popular mantra among my teachers. Certainly, some pupils excelled (effortlessly, it seemed) at maths, English and sports. I was mostly in the top quartile, but getting into the top 10 per cent took real effort.

Now, as a new chair of governors, I feel ashamed that during my school days I generally deemed anything that could not be achieved by native wit as too much work. Once my "talent" revealed itself, I reasoned, areas of patchier scholarship would be unimportant. Try as I might, however, I never alighted on the sphere where I felt I had a clear, natural advantage.

In fact, it was not until my early forties that I recognised an ability that set me apart. By then, I had been to an awful lot of meetings - of student unions, trade unions, political parties, companies and, of course, school governors. As a journalist I had observed public meetings, council meetings, party conferences, parliamentary proceedings, European Union summits and even the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

It took a colleague to identify my talent. "At any meeting that requires motions to be framed, debates entered and daft initiatives beaten down, you are in a different league," he said. "You see things happening and can anticipate reactions in a way that I simply cannot."

I laughed off the compliment. But on reflection, I realised he was right. I'm not the best, I know, but in this narrow field I am, at last, effortlessly in the top 10 per cent.

Fans of the writer Malcolm Gladwell may already have spotted a possible explanation. He posits a "10,000-hour rule" - the amount of practice required to really master any discipline. If Gladwell is right, then my apparently intuitive "meeting skills" actually result from my having attended many more formal gatherings than most normal people.

My hunch, though, is that although witnessing the completion of so many agendas may be necessary to acquire such an ability, it is not sufficient. The real difference is that I really care about the decisions that meetings reach - no matter how arcane their consequences appear. I have never "sat through" a meeting in my life. I always watch and listen intently, trying to work out how to shape debate to achieve whatever I consider to be the best end.

The reverse is true of gin rummy, a game I once played endlessly with a teenage girlfriend. I didn't mind that she mostly won - her company was my prize. She, on the other hand, became adept at memorising cards, such was her will to win.

The lesson I draw is that whatever skill or talent you wish to develop, caring passionately about the end result is key to achieving the focus required to benefit from the hours invested.

How that determination can be instilled in youthful learners, I don't know. My strong suspicion, however, is that really wanting to improve an ability and believing that improvement is possible are more useful attributes by far than possession of a mere "talent".

Tim Dawson is a journalist and chair of governors at Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich

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