In the fantastic Disney movie, Queen of Katwe, Coach Robert trains, from scratch, a bunch of under-privileged kids from a slum in Katwe, Uganda in chess and when they’re ready to play a tournament he takes them to a rich private school. On seeing the other competitors dressed in formal clothes and the alien atmosphere, the kids from Katwe are petrified and want to return home immediately.
Coach Robert then tells them a story about a hungry dog chasing a cat for a meal. The dog chases really hard, but the cat runs even harder and after a close fast chase the cat finally escapes. Robert explains the probable reason of why the cat outran the dog. “The dog was running for a meal,” says Coach Robert, “while the cat was running for his/her life.” And he tells the Katwe kids that you are cats and the other competitors here are dogs. For them chess is just one of the many things that they do or look forward to. But for you, for the cats, chess and this competition is everything. For you chess is the only thing that you look forward to, the thing that will build your identity and the only chance to get noticed.
I could strongly resonate with this story due to my experience in coaching, mentoring and playing Ultimate Frisbee with kids from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and have further told this story to other adults who also play Ultimate Frisbee, especially when talking about the commitment to practice and excellence.
We have 8-9 teams in Surat, with most of them comprising of kids either from under-privileged backgrounds or from privileged backgrounds. There’s a marked difference that they show in their attitudes towards the game and what it means to them. The team that I play for, Jumbish, is in the former category, with mostly kids from municipal schools and is currently the top ranked team in India. Another Surat team (let’s call it Team B) which comprises of similarly talented players, but mostly from privileged backgrounds.
The Jumbish team comprises of cats, and Team B of dogs, using these words in the same sense that Coach Roberts narrates the story. The Jumbish cats are always looking for an opportunity to play, in fact they are hungry to play, and even though they complain a little bit about early morning practices, most of them turn up even though they know they will have to work really hard first on fitness, drills and throws and only much later will they get a chance to play, which is the enjoyable part. For them their life, their conversations, even their dreams and aspirations revolve around Ultimate, around the next tournament that they are going to play, irrespective of whether it actually gets them some financial rewards. For them it is also the only way they get to travel to various parts of India, and indeed outside of India as well.
What the game means to them is something that I experienced when I saw how they were gutted after a very close loss (12-13 loss on universe point) in the semi-final of a national tournament. All of them were distraught and some of them were crying profusely and inconsolable. For them it’s the only way their lives will have excitement and meaning and they know to get that they have to run like cats whose life depends on escaping the dog chasing the cat for a meal.
On the other hand, Team B comprises of dogs. For them, playing Ultimate Frisbee is one of the many things that they would like to do – school studies and tuitions come first, social engagements such as birthday & farewell parties, movie, food and coffee outings, and just hanging out with friends either face or face or through technology is more important. This is the kind of team that commits to 3 practices per week but doesn’t even do 3 per month, because of the many other commitments and of course also because it’s so tough to get up on Sunday mornings, when you’ve been partying on Saturday night. Have heard it a few times from Team B players, “Who gets up so early on a Sunday morning?” Well, cats do and dogs don’t.
And well-fed kids from privileged backgrounds are mostly dogs. There are a few cats among them – but a rare few. Most of the others have other priorities whether the priorities are parent driven (such as studies or social functions) or self-driven (hanging out with friends, competing on the playstation, sharing pictures, putting up posts, snapchatting and so on). They just have so many more things to do than others do. Being a cat is not in their blood, there’s nothing to drive them desperately, driving them with that hunger that makes so passionate about a cause. So they remain dogs.
As far as success is sports is concerned, the cat types are often the ones who really achieve something – whether you look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Lebron James, or Ravindra Jadeja and MS Dhoni much closer home, who are all from humble backgrounds. Of course, it’s not as if rich kids don’t become sports stars (and they typically need a tiger mom or dad running behind them to make them work really hard) but what’s clear is that to achieve something really big you need to be a cat about something. And this analogy is not limited to sports – you could choose to be a cat in academics, arts, designing, writing, making, coding or entrepreneurship.
That’s also the reason why in India, you find students from lower to middle class fighting it out for IITs and other top colleges rather than the privileged kids, who prefer private colleges in India or abroad. The average kid in Patna knows that the one of surest ways to some sort of success in life is to get through to the IITs, whereas the average kid from a Gujarati business family (whether the business is small or big) knows that business is something that s/he can always depend on for financial success and isn’t that concerned about making it through to the IITs or for that matter to top colleges in India in general.
I guess I have also been a dog for some things in my life. I remember skipping a try-out for the college cricket team to which I “really” wanted to get to, and skill-wise I had a good chance to make it too. But I still skipped the selection to attend a rock concert and vividly remember cockily waving bye to the team selector-captain and why because, well, that was the cool thing to do as far as friendship was concerned.
But I have been a cat in some things – about doing something on my own rather than taking up a job, about taking my childhood ambition of making it big in sports rather seriously which I couldn’t pursue as a kid, but have pursued it relentlessly as an adult playing Ultimate Frisbee at the highest level in India at least. And I know what the difference is between the way a cat looks at opportunities, and the way a dog looks at life.
If you are reading this, it means you are likely to be from a more privileged background, which in turn means that you are more likely to be a dog than a cat. The question is whether you “wish” to get the results of a “cat” while your efforts are that of a “dog”?
A simple self-check is whether you are willing to put in at least 10,000 hours (much popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) of deliberate practice focused on improving your skills to become an expert or at least really good at something.
Are you going to be like Joey & Chandler from the very popular TV Series, Friends, who one day say they are planning climb Mount Everest? That ambition fizzles out rather quickly when Phoebe tells them it’s really costly and tough and that people can die (and that Joey & Chandler will surely die). So they decide to do the next best thing: watch a movie on Everest climbers, and then eventually they end up in renting and watching the movie Die Hard. It ends with this line by Chandler, “But I’ll tell you something. One of these days we’re gonna get off our butts and rent Die Hard again!”
If you are the kind who will be satisfied with watching movies on weekends and going out for fancy dinners, along with a cushy job or a family business, watching those matches every weekend because you’ve got to, attending social and religious functions, vacations to both earthy and exotic destinations, some with families and some with friends, then you are better off being a dog, because being a cat isn’t necessarily going to lead to these “comfy” outcomes.
If you are happy with the results of a dog while being a dog, then there are no issues. But if you want to make a name, do something passionate, make a difference, create something, change those things around you or in the world that you don’t like, then you gotta be a cat, in fact a big hungry cat. And you just need to pick one of these things to start with. It’s possible that the first thing that you pick may not really be what you want to continue doing, but that doesn’t matter – the hunger and attitude that you develop when doing one thing can often be carried over to other spheres of you life. After all, it’s mainly about focus and perseverance.
Sure there are flip sides to being a cat. Being a cat is risky, you might get overtly aggressive and may even get into cat fights, and it’s a hell lot of hard work and when you don’t make it, the disappointment hits you much harder, but at least you, currently & probably a dog, are in a position to choose between “creating your own meaning of your life” and “living a mean (the mathematical mean) life”. Choose well.